Several times during the past year I have thought about and written about our school's mission statement (Respect, Motivate, Achieve) and much of that thinking has been to do with the word "motivate". I have done a lot of reading about what motivates people, and also what does not motivate people and at the same time I have looked at what is going on in my own school and other schools where I have worked.
At my last school we had an honour board for the achievements of our secondary students. It was right outside the library and most students would have walked past it almost every day. Students got their names on the board as a result of their academic achievements. These achievements were a result of ability combined with effort. The students whose names appeared on the board were definitely highly motivated to do well. On the other hand there were many students who were motivated and yet, because they were not so academically able, their names never appeared on the board and they were not recognised for the often considerable progress they made.
I have attended a number of awards ceremonies over the years, and as a teacher I can say that some of the awards have been controversial. Often when choosing a student to receive the awards, the same names came up over and over again. Where there had just been one award for academic excellence in each subject, there had often been a discussion about the merits of "sharing out" the prizes so that one person didn't get them all. The emphasis was often on "the best", or in the case of sports awards the "most valuable player".
For me "the best" is often a big turn-off - I'm not into rankings or league tables. I have worked at schools that were striving to be "the best" international school in the world without giving the teachers any idea or ownership of what that meant. Did "the best" refer to the academic scores the students achieve on their external exams? Did it refer to a policy of inclusion and doing the best for each individual student regardless of how these students are doing when compared with others? And what happened when we are not "the best"? When our IB scores were just slightly above average? Did we then feel disappointed and demotivated and end up with an "attitude problem"? Like many primary and middle school teachers I don't have much control over the exam results of our Grade 12 students, therefore I do not feel that their exam success is a good way of measuring how we are doing on the good to best continuum.
Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it. (Lou Holtz)
In my experience, motivation and attitude come from a sense of being in control and having ownership of what you are doing. This is true for teachers and students. Students who have been encouraged to be interested and passionate about a subject are bound to be motivated and this motivation will keep them learning way beyond the exams. One of the most moving "awards" ceremonies I have ever seen was when I was a middle school teacher. During the course of the year the Grade 8 students had been writing poetry. Their English teacher collected their poems and published a poem from each student in a book, which she then "awarded" to the students at the middle school graduation ceremony. She spoke about each student's contribution - every student was special. No one student got the "English prize" that year. The poems were beautiful and the students all knew they were valued. It was because of this teacher's attitude that they were motivated and because of that motivation they were all striving to achieve and to be the very best they could be.