The Message Our Students Hear…

For most of my 20 years in teaching, I have worked with struggling, at risk (all those labels!) students. While I have been privileged to work with students at all ability levels, it is these students who tug at my heart and send me searching for answers long into the night, over weekends and during summer break. I often hear these kids referred to as “unmotivated”, yet this label bothers me the most. To say they are unmotivated implies they are not (un) motivated. Yet, I see them very motivated when it comes to things that matter to them. I have come to see them as “demotivated”. (“De” meaning remove or remove from.) I believe there are numerous factors which have removed the motivation for these kids when it comes to school . I’ve wrestled with this idea and recently had an experience which brought me back to this concept and makes me want to explore it even further.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Dolphus Weary speak. Dr. Weary is the president of Mission Mississipi, a group that seeks to bring about racial reconciliation in Misssissipi. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, so I was excited to have chanced upon this opportunity. Then, Dr. Weary said something about the work they do and it resonated so loudly with my idea about our demotivated kids that I found it hard to focus on the rest of what he had to say. Dr. Weary talked about working with folks of different races to bring about racial harmony by saying” People are playing the tape that has been recorded in their head- we have to erase the tape and rerecord it.”

Wow! As my brain wrapped around this statement I realized that this analogy truly embodied the “demotivated” students I see each day. Their motivation has been removed by the tape that has been recorded in their heads over the years. “You aren’t smart. You are a failure. You’re a troublemaker. School isn’t important. Only geeks do well in school. Failing is cool.” On and on the message has been recorded for them in school, in their peer group, in their neighborhood and, in many cases, in their homes. Is it possible to erase these messages and to rerecord the tape that plays in our demotivated sudents’ heads? I firmly believe it is possible.

So, how do we begin to erase the demotivating recording in our students’ heads? It is not an overnight process or an easy process. There are a number of things that we can do in our classrooms to facilitate this process. To discuss them all in one blog would be lengthy, so, for now, I’ll focus on the one that I have found has the most profound impact on student success in the classroom- holding high expectations for students. Although the article is older now (1994), I remember being struck by a quote from an article in Anthropology and Education Quarterly which said “…research on successful programs for youth at risk of academic failure has clearly demonstrated that high expectations—with concomitant support–is a critical factor in decreasing the number of students who drop out of school and in increasing the number of youth who go on to college …”(Mehan et al., 1994).  I don’t think this statement is any less applicable today.

Often, our demotivated students have learned to fly under the radar in classes, or they know how to push a teacher’s buttons so they will be sent out of class and not have to perform. The message in their head tells them that “they can’t do the work” or “the work is stupid or boring”. In my classroom, the message I want students to record is “You can do this. I will help you. Mistakes are okay” and most importantly ” Not doing the work is NOT an option.” I want students to understand that I expect nothing but their best and they should expect no less of themselves. I want them to understand our classroom is a place where we are always learning and growing: perfection is not the goal, learning is. Students may revise assignments if they don’t feel the grade they received reflects their learning. Sometimes, revision is not a choice, but a requirement. When a student turns in a project or writing assignment that doesn’t even come close to meeting the criteria or truly reflecting what they have learned, rather than a failing grade, they receive a lunch invitation to revise. For some of my students, the tape in their head is so long and so loud that I have to bang on the door just as loudly and persistently so that my message begins to be heard.

Often I see these demotivated, low achieving students placed in classes where the curriculum is rote, where little is expected of them and where the recording in their head is echoed daily. I strive to insure that my classroom is not such a place for them. My students read and write daily, my students read Shakespeare, analyze poetry, participate in literature circles, write persuasive essays with ample support and evidence. They are challenged daily to learn, to try their best and to accept nothing less from themselves. There are rough days in our classroom, days when that tape plays loudly in their heads. But I cannot let that message continue to play. So, I deliver my message again, oftentimes in a whisper of an action: a hand on the shoulder, a thumbs ups, a “You can do this. I know you can. Try again.”, an encouraging note, a lunch time chat. And slowly, together, we begin to erase the old messages and record the new message of hope.



Mehan, H., Hubbard, L., & Villanueva, I. (1994). Forming academic identities: Accommodation without assimilation among involuntary minorities. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 25 (2), 91-117.


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