Motivating the Unmotivated

We all have one or more of these kids in our classrooms: They don’t want to be in school, but they’re here because they have to be. Their goal in life is to have fun — either by playing or making other people miserable. At the middle school age, they may only be semi-aware of their actions, but it is clear to everyone around them that school work is not at the top of their priority list, assuming it’s on the list at all.

This mindset manifests itself in incessant talking, turning around in one’s seat to make humorous comments about whatever is going on at the moment or standing up to break out in a riveting, enthusiastic dance sequence. Or to start something if there is nothing of importance going on — like when the teacher is explaining how learning to write in the formal style will enable one to express thoughts, persuade others and perhaps even get a good paying job.

If you only have one of these students in your classroom at a time, the solution is usually fairly simple. Stand near the student, or place him near you, and redirect them as necessary while you’re teaching everyone else. Often, this results in said student actually taking in some of the information and even producing some work as the result of it.

Once the instructional time is over, this student can often be separated from the others (removing his audience) to complete his work. This sometimes results in an amazing production of work — other times you end up with half a name written on the paper. This depends on which way the wind is blowing at the moment.

Unfortunately, if you have more than one student of this nature in a classroom, you are outnumbered. Put the two together near you and they’ll put on their own concert for the whole class, right in the middle of your most-important-ever instructions — and then act insulted when you suggest they save the dance moves for recess.

That said, even just two are manageable when the 20 other students in class really want to work. Unfortunately, this is not the case at my school. I end up with two to five students in my class who want to learn. The rest would rather be entertained. Learning to write an essay is apparently not entertaining enough. So when the two clowns begin to act up, the masses are more then happy to be entertained, distracted and to encourage the disrupters. And then they all act insulted when you suggest that should be paying attention to flashbacks and metaphors in “Exploring the Titanic” by Robert D. Ballard.

OK, I admit that I may be exaggerating a bit. And this is not something that happens every day. It’s cyclical. The aforementioned kids will have a terrible day — get sent to the office once for each period. At least. They go to In School Suspension for a few days — or maybe get sent home if this is their 10th offense. When they return, you’d think they turned over a new leaf. Suddenly, the child who said he doesn’t care what you say — but in a much ruder way — is nothing but polite and well behaved. He may even call down some other students for minor infractions. But as the days go by, you see a slow regression, until you have the blowup — the full on, I’m-in-charge-of-the-world-and-I-don’t-need-no-edumacation attitude and accompanying behaviors.


I love them all. I see so much potential in each kid. It really makes me sad to see ones throwing themselves blindly down a path that will lead to their own destruction.


Related topics: Student Motivation

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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