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I’ve Never “Motivated” A Student


Anytime I hear or read about “motivating students,” I cringe a bit.

An organizing truism (one that I learned during my twenty-year community organizing career) is that you might be able to bribe, cajole, badger, or threaten somebody to do something over the short-term (I’ve certainly done my share of that, and you can read about the negative consequences of doing so at the Public School Insights blog post The Trouble With Incentives and in my previous posts). But I don’t think you can really “motivate” anybody to do anything beyond a very, very, very short timeline, after which the initial enthusiasm quickly dissipates.

However, you can help another person find what will motivate themselves.

As a teacher, the primary tools I use in that quest are my ears. I try to get to know my students — what they like, what they don’t like, what they worry about, what their hopes and dreams are. I then try to help frame what we are doing in the classroom in the context of helping them achieve their goals. How can what we are learning help them become a carpenter, a doctor, a professional basketball player; or be perceived differently by their friends and family in the near-term? Or anything else they want to accomplish? And learning these genuine self-interests of students, or of anyone else, will only come in the context of a caring and trusting relationship.

Another way I use the information I gain is by developing some of the lessons I’ve shared here. These have included ones on the brain being a muscle that grows with exercise; the long-term importance of developing more self-control; goal-setting skills; and the discipline of visualizing success. My most recent one, which I’ll be doing next week, will be on sleep. They are all geared towards helping students see how making the right choices helps them to achieve their goals.

I have not been successful, nor is it likely that will I ever be successful, helping ALL my students find that internal (intrinsic) motivation. For the greater good of the entire class (and my own sanity), it’s likely that a little bribery, badgering, cajoling, and threatening will always have a place in my room. But it has to be kept in its place.

I referred earlier to the Public School Insights blog post titled “The Trouble With Incentives.” The word “incentives” comes from incendere, which means “to kindle.” The dictionary says that “to kindle” means “to start a fire burning.” Let’s put a greater priority on helping students “incentivize” themselves.

Let’s try not to tell them that they will die from the cold or from being eaten by wolves if they don’t start a fire RIGHT NOW and RIGHT HERE and in THIS WAY, or tell them that, if they do so, they’ll get an extra bag of marshmallows to toast. Instead, let’s try to find out where they want to set their fire and why, and maybe we can help them learn how to use matches or a flint and give advice on the best place to find some dry wood…

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I totally agree. Getting our students to have some insight into what we are about. Also if I understand you well, drawing some satisfaction from what they have accomplished be it a very simple task.
    I really like your idea of the fire, very clever: it is simple, down to earth / essential, funny but symbolically very important.
    In the last lesson I did on goal setting I used the Misbehaving students punished with Mozart text and my students were all for declaring boring teachers the reason for their lack of interest at school. When they said that I knew they were being provocative but they were somehow also very sincere.
    Humor is the best way to reach our students, your pleasant camp site fire solving problem is excellent in that respect it allows you to get a very serious idea through.

  2. Hi Larry,
    thank you again for your insightful post! You cannot tell it often enough that the heart of education is the heart – the quality of your teaching depends absolutely on the quality of your relationship with your students. Counseling (client centered counseling that is) in large groups, that is what teaching today is all about. That is why reading Rogers (counseling) and Yalom (group-therapy) and studying the nuts and bolts of Cooperative Learning gave me so much help to become a better teacher …
    Yes, you have to know your subject, you have to know how to “teach” your stuff – but first and upfront you have to strive to connect with students in a supportive and fostering way, to strive to understand the students and facilitate their striving for growth.

    Thanks for reminding us of that truth.

  3. I love the resources you share with us Larry, but I think my favourite posts of yours are such as this one, where you take a step back and reflect on what you do and why you do it. Reflection and perspective are such important tools for all of us.

  4. Hi Larry. Fascinating and positive point of view, but doesn’t practicing this lead to building on differences? I would think that it is also worth trying to motivate at least one exceptionally important goal: the enjoyment of problem-solving. Kids love solving problems. The beauty of problem-solving is that it can be pitched to each child and be used to extend understanding of one’s differences just as it builds confidence and willingness to try new things.

    In my opinion, kids today are spending too little time on inquiry, reasoning from evidence, and critical thinking. Yet, properly constructed problems (puzzles, mysteries, challenges) can be fun for all when pitched at one’s current abilities. This is the aim of our “serious” game that kids say is “awesome.” They are engaged and motivated.

    • Rees,

      I think that yes, many students will have what appears to be different self-interests/goals. However, I think the steps that each have to take now to get there will be similar in terms of hard work, self-control, discipline, etc, so I think it works out fine.

      And I think you’re right — problem solving can be a motivator for students — as long as they care about the problem that is being solved.


  5. Words of wisdom–and a good read.

    I do lots of work with novice teachers, and one of their perennial questions is “how can I control my class?” I tell them that you can never control human beings, but you can certainly influence them. I believe that’s the principle you’re describing here. Well done.

  6. Not only does the phrase “motivate students” make me cringe, but so does the comment I sometimes hear from teachers that “I only work with students who want to learn.” Your approach of helping students discover their self-interest in learning strikes me as more sensible than either of the other two positions.

  7. brilliantly put.
    I agree. Sometimes what we don’t say directly (but rather between parenthesis [not brackets] and ‘between the lines’) is what really motivates learners. It’s the teacher who needs to BE motivated in order to sensitize learners to the ‘how to learn’ part of learning.

  8. I totally agree with you about tapping into the students interests. To be honest as a Principal I probably have used the phrase motivating students in the past but now I like the term “engaged students” .
    I think our goal as educators must be to tap into our students interest so that they can become engaged and active learners.
    Thank you for your posts and tweets I have learned a lot in a short time

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