I have the very distinct blessing of living in one of the most beautiful cities in this incredible country. Spring in Austin, Texas is a magical time. The fields of bluebonnets and Indian-Paintbrush turn roadsides purple and yellow, blue and red. A simple Sunday afternoon can absolutely lift the heart. Couple those incredible colors with the majesty of a fast forming thunderhead that reaches endlessly into the sky and you soon truly believe that a creator had to have his finger in making something so beautiful. Spring is here and every minute spent indoors just feels like a minute that has been wasted. It feels borderline immoral to be inside on a 78 degree day!
So what do teachers do...
...with a room full of kids who have already spent 7 months in a classroom, just finished with 2 months taking mock tests and doing pretest prep and then test prep, while working towards the all important and all consuming standardized test? Testing is done. It’s over. The pinnacle of academic measurement is in the rear view mirror, and what lies ahead in a few short weeks is the freedom of summer! But before we can even get to summer, we have spring. Spring is the time of rebirth and renewal, the time of running and playing and sunning and doing anything but sitting in a room filled with fluorescent lighting! For the students, spring fever is in full swing-- but what in the world is the teacher supposed to do to control her own spring fever, keep her mind on teaching while spending these glorious days in the ever tightening four walls of the classroom? Some days are afflicted with hay fever or cedar fever, but this time of year nearly every day is falling prey to spring fever.
Before we can begin talking about surviving spring fever with our sanity and job security still intact, we have to go a little further back.
Why did you become an educator?
Why did you spend thousands of dollars and years of your life to gain a certification that assures you of never being wealthy or famous... and constantly dealing with people who want to be anywhere but where they are supposed to be?
It wasn’t for the hours... (newsflash for non-educators: teachers work longer hours than most of the rest of us combined!). It wasn’t for the perks... that whole "summers off" thing is pretty much a myth when you factor in all the things teachers have to do over the ever-shortening summer to survive and/or get ready for next year. It wasn’t for the glamour... if you ever want to feel old, just hang out with a bunch of kids!
You became an educator because you know there is much more to life than money and fame, and that teaching a young person to live and prosper far outweighs the trappings of the dollar. You became a teacher because there is true nobility and purpose in preparing kids to someday be life contributors. You became a teacher because it is one of the true professions that really matters! And believe it or not, spring is the perfect time to reclaim that nobility and redefine that purpose, because you have at least a month that has nothing to do with test prep and test taking and test….test…testing. With testing out of the way, real learning can now occur! For clarification: this is not an indictment on testing, but rather an acknowledgement that much of the past couple of months of your life has been consumed with getting your students ready for testing.
Go back for a few minutes to those days of college when you were preparing yourself for life as a teacher...
Did you ever envision it would be mundane? Of course not.
Did you ever envision it would feel restrictive? No way!
You most likely looked towards teaching as the opportunity to shape young lives, teach lessons and skills, and touch both minds and hearts. And that is what you can do now. You have spent the last several months plowing testable information into the minds of your students, but now you have the opportunity to pour some real knowledge into their hearts and into their lives. Reading, writing, and arithmetic may be the backbone of an education, but learning to live, making friends, developing socially, and learning to feel good about yourself is education's heart.
Motivation is defined in two ways. There is extrinsic motivation, which means that there are motivators that occur outside of you and apply motivating forces on you. Then there are intrinsic motivators. These are the motivators that are internal and inherent to a person. These are the driving factors within you. And here’s a well-kept secret that can change the way you look at spring in a classroom: up until now your students’ motivators have been external. If they don’t pass the test, they won’t be able to move to the next grade. If they don’t participate appropriately in pre-test prep, they won’t get to go to the school party. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with external motivators, but your kids are likely tired of them.
So, now is the time you can pounce on those internal or intrinsic motivators. Now is the time you can teach to the things that matter, not just to the district or the state, but instead, to the student. I am sure your students absolutely care if they can read and write with proficiency, and many of them absolutely care whether or not they have mastered mathematics. But I can pretty much guarantee you that they all care what the other kids think about them, how they fit in, how they feel about themselves, and how they can control themselves. You see, those intrinsic motivators work because they are born out of personal desire... and when you feed and foster intrinsic motivators, your kids will jump all over the learning.
So how do you change the last month or so of the year and make it intrinsically motivating?
You center it on the lessons your students will need for life, not the lessons they need for the test.
What if you spent the next month with your writing assignments focused on a lesson you just taught that dealt with building self-confidence? What if your students were challenged to write a self-reflective paper in which they had to identify their personal strong points? What if you supplemented that with an extra paper in which they had to identify the strong points of another student? Can you imagine the kids not paying attention if you were reading those extra paragraphs that were extolling the virtues of the kids in your class? I can promise that there would be no heads on their desks and no eyes closed.
What if you spent a period talking about how important it is to identify and control your emotions, then had the students put together a collage of the emotions they have felt over the school year? Do you think the other kids would pay attention to that presentation? What if you spent a class period talking about how to handle an angry person and how to deal with someone who is being aggressive towards them? Do you think your kids would pay attention if their classmates were presenting storyboards of how they would deal with the bully or with an angry parent? Of course they would.
The difference between those extrinsic motivators is that the learning standards, and therefore standardized testing material, are those elements that society has defined as necessary for the kids to learn. Internal or intrinsic motivators are those life lessons that our kids want to learn.
A few paragraphs earlier, I promised you the secret to making the last month or so of school the best learning time of the year...
Here it is: Teach the whole kid, not just the standardized part.
Teach about life’s lessons and talk about making friends, getting along and taking care of yourself, and understanding the responsibilities that will soon be coming. Talk about how other people view your students and what they can do to change that if they need to. Talk about how your students can feel better about themselves and help them understand their worth. The secret is that our standardized society has defined a student’s worth within that student’s ability to recite and recall facts in a standardized format. Our students define their self worth by their ability to make and maintain friends, in getting along with their mom and dad, and in having goals that help them realize there is something even better waiting for them if they try their best. Teaching your students how to grow socially and emotionally will be some of the most fun and easiest teaching you will ever do, because these are the lessons they want and the lessons they need. These are the lessons that will provide an immediacy of impact and even an immediacy of gratification beyond that of any pure academic lesson.
And here’s the best part – when you start teaching those lessons that cause your students to be self motivated to learn, then your passion for teaching will be reignited... and your spring will once again be about a time of renewal and rebirth. Only now you can add your enthusiasm for shaping the hearts and minds of kids as part of that spring renewal!
Get started now! Leaps (www.selforschools.com), the sponsor of this blog, is making several social and emotional development lesson plans available for free.