The start of this school year has seen a plummet in teacher morale like none I've observed before. The workload is up, the pressure is on, and the end remains hidden in the future's fog. Lots of days, it feels like what we used to do was a walk in the park, and what we're doing now is a slog in the swamp. (That's our colleague Rick Joseph's language from his #EducatorEncouragement Project video, which you can see here.)
But we can't camp out in the bummer, can we? We know this. Wallowing in our demotivation doesn't serve us, our families, or our students. Self-pity is not the way.
But just knowing that I need to be motivated and engaged again…just knowing that doesn't really help, does it? When a person tells us, “Hey, I know it sucks, but c'mon, let's get over it and move on.” — we don't leave that conversation much changed, do we?
So, why is that?
Good news: it's an intelligible problem with intelligible, non-random solutions.
Let's establish some quick principles because great teachers are great understanders. Then I'll link the principles to today, and then I'll recommend a first application — really easy, really helpful for us and our colleagues near and far. And I'll write more on these threads in the days to come, so make sure you're subscribed to not miss an update.
Principle 1: Both motivation and demotivation are the products of key beliefs or unbeliefs.
The degree to which a person is motivated in a given subject — reading, mathematics, physical education — or in a given field of work — one's marriage, one's child-rearing, one's career as an educator — is determined by what that person believes in five key areas.
During times of transition (e.g., new school year, new semester, new school, new job) these beliefs are at their most malleable, which means that they sound like questions. As the time of transition takes place, the evidence comes in and the five key beliefs (or five key unbeliefs) form. Upon these rest a person's motivation in a given area.
- Is the person leading me competent? Do they care? Do they have what it takes to help and guide me? (This is Credibility.)
- Is this worth it? Will it even matter? Does it mean anything? (This is Value.)
- Do people like me fit in settings like this? Does this work align with who I am? Do others have the same struggles I do? (This is Belonging.)
- If I work hard, will it pay off? (This is Effort.)
- Can I succeed here? (This is Efficacy.)
Here's a graphic I made to explain how this works. Our motivation is rooted in what we believe or don't believe in these five key areas, and our beliefs are fluid — especially so, as I said, during times of transition.
Principle 2: The five key beliefs are a special kind of knowledge — a kind that resides in the heart (or will) rather than simply the intellect.
Belief is a wonderful topic for teachers and leaders and parents to think about because of both how elusive it is — it's almost always best affected indirectly, which is amazing — and how powerful it is — if you find a person believing these five key things about their work as a student or teacher, you've almost certainly found a person who will grow rapidly in good directions. (As I've said before, these beliefs are the key to the students we teach with superpowers.)
It is because beliefs are a kind of knowledge held not in the head but in the heart — not in the intellect, but in the will — that they are so incredibly powerful and so remarkably elusive.
Let me share a story from a time before I understood this reality. This frustrated me so much!
I had taught my students about growth mindset and then given them a growth mindset questionnaire. The results were wonderful — virtually all of them had acquired a growth mindset! I felt accomplished.
But in the weeks that followed, I noted with increasing dismay that the effort they put into their studies hadn't improved…at all. It really befuddled me — as it has countless teachers and schools around the world who have sought to “cultivate a growth mindset” in students using the intellect-targeting methods I was using.
Looking back, I now see what I had done: I had taught my students that a growth mindset was a good thing to have and that it came down to knowing that effort is what counts — not talent, but effort. Once you wrap your head around that concept, it's pretty easy to do swimmingly on a growth mindset questionnaire and to simultaneously have no added motivation to show for it.
Why? Because growth mindset isn't a set of intellectually assented to concepts. It's not an idea — it's a belief! A belief in effort. Until it's a thing that you know to be at the heart level, growth mindset doesn't work.
(I call growth mindset the effort belief because 1) there is so much confusion and misapplication of the term, and 2) “mindset” implies the intellect, and what we're after with these is the will, the heart.)
Principle 3: Beliefs are built through intellectual, emotional, social, and physical experiences.
Another quick way to think about the key beliefs is by thinking about chairs. Right now, I'm sitting in one. But why? Why on earth would I entrust my body weight to this thin-looking thing that weighs a good deal less than me?
Is it because I understand intellectually that chairs are trustworthy for sitting? That's a part of it, sure — but far from all of it. It's because I've had enough social, intellectual, and physical proofs in my time alive to establish in my heart the belief that chairs work. You can trust them.
Principle 4: Bad news — beliefs are fragile; good news — unbeliefs are malleable, too.
Let's keep with that chair analogy. Let's say you followed me around for a few days and you sabotaged 70% of the chairs that I sat in just before I sat in them. Would my belief in chairs be affected?
Of course. I'd start expending intellectual and emotional energy on chairs. I'd lay in bed at night thinking, “Gosh, I looked like such an idiot when I fell in my chair again today. That's the ninth time this week.” I'd start inspecting everything before I sat in it.
Beliefs can change.
The good news, of course, is that unbeliefs can change, too. You could stop messing with my chairs, and eventually I'd be a chair believer again — my bad stretch with chairs one day becoming nothing more than a memory, ruefully recalled on occasion to confused friends.
Principle 5: Beliefs are especially malleable during times of transition.
I mentioned this in the first principle, but it bears repeating because at the time that I'm writing this (October 2020) we are all in one heck of a transition — to what, we don't know; for how long, we don't know.
What this means for today: Our present struggles with motivation are largely crises of belief.
Educators are experiencing…
- Crises of Credibility: Will my leaders do anything about how much I'm struggling? Do they care? Do they know how to lead me? Will they make good decisions?
- Crises of Value: In a pandemic, do these units I'm teaching even matter? Are these skills important? Can my students even gain anything from work like this, a unit like this, a lesson like this, at a time like this?
- Crises of Belonging: Other people are having a much better go at this than me, aren't they? Maybe I don't fit in to teaching anymore. Maybe I should quit. Maybe it's time for an early retirement.
- Crises of Effort: There's such an array of things I'm new at in my job right now. I'm putting in all these hours, but the effort isn't making an impact. I don't even know what smart effort looks like in this new model. All the gurus are talking about things that seem cosmically distant from my day-to-day realities.
- Crises of Efficacy: I. Can't. Do. This. I can't succeed at this. I'm failing these kids. I might as well quit. I'll never get the hang of this.
Now that word “crisis” may sound alarmist, but I promise I'm using it very purposefully. A crisis is a turning point — after it, things can get worse, or things can get better. But, they can't stay the same. I really do think this is a turning point for our profession because so many of us are having these inner wrestling matches so intensely. From here, we either deepen and strengthen as a professional community…or we implode and scatter.
Application 1: Make an #EducatorEncouragement video.
Two days ago, I gave an invitation: I'd love it if you'd contribute to the #EducatorEncouragement Project. It's pretty simple. All the instructions are here.
But in today's article, I hope you can see a bit more of the method behind that project. It's not random. What you and I are making and participating in with these simple little videos is what the researchers call an attributional retraining intervention — the exact kind of intervention that again and again works at remedying unbelief around Belonging. Making the video helps you and helps others. I'm serious — it's worked again and again in studies on belonging and mindset. (For a longer video explanation of attributional retraining interventions, click here.)
The video is step one, colleague. It's you and me doing a bit to ensure that the crisis ends how we need it to: the people of our profession — us included — becoming a stronger, clearer, deeper people.
So this weekend, if you can, make a video. All the instructions are here. If you'd rather not show your face, no worries! Just do a screencast of a slide and speak over it. I'm not trying to pressure you unduly, but I sort of do want to push because I think this will help you and others.
The five key beliefs are examined in depth in Dave's Student Motivation Course, which delivers research and insight in manageable sets of 2-10 minute videos. Learn all about it here.