Student motivation begins with the internal work of teaching. We can decry the obstacles to student motivation today — kids' tendency to either care too much about grades or to not care about them at all; our students' access to exponentially more entertainment than ever before in world history — but there aren't many good excuses for harboring poor, negative, self-fulfilling beliefs in ourselves. Our insides are the most fertile ground we till.
Here's what I mean.
If you're certain that you're a bad teacher, then you're probably right. At the very least, you're on your way there. I feel bad saying it so directly, but here's the thing: beliefs drive behavior. It's just as true for us as it is for our students. There's no use telling yourself that you're a bad teacher — that's not what professionals do. Professionals analyze where they're strong and weak — and to the professional, there's always weakness — and they take concrete steps to work at getting better. But no defeatist talk — it's realistic idealism.
If you think that kids like Sam don't do well in classes like yours, then you're probably right about that, too. Students are constantly looking for indicators of whether or not they belong in a given classroom. Do people like me work hard in math? Does applying myself in a PhysEd setting fit with who I am? When we pigeonhole kids, they perceive it, and they're likely to act accordingly. We all — kids and teachers — act in ways that mesh with who we are. Daphna Oyserman calls this “identity-congruent behavior.”
If you're certain that what you're teaching is pointless, then it probably will be for most of your kids. Professionals take what they're required to teach and they creatively seek to make it worthwhile for their students. I don't really love the novel Fahrenheit 451, and when I teach my students about that and give them a chance to debate whether or not Bradbury overuses and abuses figurative language, they learn a ton about figurative language in the process. (And they trust me more, too, because they know that A) I tell them the truth, and B) I put my money where my mouth is when it comes to doing hard things. Just because I don't like the book doesn't mean I don't teach kids to read and analyze and discuss it for all I'm worth.) Don't expect your kids to value a given lesson if you don't.
And if you think that nothing you try with Jacie is going to make her apply herself in your class, then you're probably right. You're not right because of any objective reality — after all, Jacie's motivation is rooted in her beliefs, and her beliefs are malleable — but rather, you're right because the way that you're thinking about Jacie ensures that you won't try much to get her on board with her education. You'll write her off — after all, she's got a tough home life. Nobody, student or teacher, is motivated to work at things they're certain won't work.
I'm not trying to be a jerk here, but it's just this: if we want to help our students cultivate the key beliefs underlying human motivation, it starts with us.