As the bounty in our garden grows, I have been reflecting on our summer program. It was such a sincere pleasure to see our students working hard in the garden and savoring the literal “fruits of their labors” throughout the summer. Students had ownership of their own raised garden beds and learned a lot about growing food, wildcrafting, and stewardship. As we head into a new school year, I want to share a few examples of what I know many of you, as parents and teachers, observe or struggle with daily about how to get (and keep) adolescents motivated.
While overall, students were dedicated to their garden plots, there were those mornings when it was difficult to motivate everyone to go outside and weed, particularly on hot (or rainy) days. On those mornings, our summer staff would head up to the dorm rooms, sometimes with dogs in tow, to help students get out of bed. For some students, being smothered in dog kisses was enough to wake them up and get them out to the garden. For others, it was a reminder that if they did not weed their plot, then their garden would be overgrown and they would lose their crop. And for others, it was simply a reminder that the staff would be weeding right there beside them, that they weren’t in it alone.
Interest and ownership
Helping students tap into what interests and excites them is key to helping them stay motivated. For some students, like one recent graduate, it may be playing on a sports team. This student struggled to get up for classes, but loved to play basketball and was skilled enough to make the BHS team. After a few mornings struggling to get up for class, the Dean of Students made a plan for him that required him to attend all of his classes if he wanted to go to basketball practice. This was definitely more strict than the BHS rules, but it got that student up and in class every day!
For other students it might mean finding what excites them about a particular subject or project. Many of our students are interested in making videos and allowing them to use their videography skills for class projects can help them stay invested. Finally, giving students the chance to try new activities in a safe environment can help them discover something they love. This summer, we had several students who had never been rock climbing. Some of them were nervous about the process, but with positive encouragement from staff and peers, they soon learned to love the sport and were even asking for opportunities to go climbing in new places around Vermont!
The right challenge level
The first thing we focus on, especially in the initial weeks of school, is discovering the right challenge level for each student. People are easily frustrated when given too many tasks that require stretching too far. Conversely, you become bored if your tasks are too easy or too familiar. Teachers and dorm staff work to find that challenge “sweet spot” for each student, giving assignments that require them to draw on what they know, while challenging them, gradually, to try something new. Students feel successful, not when they can complete easy tasks, but when they are able to master something new. When we reach this “sweet spot,” students are more likely to take intellectual risks and meet the challenges they are given because they trust their teachers not to give them something they can’t handle.
Relationships are key
Trust brings me to the next key aspect of motivating teens: relationships. Humans want to feel known and appreciated, and this is especially true of adolescents. When they feel like they are connected to a teacher, they are much more likely to get to class, do their homework, and ask for help if they are struggling. At Rock Point, we are fortunate to be able to foster this connection in our small classes and study halls, as well as at lunch tables, over coffee at breakfast, in electives classes, in community meeting, in the garden, in work crews, or on field trips. But in any school environment, relationships are built on an authentic signaling that teachers want to know their students, not just who they are in the classroom, but also who they are in world and who they want to become.
As we go through the school year, many students will have moments (or even days) when they feel unmotivated. As educators, I know we will be asking ourselves questions: What interests this student? What are their talents? How is this student being challenged? Are they overwhelmed or are they bored? Who is connecting with this student?
With a focus on cultivating ;) self-motivated students in mind, I share our best wishes for a wonderful academic year ahead!