Working as an educator for the past 30 years, as a a course in miracles bookstore, counselor and school psychologist a major interest of mine has always been student motivation. I have had the opportunity to have worked with students from the pre-Kindergarten to twelfth grade level in school systems in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. I have been in inner city, poverty-stricken districts and affluent districts. Which means I have seen students with significant social-economic disadvantages succeed, and ones that had “everything” going for them fail.
Personally, I fit into the first category. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old, my mother was a waitress that never finished High School and my stepfather who raised me (after age 7) never went to High School. My older brother quit school in the 10th grade. No one in my family attended college so I had very little family influence to pursue any academic goals. I remember as a child my stepfather telling me to get “C’s” in school. “C’s are good,” he would say. Perhaps, because he never even achieved that when he was in school. Of course, this was when I was repeating the first grade so he was trying to get me to do better at the time. I muddled through elementary school and do not believe I started to get any career interests until Middle School. There I began taking an interest in science. It was exciting times in science and technology in the late 60’s with the moon landing, Star Trek on TV, and Jacques Cousteau exploring the ocean and I was caught up in it.
However, I still had no clue on what it would take to succeed at something in life. Fortunately, High School sports changed that. I had a freshman football coach that didn’t accept excuses, and gradually it began to sink in that if you were to get anywhere in life you had to apply effort. I also started to get the idea that if other kids could go to college and have a good career, why couldn’t I? I was just as good as them. I began applying effort to my academics as well and did go to a four-year college after high school pursuing my interest in science.
As a teacher I was always very aware of how my background related to many of my students. With the students that struggled in school, the ones that had behavior issues and applied little effort to their academics, my first question to them was always, “What do you want to do after high school?” Unfortunately, most of these students had little idea of what they wanted to do. They had no realistic career ambition. Sure a lot of students up to 9th or 10th grade would say they want to be in professional sports for a career, but again few had any idea of what that would require. They were clueless to the fact that most professional athletes are recruited out of good colleges and that passing their classes is a requirement in high school in order to be on a school team.
I have learned that the key to student motivation is a career goal. A case I witness that exemplified this was a student I had in middle and high school. “Julie” was a severely behaviorally disoriented student up through the eighth grade. She would be noncompliant with teacher requests, would be augmentative all the time and swear at teachers and staff in most of her interactions. However, in the 9th grade a light went off within her. She decided she wanted to be a veterinarian and started to take school seriously. Her behavior problems disappeared and she went from a D-F student in a special education class to an A-B student in a mainstream class, all because she now had a goal in life!
Unfortunately, many students learn this much later in life. They are ten years out of high school, perhaps not having a high school diploma and they can’t stand their hourly paid position in a fast food restaurant or retail store. The most common statement I have heard from “drop-out” alumni is, “I wish I had done better in school.” Or, “I wish I had taken school seriously.” I have never heard, “I am proud that I failed in school.