Learner motivation is recognized as a vital ingredient in successful education. Most teacher training programmes cover, how to boost learners’ motivation early in a course by setting enticing goals, and how to sustain it through fun activities and regular progress checks. In many school settings, these strategies are important to the teacher’s job and can enhance students’ ultimate achievement.
But what about the teachers’ own motivation?
This is rarely a topic discussed in training programmes, nor in schools where teachers’ professionalism is largely assumed until management identifies a problem.
There is reason to believe that the teacher’s motivation to teach the subject may affect the student’s motivation more than any strategies they consciously use. The well-known Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi (1997) argues that the teachers who really inspire us, those who we remember long after we have left their classes, are not the ones with the clever methodology or flashy materials, but those who truly loved what they were doing. Conversely, if a learner senses that the teacher does not care about their subject or their course, then they may rightfully ask ‘Why should I?’
For teachers, there are two potential issues here. Firstly, do we love our jobs? And secondly, even if we do, are we conveying that to our learners? Every classroom is filled with unspoken messages and is a site for emotional contagion among the participants. That is, while the direct communication of ideas and information is the primary purpose of classroom work, there are conventional constraints on what can actually be said; learners spend much time making inferences about the teacher’s thoughts and meanings (as well as those of their peers) from unconscious signals in body language, intonation or facial expression. These cues may shape their learning motivation just as much as the overt actions and speech of the teacher.
I recently asked a friend about a Master’s programme he had just completed, and he said he had enjoyed every module except for one; when pressed on what was wrong with the module, he replied that the subject seemed interesting, and had been taught well, but “the lecturer just didn’t seem that into it… or us”. Knowing the lecturer, I believe my friend was deceived. But his anecdote reinforces my conviction that teachers need to be wary of the impressions they give, especially concerning the value of the subject, the course, and the students’ potential to benefit from it. I will pick up the last point in my next blog, but here are some suggestions on how to ensure that the teacher’s own motivation positively influences the students’.
1. Be honest about your own motivation
Some teachers are teachers through a deep sense of vocation; others (like me) fall into the job almost by accident and may or may not grow to love it. Whatever the reason, you need to project a passion for the subject, and for teaching it. It is easier if you feel that passion, as the learners will most likely pick up on it unconsciously and that will feed their own passion. But if not, pedagogic skills can make up for it.
2. Show the “Inner Nerd”
Learners need to see that learning the subject can be enjoyable, even exciting. Of course, it cannot always be fun, but your teaching method has to convey the thrill of acquiring and using new knowledge or skills. Ideally you will be continuing to learn the subject yourself and can sometimes share what you have learned with the class – even if they do not quite understand what you have learned, it’s valuable that they see your excitement.
3. Remember WIIFM
In his classic little text on motivation, Ian Gilbert (2012) says all teachers must remember that their pupils will always be asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM). Not all will have a personal liking for the subject, so you have to keep showing them some other reasons to be studying the subject. In this respect I think English language teachers are fortunate, because in most global contexts it is not hard to demonstrate that competence in English can be advantageous to almost all young people. Helping them imagine themselves as future users of English, in various social or professional contexts, is a powerful way of motivating them.
4. Connect with the learners
As teachers we cannot always control the messages that learners pick up, but we can go some way towards finding out how they are experiencing our lessons through eliciting regular feedback and adapting our teaching accordingly. Class surveys will only reveal general trends and are unidirectional. Conversations with learners, alone, in pairs or small groups, can achieve so much more – an opportunity to share and enhance each other’s motivation.
Martin Lamb is Senior Lecturer in TESOL and International Lead at the School of Education, University of Leeds, where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in language teaching methodology, second language acquisition, and assessment. He has worked as an ELT teacher and trainer in Indonesia, Bulgaria, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. His main research interest is in learner and teacher motivation and its interaction with aspects of social context, including technology. He has published in multiple academic journals and was recently chief editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Motivation for Language Learning (2019).
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and effective teaching: a flow analysis. In J. L. Bess (Ed.), Teaching Well and Liking It: Motivating faculty to teach effectively (pp. 72-89). John Hopkins University Press.
Gilbert, I. (2012). Essential Motivation in the Classroom (2nd ed.). Routledge.