Motivation, without the guilt

At the end of last year, when I was stepping down as newspaper adviser, my student editors put together a surprise “tribute” page where they shared nice comments about me.

One that really stuck with me was this:

“She always pushed me to work harder and never made me feel guilty for not finishing something.”

I was surprised — I never made him feel guilty?

This kid had missed a few deadlines here and there, and guilt is definitely one of the tools we teachers use to get students to finish their work. Guilt-inducing words pop out even when we don’t intend them, words like “everyone is counting on you” and “I want to help you, but you need to help yourself.”

I was thinking about this today, as I looked over the first set of assignments due in my classes and noted the students who hadn’t turned them in. Now they each have a “0” in the grade book — and I have to figure out why and what to do about it.

In the earlier days of my career, we didn’t worry much about this. If a student chose not to do work or be successful or even pass a class, that was their choice — and their consequence.

Now, though, the onus is literally “on us.” And while I have mixed feelings about this shift of responsibility in the “accountability” era — especially the way it delays the day of reckoning for many aspiring college students — I do think greater empathy and support are both good goals.

The old assumption that high school students “chose” not to do work was often a flawed one. While some students go home to a quiet house, space to work and few responsibilities, others live in constant upheaval — moving from place to place, caring for siblings, working to help pay living expenses, scrambling to find any usable technology.

Even in relatively stable households, adolescents wrestle with mental health issues, bullying, overzealous parenting and sleep deprivation.

So when students miss assignments, turn in poorly written papers, or fail to perform on tests, it may not be a “choice” at all. But if we’re going to be more empathetic and supportive, at the same time we’re holding students to high standards, what exactly should we do when they slip?

What is the right amount of pressure to apply, and how should we apply it?

If we’re too hands off, students might think we don’t care. If we press too much, we will only cause anxiety. How do we do what my student described: Push them to work hard without guilting them into it? 

Today, my solution was to send gently worded emails to all of the students who had missed an assignment, to let them know I noticed and cared without beating them down. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “How can I help?”

For some, the alert was enough. They’d miss the work inadvertently and are already on top of it. For others, I’ll have to wait and see.