Motivating the Unmotivated

Robert J. Samuelson recently wrote in an Op/Ed piece about higher education about those who are disconnected from it. He described it perfectly:

"School bores and bothers them. Teaching them is hard, because they're not motivated. But they also make teaching the rest harder. Their disaffection and periodic disruptions drain teachers' time and energy. The climate for learning is poisoned."

His description may sound negative, but really it isn't. He hit the nail on the head, and the only way to overcome that disconnect is:  "... to motivate the unmotivated."

These are not terrible, unwanted students. They are certainly capable of learning, even if their desire remains undiscovered, even to themselves.

How do we, as teachers, motivate the unmotivated?


First, we have to create a learning-friendly environment. We as teachers need to provide structure within the room's organization and structure within our lessons. Even if we decide to let the lesson "float to another area of learning" we still need to maintain structure in our thinking and conversation. We also need to be aware of the social/emotional environment in the room. It needs to be a positive and accepting place, where differences are embraced, and challenges are tackled, together.

It is also important for students to be able to make their own choices. In dance, this means they can pick where they would like to stand at the barre or center floor. Some days, they may be in a "front-and-center" kind of mood, completely motivated to be the center of attention. And some days, they may be in a "back-and-corner" mood, where they want to participate, but know they may be struggling with something or another. I allow my students to make these choices, because it helps them become more self-aware by listening to their bodies, their emotions and their mental state of each day.


When I have new students, I like to start off right away with sparking curiosities. First, amongst their classmates. Second, with the material. Third, within themselves as learners. To start the learning, I have my students tell an interesting fact or story about who they are. This gives the other students conversation points, and helps them connect similarities. If anything, it creates a "mental note" within them to "be sure to ask Roger what it was like to skydive!" Once I feel my students are connecting (and that means more than just acknowledging random facts. It means they must be ready to promote, support, encourage, forgive, accept, work with each other), then I know they are ready to move to phase 2 and phase 3: curiosity with the material and with themselves as life learners.

Whatever we are learning, I apply to their lives because learning is a personal, lifelong journey - your classmates are illustrations that make learning fun and reinforce ideas/worries/examples/models. A strong individual learner makes for a strong classmate. So if I strive, as the teacher, to create strong individuals, then I am also creating strong classmates for each individual.

Sparking their curiosity means teaching them to be unafraid to ask questions. And I don't mean the "There are no dumb questions" policy, because there actually are dumb questions (which usually reveal you aren't paying attention). I simply teach them to be unafraid to think of questions. I also give them many ways to get the question out of their head: They can ask, they can write it down, they can ask a classmate, they can investigate on their own. I encourage them to write it down and write down what they discover, and then... what else?

I encourage them to keep asking, keep searching; thoughts connect to other thoughts which open more doors to new discoveries. All of this encouraging happens quickly and/or slowly. Sometimes I am the prompter of questions to their thoughts, and sometimes I let them arrive to thoughts on their own timetable.

The important goal is to keep learning moving, especially for students who are easily distracted or lose motivation. Keep it going, and don't forget to place responsibility on their shoulders. Always stress that it is their education and their time to shine!


I once read a story about mentorship. A random guy at a bank, who encouraged a young, foreign student to attend school, once said, "You can kill anybody figuratively with negative reinforcement."

Many unmotivated students I see come to me from a background of negative reinforcement which has taught them learned helplessness. To bring a student out of learned helplessness takes time, patience, keen observation and huge doses of positive reinforcement.

Other unmotivated students come to me from a background of high, high expectations from parents who want it all, and want it all now. This also creates learned helplessness within a student. To bring them out of that takes helping the student figure out their own wants and expectations for themselves, and teaching them to weigh the importance of others' expectations.

Other students come to me unmotivated because it is, quite simply, how they are. They don't have the invisible stream of drive running through their veins, so they don't feel the need to strive and achieve. To bring a student to a new mentality in this case will mean the teacher must understand the students' definition of success and life. At young ages, they won't know, so you can help them shape a reality that helps them feel successful.

The important factor here is knowing how they define success and figuring out just how much success they feel they need. From there, it's about helping them through the journey of dealing with all of that. Because it will be tough, and emotional.

To prevent learned helplessness, I figure out how to "increase my expectations" incrementally with each student. This isn't always a perfect system, and sometimes I get it wrong. But mostly, I get it right (I say this only to encourage teachers not to fear their gut instinct) and I've been able to witness the differences in my students' thinking, behavior and activity.

At the beginning of the season, I ask them what they want to accomplish and why. I want them to have a goal. Sometimes, it takes them weeks to figure out what they want to accomplish, because they may or may not know what is out there to accomplish! Usually, they learn this as they go along. I ask them to write down each and every goal in a journal. Goal & Why & Date. As we progress throughout the year: New Goal & Why & Date. What happens inbetween those Goals & Whys & Dates is learning, and they have a track record of experirencing success and growth.


I want my students to be so self-aware... that learning is something they do without even realizing it. They simply desire to know things and people and places. I want them to be unafraid to sit and ponder. A clear mind leads to better decision making and for a more emotionally stable person. I teach my students things like:

"Stay on your own mat" (as you hear in yoga): Don't obsess about others' journey in learning, just be aware and be there for them.

"You can't be somewhere you aren't meant to be yet": Learning happens at different times for different people. Know this, and give people time. Don't judge, just be there in a supportive manner.

"Value your alone time, because being alone isn't lonely": I want my students to spend time thinking/reading/watching on their own. I stress the importance of this, and reiterate it to them by telling them stories of my time (a book I'm reading, a yoga class I attended, the times I sit on my porch and write).

"Always listen to yourself": Your body, your emotions, your mind, your gut. Everything. Be aware and listen.

"Surround yourself with people who challenge you": Keep looking for people who intrigue you, ask you the difficult questions, send you challenging new thoughts to ponder.

"Learning doesn't stop after school or when the sun goes down": Take it upon yourself to do little things that add up to big things.

"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time": If you're facing a huge challenge, do one thing at a time. Just one. Then one. Then another.

"Just show up": A lot of learning will occur naturally... IF you just show up, physically, mentally, emotionally. Just show up and watch what happens. I promise you'll be amazed.

Photo: Complexions Contemporary Ballet

I think the key to motivating the unmotivated is to identify the problem, and then nurture, nurture, nurture. Catch the problem before the fall. Get them inspired. Guide them as they discover what success means to them. Help them visualize a plan. Help them figure out the logistics. And then... mentor. Be supportive from near or afar. Listen. Encourage. Advise. Monitor. Give them space and time and words (when needed).

While they may always struggle with motivation problems, they will at least know that someone cared and someone was there. And that always counts for something.

Written by: Sheena Jeffers for Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins


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