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Motivating Students and Teachers in an Era of Standards

by Richard Sagor

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Identifying Our Basic Psychological Needs

Why do some students come to class motivated and ready to learn, while others seem completely uninterested? Why do some teachers count the days until retirement immediately after receiving tenure, and others are more energized in their 30th year of teaching than they were when they began? Are students and teachers capable of being excited by their involvement in education? Is it inevitable that the pursuit of standards will discourage and frustrate more teachers and students? If so, should society begin to brace itself for a greater number of dropouts and early retirements?

This chapter will respond to these questions and present a rationale for optimism. I firmly believe that every student and teacher can come to school each day and enter the classroom excited about the challenges ahead. I believe that educators can create environments where adults and youth arrive motivated to give their best effort. Furthermore, the result of the standards movement—for better or worse—is in the hands of everyone engaged in the education profession.

In many places, a focus on standards has already led, when managed one way, to increased student alienation and inflated dropout rates. Sadly, where this occurs, it disproportionately affects the more disadvantaged students—the very children who have the most to lose. But, when handled another way, the pursuit of tough and meaningful standards supplies just the tonic needed by all students, including those most at risk. Implemented purposefully and deliberately, standards can make the educational experience rewarding and exciting for every student.

The same possibilities hold true for teachers. Implementing standards-based reforms in one manner can result in reduced opportunities for teacher creativity, personal and professional growth, and the likelihood of gaining satisfaction from one's work. Such reforms can lead, and in some places already have led, to disastrous consequences. Often the people first to flee work that has lost its allure are the best and brightest—those who have the most options elsewhere. Worse, with the retirement of the baby boomers and an ever-increasing teacher shortage, those students in greatest need of inspired and excellent teaching—children in low-income communities—are being hurt the most. Yet, the greatest long-term impact of a demoralized profession is that teaching will become an even less attractive career option for the next generation of talented young people.

But the results of standards-based reforms need not be negative ones. Implemented in a different fashion, standards-based reform could be precisely what is needed to restructure teaching. Standards can bring teaching more in line with the other professions—those professions that consistently attract more talented applicants than the available positions can accommodate.

In this chapter, I will share why I am so optimistic. Then, in the following chapters, I will explore a series of specific strategies that you can implement to make high-powered education a positive experience for all your students, and the act of teaching a source of personal and professional satisfaction for yourself and your colleagues.

What Is Motivation?

What explains the polar opposites we see at school? Some kids are excited about learning, whereas others hate every minute of it. Some faculty members are energized and challenged by working with each new group of students, whereas others dread simply coming to work every day. Is this evidence of special virtues or fatal flaws? Has some sort of trauma made it impossible for some people to derive satisfaction from work in schools? Experience and research indicate that differences in motivation have less to do with individual personalities than with the way in which students and teachers experience the school environment.

What Does It Take to Motivate?

William Glasser (1998a, 1998b) did an excellent job of synthesizing the research on adult and youth motivation and reducing it to an easily understood metaphor. Glasser asserted that humans are born with a photo album in our psyche where we store life experiences. We keep those events that provoke feelings of pleasure in a particular section of this photo album, which Glasser labels a “quality world.” Some of the early pictures in our photo albums remind us of the nurturing and unconditional love we received as infants. Later, Glasser asserted, as our lives unfold, we continue to seek opportunities to relive the type of events and experiences that appear in our quality world part of the album. Glasser broke down volumes of research on motivation into a finite set of feelings and needs that, he argued, are coveted by all humans. He said that whenever a particular experience satisfies at least one basic need, it is emotionally fulfilling and worthy of addition to the quality world photo album.

According to Glasser, the basic human needs are survival, freedom, power, fun, and belonging. I use different terms, but conceptually and functionally, the theory of motivation upon which this book is built is consistent with Glasser's theory. After reviewing the literature on human motivation, I found a way to summarize what innately motivates both youth and adults. To be motivated, people need to feel satisfied in the areas of

  • Competence,
  • Belonging,
  • Usefulness,
  • Potency, and
  • Optimism.
So the question I posed earlier, Why are some people motivated by school and others are not?, can be answered with a simple response: If being a student or being a teacher provides a person with regular doses of feelings of competence, belonging, usefulness, and potency (CBUPs), then the person's quality world will fill up with images of those needs being satisfied at school. As a result, these students and teachers will look to school with optimism. They intuitively know that if they have always received CBUPs at school, then, in all likelihood, they will again. Once we add optimism (O) to the equation, we can summarize the phenomenon as follows:
Motivated students or teachers are those who have received and anticipate receiving regular doses of CBUPOs from their experience at school.

The CBUPO Theory

The CBUPO theory explains why certain students and teachers are motivated: They receive regular doses of CBUPOs. It also provides a straightforward explanation of what needs to be done to motivate everyone else. When the school experience becomes CBUPO rich for those who now appear chronically unmotivated, their orientation to school will change. Unfortunately, just because a solution is simple to articulate (i.e., providing CBUPOs for all), that doesn't make it easy to achieve.

The Basic Need to Feel Competent

Our need to feel competent is satisfied when we have credible reason to believe that we are good at something. Furthermore, if the thing that we are proficient at is something valued by others, it becomes even more satisfying. Finally, if we believe that the things we are competent at are difficult and that our skills were developed through dedication and diligence, our sense of competence gets a greater boost.

The Student's Need for Feelings of Competence

The most motivated students are those whose participation at school has been accompanied by credible feedback on their skillfulness. Consequently, these students have internalized the direct relationship among perseverance, hard work, and success. The returns they receive on their investment of energy inevitably produce high self-esteem. This is the process that explains the truth in the saying “success breeds success.”

For other students, those whose academic history has been filled with repeated evidence of shortcomings, the constant experience of failure has contributed to a belief that education as an endeavor simply makes one feel incompetent. Needless to say, incompetence is an emotional state most people choose to avoid.

For this reason, the challenge of motivating alienated students begins with a focus on finding authentic ways to increase opportunities for them to feel competent in the classroom. By giving students ways to feel competent, it becomes much more likely that they will learn what is necessary to be successful. In this way, students are able to experience the satisfaction of feeling competent.

Several practices have potential for making the experience of competency likely for all students. Teachers who use these practices systemically and deliberately are able to see once-alienated students develop enhanced feelings of personal competence. Strategies that produce competence include

  • Student management of a portfolio of personal bests,
  • Student monitoring of personal progress,
  • Student involvement in the assessment of work, and
  • Student demonstrations of proficiency on mandated standards.
Specific ways to implement these strategies will be discussed in depth in Chapter 2.

The Teacher's Need for Feelings of Competence

The circumstances that influence a student's feelings of competence are no different for the classroom teacher. Anyone who receives positive feedback on her work tends to see that work as a satisfying experience. It's not surprising that most coaches exhibit a high level of motivation. Why is it that they are so motivated to teach athletics to their students? A big part of their motivation comes from the performance of the athletes in competition and at practice. An athlete's performance provides the coach with concrete and irrefutable evidence of her teaching success. The coach knows that the athlete can now do something that he could not have done before. The only explanation for this growth in student skill is what the coach taught him and facilitated during practice, which is the coach's classroom.

Teachers of other subjects, those where students regularly produce products or present concrete performances demonstrating the value added by their teachers, often experience the type of motivation felt by a coach. For this reason, many teachers in the areas of music, art, drama, journalism, and vocational education are among the most motivated members of a school's faculty. These fortunate teachers receive daily feedback on their success in the practice of their chosen profession. Unfortunately, daily feedback is not a universal experience. Many teachers toil for what seems like endless hours, trying to stimulate student learning, yet on most days they leave school wondering, “Am I truly making any difference?”

Few teachers invest much faith in student scores on norm-referenced tests. Fewer believe that the written evaluations prepared by supervisors after two brief classroom observations provide a complete or credible report of their work. Consequently, many teachers work in a feedback vacuum. Not only do they receive little credible data on their success, but they hear on the news that they, collectively, have failed their students. The teachers who work in high-poverty schools have it even worse. For them, most often the school year ends with a report from the state or district telling them that their students—and by extension, they themselves—are low performing. This is hardly the stuff that builds feelings of competence.

To be truly motivated, all teachers must be given regular opportunities to validate the positive effects that their work is having on their students' lives. Having such opportunities ends the chronic need to ask whether teachers are truly making a difference, because the answer becomes evident and irrefutable for all who care to look. Teachers may receive validation by

  • Altering the paradigm used for assessing student work, and
  • Transforming the role of teacher from overseer to academic coach.
Chapter 2 explores strategies for incorporating these paradigms into the classroom.

The Basic Need to Feel Belonging

The feeling of belonging has two elements: comfort and acceptance. We are more inclined to experience belonging in environments where we feel comfortable. Feeling comfortable is analogous to how you feel when you are dressed in clothes that are becoming, fit well, and are suitable for the occasion. If you are dressed in clothes that don't fit or aren't appropriate, you will feel uncomfortable and wish you were anyplace else.

Feelings of acceptance result from our relationships with others. When people find themselves in a place that suits their sense of self and they are engaged with people they like and who enjoy being with them, they experience belonging. Conversely, when people are in an environment that appears strange and foreign, it reinforces their sense of being an outsider.

The Student's Need for Feelings of Belonging

Schools have been successful at providing some students with feelings of affiliation and belonging. There is good reason why motivated students use the possessive pronoun when they talk about my school, my class, or my team. It should be no surprise that students who feel comfortable and accepted at school tend to be those who are motivated to invest in their work and prosper academically. Unfortunately, a great many other students feel rejected by their classmates or experience other factors that cause them to feel out of place. Is it any wonder that these are the students who demonstrate the least commitment to the expectations of the school, their teachers, and the curricula?

Why do these differences persist? Often the classroom and school reward system—intentionally or unintentionally—favors certain students over others. One thing all students share is the belief that their school has a social hierarchy. They know the popular kids are on top, whereas others, those less highly regarded, are condemned to the bottom. When students suspect that they have been assigned to the latter group, it's no surprise that they tend to dislike going to school.

No one may be at fault. Teachers do not intend to make students feel alienated. Nevertheless, the consequences of certain unconscious teaching behaviors, when engaged in over and over, can do just that. For example, if the style of instruction employed by a teacher consistently conflicts with the cognitive strength or learning style of the student, it is unlikely the student will feel comfortable in class. Similarly, when students' families are culturally different from the mainstream (e.g., non-English proficient or from a minority culture), the students might not find aspects of their home culture at school. From the exclusion of familiar cultural practices, the students logically conclude their home culture isn't valued. Thus it is natural for a student in this situation to internalize the view that “people like me” are not accepted and consequently “do not belong here.”

Teachers can have significant influence over elements of the social structure of their classrooms. Classroom governance procedures can cause students to experience their classroom as inclusive or exclusionary. The strategic use of particular instructional processes can serve to make our classrooms invitational to all the diverse learners who come through the classroom door. Making our schools and our classrooms culturally rich environments where multiculturalism is both embraced and valued helps many students to develop a deep sense of belonging.

Chapter 3 examines several strategies that can make our classrooms more inclusive and inviting for all students. The approaches that have been successful in making the school experience a source of belonging for everyone include

  • Using classroom governance to promote affiliation,
  • Making classrooms friendly to diverse learning styles, and
  • Helping students appreciate and make productive use of cultural diversity.

The Teacher's Need for Feelings of Belonging

The classroom teacher's need for belonging is often overlooked in schools. Although this does not spring from evil design, it is the unintended result of a perspective that teachers are paid to do a job and it is up to them to make their work fulfilling. In addition, school administrators occasionally and incorrectly assume that because teachers are granted considerable autonomy within the walls of their classrooms, they don't have a professional need for collegiality and community.

In environments where workers have come to feel like members of high-performing teams and regularly get to enjoy the camaraderie of their coworkers, higher levels of performance are invariably produced (Senge, 1990; Senge et al., 1999). On the other hand, when the tasks that workers have to perform are challenging and perplexing and demand continuous creative problem solving, workers feel extremely frustrated when told to go it alone. For many teachers, the combination of working in isolation while being pushed to deliver universal student success becomes so frustrating that it leads to an unhealthy degree of stress, depression, and burnout. Studies by Little (1982) and McLaughlin and Talbert (2001) documented that the continued isolation of classroom teachers in this era of accountability and high expectations is a major contributing factor in the rising rate of teacher attrition. Society cannot afford to have public schools lose talented professionals simply because hostile work environments make it untenable for them. It is imperative that teaching be restructured into a more collaborative and collegial endeavor.

In Chapter 4, I present a set of practices that break down the isolation of teachers and create a sense of faculty as team. Specifically, we will examine mechanisms that foster collaboration and collegiality. There has never been a time when this has been more important because never before have the stakes been so high. Consider these two facts:

  1. Nobody knows the complete answer to how a school can bring all students to proficiency on a set of difficult standards. I say this with confidence because I am unaware of that outcome ever being accomplished in human history—even though it is now the stated policy in most jurisdictions.
  2. It is the rare faculty where every teacher doesn't have some insight and hasn't developed some techniques that have succeeded with some students in the achievement of difficult standards.
When the insights of 30 to 50 members of a faculty are combined, the insight and innovation needed to realize universal success is far more likely to emerge. When this happens, members of the faculty can take justified pride in contributing to the group attainment of what once seemed an impossible task.

Just as we teachers can understand that group failure can breed group alienation, we should also recognize that success, when achieved as the result of teamwork, breeds profound feelings of pride.

The Basic Need to Feel Useful

Of the five basic motivational needs, feeling useful is one of the more crucial. Nothing feels as good as the knowledge that others need us and want our help. Our self-esteem gets a tremendous boost when we feel that others value our areas of strength as essential for their own success.

Conversely, when we feel that our work or skills lack value, that no one else's life would be affected much even if we ceased to exist, we are likely to internalize a sense of uselessness. When students and teachers experience school this way, they find little reason to care.

The Student's Need for Feelings of Usefulness

Schools provide many powerful opportunities for some students to feel useful. The student who plays first trumpet in band knows she will be missed if she doesn't make it to a performance. The spiker on the volleyball team knows her teammates are counting on her contribution to the team's success. The captain of the knowledge-bowl team knows that his insights are critical if the team is to prevail. And, the student body president likely thinks the success of the activity program rests completely on her shoulders. Yet, many other students don't see where or how their performance, or even their presence at school, makes much of a difference to anyone. When a student feels this way, it is logical for him to wonder why he should bother attending or working hard.

Teachers' actions and choices when deciding how to organize instruction can make the experience of usefulness a regular event for every student. The strategic use of cooperative learning can help students see their contributions to others' success. Experiencing problem-based learning and service learning helps students to gain proficiency with standards and also helps them to satisfy their basic need to feel useful.

Chapter 4 shares techniques for implementing cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and service learning in a way that ensures that all students have multiple chances to demonstrate proficiency on mandated standards while seeing the contribution their work is making to the well-being of others.

The Teacher's Need for Feelings of Usefulness

Perhaps never before has teacher self-esteem been more at risk. The media run stories about students lacking skills and schools that are failing; by inference, the story is that teachers are not meeting their obligations to the children. Vocal critics promote vouchers as a panacea because they conclude that public school teachers are incapable of meeting the challenges of educating today's youth. In many places, the annual ritual of frontpage comparisons of scores on standardized tests is taken as a measure of the skill of a school's teaching staff. Some educators respond to this barrage of attacks by going on the attack themselves. The unprofitable blame game goes on far too frequently. High school faculties blame the middle schools; the middle schools blame the elementary schools; teachers blame parents and kids. Unions blame administrators, and administrators blame collective bargaining. All this blame serves no productive purpose.

Solutions to this spiraling problem exist. One is through the development of collaborative solutions to student learning needs, which will be examined in Chapter 3 where belonging is our focus. Another approach involves making better use of valid and reliable classroom-based assessment.

In chapters 2 and 4, we explore a process that teachers can use to accurately and reliably measure the contributions they personally make toward improved student performance. This process uses rate-of-growth and value-added measures rather than a total reliance on static normative and comparative statistics. The data that are produced via value-added assessment help all stakeholders—teachers, students, parents, schoolboard members, patrons—to appreciate and understand the contribution teachers make to student success.

The Basic Need for Feelings of Potency

When the goal is motivation, none of the four basic psychological needs is more important than the need to feel potent. Glasser refers to this as the need for power. When people have valid reasons to believe that they have influence over the factors that affect their ultimate success, they are more likely to exercise that influence. Conversely, if we hold doubt about our capacity to effect the changes necessary to improve our situation, it is understandable if we see little point in trying.

The Student's Need for Feelings of Potency

Motivated, high-performing students often take credit for their success. When they do this, it is not necessarily braggadocio, nor should teachers find it problematic. Rather, teachers should see it as evidence that students recognize that their actions and choices led to their successes. The adage “If you think you can, you can, but, if you think you can't, you can't” couldn't be more appropriate for today's students.

In the current era of standards, the consequences of school failure will be a life sentence for many students. Failing to meet a standard severely limits a student's opportunities in the future. If students leave classes feeling that they have no power or influence over their ultimate success or if they conclude that failure is inevitable, they possess no justification to invest in turning things around. In some cases, the young person's feelings of impotence leads her to search for instant gratification and immediate success through behavior that requires little effort, and can prove quite self-destructive. Teachers shouldn't be surprised to find that students who possess an external locus of control (i.e., have the belief that others control their future) are those most likely to end up involved with drugs and engaged in criminal activity.

In Chapter 5, I will examine a set of proven strategies that build student feelings of personal power, or potency. Specifically, we will explore how an internal locus of control can be developed and strengthened through the deliberate and strategic use of good classroom management practices.

The Teacher's Need for Feelings of Potency

For teachers, the need for feelings of potency is closely aligned with their need for feelings of usefulness. Given the numerous social and economic factors that today's students grapple with, many teachers probably suspect that their own power and ability to influence student performance and behavior is limited. Many teachers have heard colleagues saying, “Let's be realistic. There is only so much one teacher can do!”

Although that sentiment is understandable, it breeds enormous problems. Teachers who feel that their contributions are severely limited have good reason to give their work less than a full measure of effort. More important, teachers who feel this way are devaluing their personal worth. Of course, the consequences for the students taught by such teachers are even worse. If teachers doubt that they have the power to influence improvement in student performance, the chances for student success are slim indeed.

To change this feeling of impotency requires a concerted effort to make the nuts and bolts of educational reform a local matter. When teachers see reform as something being done to them by the state or worked out at the district office, it only reinforces their sense of impotence. However, if teachers see that the reform effort (i.e., helping more students achieve success) is built on their creative and collective ability to design novel and promising approaches to perplexing educational problems, then their sense of potency will be reinforced.


Please note that the four feelings of competence, belonging, usefulness, and potency are not independent or discrete phenomena. The satisfaction of one need frequently has a positive spill-over effect that helps satisfy another. Figure 1.1 visually displays the dynamic relationship between the satisfaction of these four needs.

Figure 1.1. Satisfying Basic Needs to Build Optimism

Given the interactive relationship of the four basic human emotional needs (competence, belonging, usefulness, and potency), teachers must focus on satisfying all the needs simultaneously. The positive effects of spillover (from one emotional need to another) should be expected and appreciated.

In Chapter 6, I will look at strategies that help teachers succeed in institutionalizing optimism and encourage them to use their unique and creative problem-solving abilities. I will examine methods that schools have implemented to help faculty teams be more successful and to acknowledge and celebrate a teaching team's collective role in successfully overcoming what once seemed insurmountable obstacles.

Student's Need for Optimism

Optimism refers to the personal vision that students hold regarding their future. Intuitively, people believe the best predictor of the future is the past. This is why students who have experienced CBUPs regularly at school logically anticipate receiving CBUPs in the future. Conversely, students who have consistently left school feeling incompetent, alienated, useless, and impotent expect their future endeavors to contain more of the same.

Occasionally, even students who have received ample doses of CBUPs hold a pessimistic view of their future. As significant people in their lives, teachers can assist them in the discovery of legitimate reasons for optimism. Several ways to promote students' feelings of optimism can be found in the concluding chapter of this book.

The Teacher's Need for Optimism

It is not just students who have a need to become optimistic. Teachers also need to believe. It is reasonable for teachers to worry about what is around the bend. As education has increasingly become a political game, teachers have many reasons for insecurity. But this insecurity can be lessened if teachers, individually and as a team, consistently receive CBUPs from their work. With repeated experiences that provide teachers with credible evidence that they are good (competent), that they are part of a quality team (belong), that they have the capacity to make a critical difference in students' lives (useful), and that they have the power (potency) to overcome whatever comes up, then the uncertainties of the future will become far less fearsome.

For students and teachers to individually experience CBUPs on a regular basis is critical, but it is also important that entire schools do what they can to institutionalize optimism as part of the professional culture of the workplace. This process is addressed in Chapter 6.


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