How do you Motivate a Teacher?

Harallaby, Clausewitz, and Aeneas

Harallaby, Clausewitz, and Aeneas

How do you motivate educators?  Boy that’s a good question!  Spoiler Alert…my Big Walnut University students did a remarkable job of motivating me this semester. Read on to learn how.

Many are convinced that all we need to do to motivate, or to in some cases frighten, teachers is to make schools function like the private sector: 

  • Make teachers compete
  • Institute merit pay
  • Plaster teacher performance records everywhere, like on the post office bulletin board next to wanted criminals.


Believe me…I get it!  Motivating teachers IS important.   Dana Goldstein recently authored a fascinating article in Slate about the benefits and limitations of merit pay.   The track record of merit pay has been mixed.  The take home…so far at least: merit pay has worked well only in certain situations.  In those situations where it’s worked, it’s been expensive, and limited in its appeal.

Always remember, education is a non-profit endeavor.  Teachers don’t teach to become rich…they teach to make others rich!  Competition doesn’t always bring out the best in us.  Don’t believe me?  Check out parent behavior at your next local youth sporting event.

In the midst of my first year of teaching at Mt. Vernon High School, I made a great friend.  John Frye was a Physical Science instructor.   He had five years experience, so he was my unofficial mentor.  But he was an unorthodox mentor by any measure.  We coached middle school football together, and being young bachelors, we hung out a lot.  Spending time with him was fascinating.  He had worked on an oilrig, lived out west, and almost any topic brought up, he had read about, and offered intriguing paradigms.  He was one of those guys that constantly surprised you.  If a tourist from Egypt appeared and asked directions, he might break them out in fluent Arabic, a skill you had no idea he possessed.  He was that kind of guy.

One night, we were discussing Life the Universe and Everything and he said the following: “Jimmy, in this job we’re like rats in a cage.  The bell rings and we run to this room.  Then, we do our little act for fifty minutes.  Then, the bell rings again and we run to the next class and do the same.  In the middle of our day, we wolf down our lunch, and then hustle through the afternoon.  We do the same, day after day, year after year.”

Whoa!  This wasn’t uplifting.  I asked him why he remained in teaching.  He was adamant, “It’s a great job and I’ve tried others.”

He claimed the routine nature of the job was his primary struggle and the majority of the work he really enjoyed.

He stared me down and said, “Hey, am I not allowed to bitch just a little?”

Enough said!



I’ve thought about his statement a lot.  I’m acquainted with many guidance counselors and administrators, and to a person, they claim the prospect of going back to the routine nature of the classroom has zero appeal.  They all miss the relationships with the students, but not the confinement of “that bell schedule”.  I’m very close to one former teacher who went into guidance, and then administration.  She definitely echoes this sentiment.  Oh by the way…it’s my roommate Penny Sturtevant.

While the routine nature of education isn’t a huge turnoff, I’ve had moments, when I felt claustrophobic.  Teaching is obviously not assembly line work, but sometimes it feels that way.

And yet, millions of my comrades around the country and I take on each year determined and enthusiastic.  Yes…there are some lazy teachers, but they’re a small minority.  Other staff members consider them pathetic.  And, does anyone really believe the private sector is slackerless?  Educators take great pride in what we do and our work is important.

But it would be easy to slack!   Regardless of educator commitment to the cause, the profession does lead to restlessness.  There’re just so few avenues for professional growth.  There’s administration and that is about it!  To become an administrator you have to commit time, money, and effort to get certified.  You can’t just be promoted based on your performance.  And to many, administration is unappealing.

For all the talk about teachers being professionals, the job doesn’t always make you feel like one.  We often feel like we never graduated from high school.  We do our school shopping in August, we can’t wait for Christmas and summer vacations, we do cartwheels when we get a snow day, and we interact constantly with young people.  Aside from lunch or brief conversations with colleagues in the hall between classes, our entire day is filled with interactions with individuals up to thirty years our junior.  They certainly keep us young.  We know their slang, their shows, their music, and their fashions.

Obviously, there are worse afflictions than being made to feel youthful.  But such feelings can run counter to professionalism.  Sometimes we seem more like camp counselors than adult professionals.  A colleague once remarked that he was out in the “real world” and saw a thirty-year-old stockbroker in a suit and thought, “Check out that old dude!”

Okay…so it’s time to answer the question about my gift from my students.  The Big Walnut University Class of 2013 did give me something remarkable.  THEY CHALLENGED ME!  They certainly didn’t give me a salary bonus.  They demanded instead, by their very existence, that I accept the responsibility of educating them.  They inspired me to evaluate everything I did as a teacher.  Thanks to hours of preparation and planning, and MY constant evaluation of curriculum and tactics, I’m a far better teacher today than I was JUST ONE YEAR AGO!

It’s beneficial to realize if you struggle with this profession, you’re not alone.  Given the nature of working in public education, feelings of restlessness are totally understandable.  It’s important to recognize and accept those feelings, understand they are natural, and search for some personal and professional growth outlets.  It’s not an easy search, but be patient.  If you’re as creative with your search as you are with your lesson plans, you may be amazed at your result.  One day, I woke up and found myself writing a book.

Teaching dual enrollment World history at Big Walnut University has revitalized me.  This year is my 29th in teaching…I’m excited about year 30!   Finding creative ways to help students grow is an educator’s best motivator.  When schools are caring nurturing atmospheres where there are ample opportunities for teachers, they’ll search high and low for ways to motivate themselves.  There’ll still be a few slackers, but they’ll be marginalized by colleagues.


For Teachers:

  • Explore teaching new classes
  • Commit to new tactics
  • Team teach a class with a colleague
  • Incorporate your personal interests into your lessons
  • Commit to connecting with your students

For Administrators:

  • Treat your staff like professionals
  • Choose teaching candidates wisely
  • Create a nurturing atmosphere
  • Encourage your teachers to grow
  • Commit to connect with your staff
  • Celebrate success
  • Build confidence in your teachers

Here’s my book “You’ve Gotta Connect”

ugc cover

I’ve Learned a Thing or Two About Socratic Circles

pan copy

Last spring, I agreed to take on the responsibility of teaching Dual Enrollment World history.  Last summer, I prompted my curriculum director, Laura Wood, to expose me to novel approaches to instruction.  She responded…BIG TIME.  The concept she promoted that intrigued me the most, was the Socratic circle.

I’ve proctored 5 SCs (Socratic Circles) this semester.  Each has been markedly better than its predecessor.

In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned.  I’ll divide my report into logistics (which includes physical and strategic elements to a successful SC), and content (which includes what is discussed and how it should be prompted).


Logistics are darned important.  These tactics have evolved through trial and error:

  • Divide the SC into 2 groups.  The outer circle sits on the outside and silently evaluates the performance of the inner circle.  After the inner circle has concluded their portion, the outer circle offers feedback.  Then, the roles are switched.
  • Push the desks close to form a tight circle.  This will create an intimate setting.  The outer circle can sit on the desks and lord over their subjects.
  • Give each circle about 10 minutes to pontificate.  If the convo is rolling, by all means let it go a little longer.  But make sure to give the other circle a chance to move inward.
  • Make certain each circle has some extroverts.  I’ve read sources that encourage limiting the amount of airtime extroverts can monopolize.  I’m not buying!  The introverts can be coaxed into participating…stepping up their game.  SCs are all about communal understanding.  Challenge ALL your students to create some questions about your topic.  Asking a question is a non-threatening way to get an introvert yakking.
  • Invite visitors!  Please do this!  How about administrators, board members, parents, colleagues?  Outsiders add a lot of energy to the SC.  Your students will put on a show!
  • Create an ENTRANCE TICKET.  Have the students demonstrate they’re prepared for the SC.  It could be highlighting the text with notes in the margins.  It could be answering some open-ended prompts from you.  Or, it could be crafting some questions they’ll ask during the SC.  If students don’t prepare properly, they’re still allowed to participate, but they certainly don’t get full credit.
  • Create an EXIT TICKET.  This is a great assessment tool.  Refer to the image at the beginning of this post.  The “Inner Jims” are enthusiastically dishin’!  The “Outer Jims” are quiet, observing, writing, and evaluating.  Students will turn this in at the end of the SC.  This will help you evaluate who got it!
  • Just remember…when it comes to the teacher’s role in SCs…SILENCE IS GOLDEN!  You’re going to have to learn to ZIP IT!  This is student lead learning…so just be cool!  They listen to you all the time.  Now it’s their turn.  There may be some awkward silences.  You may have to briefly redirect the discussion.  But otherwise, take a Zen-like posture, and allow things to evolve.



Complete the inventory below to create a successful SC:

Step 1:  It’s essential you focus on a compelling topic.  And you must think of this from the student’s perspective.  I think America’s decision to abandon the gold standard in 1933 is fascinating…but will my students?

Step 2: There’re many types of learners.  When you assign the material for SC prep, include diversity!   You can always include text, but add a podcast, or a Ted Talk…or both.

Step 3: Create amazing prompts.  These are what inspires and guides the SC.  My friend and boss Allison Fagan encouraged me to include dilemma type questions.  These questions cause students to ponder while fostering deep curiosity.  I also like to include some application prompts.  In other words…ask the student to apply the topic to their lives.  THAT GETS THEM TALKING!

I read this book on SCs last summer.  It was very helpful to me.


Below, I included my handout for the SC we did last week.  It’s yours to steal, refine or discard and go back to the drawing board.  Finally, have some fun with SCs.  There’s great potential in this activity!

Socratic Inner Circle Evaluation

Name a person who exercised leadership.

Name a specific person who did the above criteria well.

What was the most interesting question to surface?

What was the most interesting idea to surface?

What could this group do to improve its performance?

Socratic Circle Self Evaluation

Did I??? Yes No Comments Score 1-10
Adequately Prepare?
Participate in the Socratic Circle?
Cite the preparation material?
Make real life associations?
Exercise good citizenship?  





Total: 50/_______

I you’d like to learn more about connecting with students, check out my book “You’ve Gotta Connect” 

Buddhist Mandala

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a terrific way to bond with students, is have them create. As your kids engage in the artistic process, you can cruise around the room and socialize. Ask them anything, it doesn’t have to be about the assignment.  I find young people are quite open when they drop their inhibitions and pick up a pen, a pencil, or a crayon.

Last week at Big Walnut University, we crafted Buddhist mandalas.  Mandala means circular container of essence in Sanskrit.  Buddhist monks collectively create these amazing, spiritual circles of brightly colored sand.  After they have completed their work, they quickly destroy their spectacular creation demonstrating the concept of impermanence.

Here is a short video on how its done:

I made a circular collage out of the mandalas my students submittedmandala 3

This young lady’s mandala is spectacular

photo (93)


If anyone would like to know how we constructed these, shoot me an email.  I can attach instructions in a reply.

Try Not to Take Yourself too Seriously

Sure, educating the youths of America is important.  But sometimes, a little levity can lead to deep understanding.

In WWI, defensive positions protected by machine guns were extremely difficult to overcome.  Often times, precious lives were wasted in insane attempts to charge enemy trenches.  This stalemate was a product of stubbornness, and lack of creativity.

WWI is a somber topic.  Oddly, a ridiculous demonstration, in which I act like a 6-year-old playing war, has helped my students understand the futility of this horrible conflict.

No Man's Land

No Man’s Land

Aside from deep understanding displayed on assessments, I’ve had students, many years removed from my class, remind me about how much they enjoyed this silly demonstration. Mission accomplished!!

So, let your hair down…just a little (which is impossible for me).  In the process, you and your students could build a memory which will last a lifetime.