Thursday, April 1, 2021

Motivated by trophies in the trash

During my first day on my school campus in more than a year, I saw an oddly memorable image in a dumpster. Two enormous trophies stuck out amid debris.

In a split second, thoughts rushed through my head:

"Should I grab those trophies?"

"How could trophies be thrown away?

"Eh, what good are trophies? I'm looking at garbage here."

I craned my neck and saw the trophies were from 1999. They were relics from a former century. I guess all trophies end up in a dumpster eventually and when we think they're overly important, maybe we're clinging to the past — kind of like the guy at the bar who played high school football and still talks about it.

As my school is on the cusp of returning to in-person "simultaneous hybrid" with 20 percent of students agreeing to come back two days a week and teachers in-person four days a week, I am thinking about motivation. Strangely, the trophies in the trash reaffirmed my motivation, and I feel ready for this "simultaneous hybrid," even though it's ridiculously flawed and silly.

To me, the biggest pitfall of motivation is overthinking. Nike, my generation's Mark Twain, says, "Just do it." I couldn't agree more. You're never going to be talented enough, find the absolute perfect time, have everything aligned to create or accomplish anything. Just do it. Start. That's the key.

I saw motivation for some students and teachers wane during this online only time. I heard some teachers talking as if it were normal to lose motivation and not a problem. While I must say what teachers have been asked to do is exceptionally difficult during a difficult time, I feel badly that some lost sight of their reason for being educators. I wonder if they ever had a meaningful reason in the first place.

I surmise that the teachers who lost, or are losing, motivation fall into one of two categories. No. 1 — They are perpetual excuse makers, swirl in negativity and assume that's what life is. I feel we should be sensitive to potential personal tragedies that they may have faced, but some may not have the agency to get out of their funk.

Category No. 2 has teachers who foolishly and mistakenly entered the profession for comfortability, tradition or to relive their high school days — like the guy at the bar who still talks about his high school football days. Presumably, those teachers' daily activities are an homage to yesteryear, and they just can't adapt to a new teaching format. I would imagine students dread going to these teachers' classes.

I have respect and empathy for teachers in either of those categories. But what can we do for them? It's easier to help a student than a teacher. I guess the key for helping both is to offer ideas, or tools, that encourage them to help themselves.

In my eyes, students had it much harder during this online only time. They had to weather the classes of teachers, who could be stifling, and they might have difficult parents, who could be stifling. Plus, they might find themselves in unwinnable situations: "You got a zero on this assignment for not turning it in. Therefore, you will fail the class no matter what!"

For students who use grades for motivation, I suppose they might be doing OK — on paper. However, I fear for them, if grades are their sole motivation. What happens when grades go away? What happens when there are no more trophies? If grades are the motivation, then isn't it the student's job to do as little work as possible in order to achieve the highest grade?

I think I have developed a deeper understanding of how flawed grading is. What does a good grade mean in the first place? I find good grades mostly to be about following rules. Is that what education is meant to be?

Do grades matter in the workplace? Do grades perpetuate selfish individualism instead of societal connection or collaboration? Is there a virtual dumpster we can throw out grades from 1999?

I've always thought our schools have needed extreme makeovers. Maybe the first step is for teachers to stop it with worksheets, unfair grading scales, too much work, too little learning and just accept "simultaneous hybrid" during the pandemic. True improvement in schools will only happen because of thoughtful, caring, motivated teachers.