Maintaining Motivation Throughout the Year


By ​Alejandra Londono, Online Teacher

Beginning a new school year is always exciting; everything is so new! From new teachers to new friends to meet, there is no shortage of excitement, but when the exciting “new-ness” of the school year starts to fade and we settle into routine, we often see student engagement fade along with it. The big question I’ve been trying to tackle since teaching in the classroom and transitioning to virtual-only teaching is: how do you keep students motivated and engaged in learning beyond the first month of school?

The big question is… how do you keep students motivated beyond the first month of school?

Focus on Friendships

I know it may seem unusual to position your relationship with your students as a ‘friendship,’ but that’s how I like to look at the teacher-student relationship first. While this friendship differs from one they’d have with a peer, it provides the opportunity to be a safe, welcoming adult who they can trust and confide in.

Cultivating those friendships is easier than it may seem. Keep it simple by asking seemingly straightforward personal questions that help break down any nerves or anxiety students may have, such as:

  • What’s your favorite color?
  • What’s your favorite game?
  • Which animal do you like best?

Keep track of their answers so you can weave them into your day-to-day by doing things like giving students a sticker with their favorite animal on it when they’ve made progress, using their favorite color in an art project, or incorporating their favorite game into a lesson. Continue to engage them in one-on-one or small-group conversations as the year goes on to dig deeper into their interests and strengthen that relationship.

Everyone has their bad days, but we’re more inclined to give our best when we’re working with people who we know truly care. While you can’t force a student to be motivated, you can bring a positive, supportive outlook to learning and encourage academic curiosity.

While you can’t force a student to be motivated, you can bring a positive, supportive outlook to learning and encourage academic curiosity.

Incorporate Student Interests

All of the personal tidbits you learn from your students can (and should!) be incorporated into the work you do together. When students see something they love tied to a lesson, it’s so much easier for them to get excited about learning and removes any barrier to engagement while creating a positive association with the lesson.

You don’t need to build an entire unit around a student’s favorite hobby (though I bet they would love that!); keep it simple. For example, I had a student who was obsessed with dinosaurs (maybe not a huge surprise… who isn’t fascinated with dinosaurs?) so I would include dinosaur images, fun facts, and dinosaur-related games into a unit we were working on. This particular student was struggling to learn his letters, and as soon as I incorporated dinosaurs into his activities, both his academic gains and level of engagement increased. I don’t think he knew he was more engaged, but he became noticeably more receptive to what we were covering. Incorporating student interests is like a gate-opener to engagement and motivation; it makes it easier for students to advance in their learning given that they know the foundations through their interests.

Incorporating student interests is like a gate-opener to engagement and motivation.

Give Students Choice

I love to give students choices throughout their day, especially for my older students who’ve become more accustomed to classroom rules and norms. Doing so gives students some ownership over their school day and helps instill the understanding that they’re in control of their learning and can choose activities that help them engage best with their studies. These choices allow them to pick how they practice what we just covered (like an auditory, visual, kinesthetic activity), whether they practice independently or in small-group work (and sometimes I let them form their own small groups), or simply choose the book they want to read for reading practice.

This is actually one of the reasons why I love using Raz-Kids from Learning A-Z, as the number of books students have access to ensures that each of them will find a book that will align with their interests and keep them engaged. Between having all reading levels represented in the system, a wide variety of topics (fiction, non-fiction, decodables, graphic books, and more), and the quizzes and activities that go along with each, there's a plethora of content that entices every one of my students to read.

Take Pride in Student Work

Students love to share their work with their teachers, families, peers, and even other teachers – especially throughout the school year so they can show off how much progress they’ve made. Give students moments to be proud of their work and let them see how proud you are of them too. If you’re an in-person teacher, take advantage of class bulletin boards and the wall space outside your doorway to celebrate artwork and special activities.

Give students moments to be proud of their work and let them see how proud you are of them too.

When teaching in a virtual environment, I like to give each student a special spotlight to share their work by “pinning” the featured student on Zoom and give them a few moments to talk about their work to the class. This helps them develop public speaking skills and lets them showcase the progress they’re making. I also host a directive drawing elective with some older students where we choose an animal of the week and learn all about that animal through different books and activities. At the end of the lesson, we draw a picture of the animal together using an I Do, We Do, You Do approach. This process involves me showing them how to draw the animal in a basic line drawing, drawing it together, and then giving students independent time to add color, backgrounds, and embellishments. Students love to see how they all started with the same basic drawing and end up having vastly different pieces.

Lastly, whether you’re in a virtual classroom or in-person, creating portfolios to send home to families is a must. It gives families a chance to show pride in their students, keeps them informed of what is happening in class, and helps solidify your relationship with them. I like to send home portfolios monthly to let families know how their student is performing, make them aware of upcoming goals we’ll be working toward, and share everything their child has accomplished that month.

Keep Yourself Motivated

The school year is so focused on your students’ experience, engagement, motivation, and learning gains, but we can’t forget a crucial part to classroom success: your experience. Keeping yourself engaged and motivated is just as important so that you’re able to bring your most curious, ready-to-learn self to class each day.

Try Something New

If you feel like you’re just going through the motions of the day, it’s time to shake up your lessons and try something new. If you’re bored with it, there’s a good chance that students are too. Don’t forget the importance of trying something new, like a new product, a new activity, or a new routine to see how it works. It might not land perfectly for your class, but you’ll get to flex new muscles (or muscles you haven’t used in a while) and teach your students how important it is to keep trying new things and learning, even when you’re an adult. And when things don’t work out quite like you expect… highlight that for your students as part of the learning process.

When things don’t work out quite like you expect… highlight that for your students as part of the learning process.

Share Your Work

Did something go really well in class? Did you incorporate a pop-culture fad in a way that really moved the engagement needle with students? Did you pair a book with a lesson and it made a-ha moments spark across the room? Share it with fellow teachers! Be proud of your work, and share the success stories to make their classroom lives easier and more joyful. It doesn’t have to be in-depth; a quick email or popping by your neighbor’s desk at the end of the day will do the trick. You’ll make their lives easier, and there’s a good chance they’ll share their best ideas with you in the future too. Win-win!

Say Thank You (Especially to Yourself)

Teacher Appreciation Week is wonderful, but it only comes once a year. Getting and giving appreciation in smaller, more regular doses throughout the year makes a big difference. Whenever I remind a student to say ‘thank you,’ it’s also a good reminder to myself to thank a colleague for sharing advice, an administrator for helping me problem-solve, my students for making the day great, and, most importantly, to myself for what I was able to accomplish - on smooth and challenging days. Showing those small, daily gratitudes gives everyone a boost and tells people that their (sometimes invisible) work is noticed and appreciated.

I think about the teachers I had growing up and the impact they’ve had on the life I now lead. It’s hard to imagine where I’d be without the curiosity, growth mindset, and motivation they instilled in me. It’s that type of impact I hope to make on my students to help them become future scientists, journalists, inventors, and even teachers who will continue to shape our world. I look forward to remaining friends with students far beyond our time together in the classroom, and one day possibly saying, “Oh, so-and-so? I taught them through their love of dinosaurs… and now they’re a paleontologist!”

Inspire Your Students With Learning A-Z

Interested in Learning A-Z resources that fellow teachers use to increase student motivation and inspire curiosity in the classroom? Visit our Inspire Curiosity in All Students page!

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