Respect is Mutual-My Experience Motivating “At-Risk” Youth

My first formal teaching job was for an alternative high school that catered to “at-risk” youth. Although this job was incredibly difficult, it taught me how to motivate students who downright hated school. Although it took time, effort, research, and patience, I feel that I transformed the majority of my students’ attitudes towards their education. Techniques that were successful for motivating my students were: a curriculum based on student interest, positive feedback, high expectations, and reassuring my students that they were valuable to our society. Through proper and consistent motivational techniques it is possible to motivate students who have little interest in school.

When I first arrived to this school my students refused to read or write….anything. In fact, the majority of these high schoolers had never written one single essay! As for reading I was promptly told to *&$@% off for mentioning books on the first day of school. Immediately I knew that the curriculum I had spent all summer developing was useless. My first change was to create a curriculum based entirely on student interest. My students loved farming, they wanted to know how to get jobs, they related to stories of struggle. I provided students with extra credit choice essays. If they completed a rough and final draft of an essay of their choice they would be in the running for a foot long sub at the end of the week. I recognize that this was a very extrinsically motivated task, but I needed to start somewhere. As Psychologist Karin Kirk explains in her article “Motivating Students,” extrinsic motivation is the desire to perform a task based on a specific outcome (Kirk, 1). For some students this extrinsic motivation can come from grades, for my students, it was a foot-long sub. This simple contest got my students writing.

Once my students began writing I provided them with loads of positive feedback. Anything positive they did, I made sure I acknowledged. My students were used to hearing so many negative remarks that these positive remarks were refreshing. Soon, students were not only writing for a foot long sub, they were also writing because of the positive feedback. Another reason why this essay contest was successful was because I had high expectations for the students. I feel that too often, teachers of high risk youth “dumb-down” the material, or let students slide in a sense. This is the exact opposite of what these students want and need. At risk youth need high expectations! Clarification: all learners need high expectations. The essays they had to write had clear and concise guidelines that could not be waivered. They had to be at least four paragraphs, they had to use a graphic organizer, they had to write at least two drafts, they had to go over their essays with me, etc. My students appreciated these expectations because they made them feel valuable and worthy. I did not “dumb down” an assignment I knew that they could accomplish. This earned me respect. Additionally, these high expectations confirmed to my students that they did not need an easier curriculum and were in fact essential to our society.

Additionally, these essays were all based on student interest. All state standards were still addressed, but the students could choose their own topic for a persuasive essay or reflection. Over time, these writing assignments changed from extrinsically motivated assignments to intrinsically motivated assignments. Psychologist Kirk, further explains that intrinsic motivation comes from the desire to “inherent interests, for self-fulfillment, enjoyment and to achieve a mastery of the subject” (Kirk, 1). Gradually, my students were writing because they saw it as an outlet for emotion, and a way to express their own interests. The foot long sub and higher grades had become merely add on bonuses.

This essay contest is just one example of many breakthroughs that my students showed me. They proved that by incorporating student interest, positive feedback, and high expectations students can actually acquire intrinsic motivation and be successful. Just like teachers, students want to be respected. Tell them when they do something right, tell them that they are worthy, tell them that can be a contributing member of society. Don’t always comment on the negatives, and don’t decrease expectations. If there are three words I could offer teachers who need to motivate at risk youth they would be: “Respect is mutual.”