What’s Your Motivation?

The key to academic success.

With the new school year almost upon us, and a wave of new teachers arriving at international schools around the city, it’s a good time of year to challenge the commonly-held belief that good teachers are responsible for children’s academic success.

There are many attributes that schools look for when hiring new teachers. And parents, quite rightly, want to know that teachers are qualified and experienced enough to teach their children, but what makes the difference between children achieving good results and achieving great results? A teacher’s qualifications? Their experience? Their enthusiasm? Or is it something else altogether? At a time when teachers are under immense pressure to deliver good results, it is a question teachers, themselves, would like to know the answer.

Looking back to my days as a student, I achieved great results with some teachers but not with others. When I think about the reasons why, it was simply because I worked hard for the teachers I liked, and not for the rest. That suggests that likeability is a big factor. For some, it might be that they work hard at the subjects they like. For others, it might be a fear of failure that motivates them to put their nose to the grindstone. Clearly then, there are many different types of motivation, some positive, some negative. A common factor, though, is that students must be motivated if they are to learn. However, not all motivation leads to enduring success.

I was an undergraduate before I realized the key to my own academic success; suddenly, it dawned on me that my success was solely dependent on how motivated I was, as a learner, to do well. Thereafter, it no longer mattered what the subject was or who my teacher was – I knew that being self-motivated was all I needed.

So what makes a teacher ‘good’? Perhaps, a good teacher is one who inspires their students to be self-motivated and instils a desire to be the best they can be.

Logically, if you juxtapose a good teacher with motivated students, you would expect those students to do well. Likewise, if you put a bad teacher with poorly motivated students, you would expect them to perform badly, but what happens if you allocate a good teacher – someone with a strong teaching history – to a class of poorly motivated students? Would they too perform well? I would argue no.

Having taught in schools at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, for me, the biggest variable in the level of academic success is the motivation of the students themselves. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Certainly, children that attend international schools are very privileged, but teachers at these schools are privileged too. My personal experience has been nothing but fantastic; I teach children who want to learn, who want to do well, so teaching them is a real joy. I am the same teacher but, at Saigon Star, achieving great results is far easier. An incredible 42 percent of our students are working at least one year ahead of national expectations. To me that comes as no surprise at all. Certainly, there are other factors involved, but far and away the biggest difference is the students’ own motivation.

Enthusiastic Group Of Young Kids In Class

Sadly, not all children are empty vessels, passively waiting to be filled. The resistance of some children can be frustrating. Others stun us with their eagerness to learn, but trying to teach someone anything is difficult unless they actually want to learn. Even as adults, we learn things far more easily if we are motivated to do so. If it feels like a chore, or we lack interest, even the best teacher in the world would struggle to teach us. Learning is hard work; it requires effort, commitment, repetition and resilience.

In any class of children, some children learn a lot and others not as much, because each child is ultimately responsible for how much he or she learns. Yes, some children are inspired by their teacher to work harder, but what happens when those children get a new teacher? Will they continue to try their best? That depends.

When a child’s motivation is to do well for their teacher, that, for me, is dangerous. A more desirable state is children who are motivated to do well for their own personal satisfaction, not to work towards external praise from others, which, if not forthcoming, results in a feeling of deflation.

So, in answer to the question: Are good teachers responsible for good results? The answer is… not necessarily.

But self-motivated students will always do well. Therefore, instilling in children a lifelong, positive attitude towards learning is the key, something which both teachers and parents alike should aim to achieve.

Brendan Hearne is the Deputy Head Teacher at Saigon Star International School. He moved to Vietnam in August 2013, having previously taught at two award-winning schools in the UK.

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