Professional Issues: “What Motivates You?”

Today, I started reading chapter one of Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach by Nel Noddings, and I am hooked. I love the conversational, informal, informative and thought-provoking style of this book.  Reading took me longer than usual because I was busy writing reflections and notes to my future-teaching-self! The chapter begins with a discussion on motivation, different theories, accompanying attitudes and questions teachers should be asking students such as “What motivates you?” (Noddings, 2006, p.23). When it comes to my pedagogical stance, I believe I am neither a progressive who embraces the full autonomy of students, only working with student interests and motives, nor do I completely belong to the more classical tradition where because I am the teacher, I believe I know best and operate under the assumption that students do not have properly developed motivations, nor do they actually know what they need or what interests them (Noddings, p.11). At least currently, I feel suited to more of a middle-road approach, where I do have authority and some insight that my students may not yet posses, but that students are given choices, and their needs and interests are connected to material—motivation “guided toward a worthwhile end” (Noddings, p.17).

I think I was schooled in a more classic tradition until college where I was pleasantly surprised to find I was trusted and challenged to take responsibility for my education, to be an independent thinker, to push boundaries. When creating my own high school classroom culture, when navigating motivation and student interests, I think it would be easier and more natural to limit my students and run a classroom the way classrooms were run when I was in high school. However that way is not what I believe to be in the best interests of students, so I will continually need to be reflecting and evaluating my attitudes and efforts in order to promote a classroom that is more student-centered.  School is often a system where students learn how to earn approval and avoid consequences—work is done to get a certain grade, or simply to pass, students give teachers the answers teachers are looking for, and all can be accomplished systematically with little heart, passion or genuine learning. Like Noddings writes, “much schoolwork can be done with half a mind, and little learning is then accomplished” (Noddings, p. 21). Perpetuating this type of school experience is unexceptable.

I understand and accept that not every student I have in class will love literature and some may struggle or “perform” poorly, and I want to assure my students that that is okay, however, I want to urge my students not to be what Maslow refers to as “human impersonators” (Noddings, p.15). I want them to be spontaneous, original, and creative thinkers who ask questions and search deeply for meaning and connection. My working definition of success for my future English students hinges on my ability to connect literature to the interests, hopes and fears of students, to journey with them into a deeper understanding of who we are as complex individuals and as a collective group. If I am able to do this, I don’t see how students will be able to avoid becoming absorbed in the curriculum nor will I ever need to manipulate extrinsic motivations to provide reason and meaning for what I am teaching.


Nodding, N. (2006). Critical lessons: What our schools should teach.  New York, NY:  Cambridge University Press

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