Sources of Motivation Remain Skewed at Montclair High School

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Liz Blaine and Josh Modiano

Before the sun rises every morning, students across the world hit the snooze button on their alarms and start getting ready for school. Teachers open their car doors and head off on their everyday commute. At Montclair High School, motivation to continue waking up early each day and go to school is lacking for both teachers and students. 

A study conducted by Idit Katz and Bat-Hen Shahar published in the Sage Psychology Journal used a questionnaire to study teachers’ motivations using self determination theory. The theory suggests that people are able to be self-determined when their needs for competence, connection and autonomy are fulfilled. Their study found that teachers often suffer from lack of motivation, summarizing, “A teacher’s own motivation to teach means how much they teach for autonomous or intrinsic reasons (motivation), such as enjoyment, interest and valuing their work, versus for controlled motivation such as lack of choice, external benefits and a sense of coercion.”

“My effort in class tends to mirror the effort my teacher puts in. If my teacher is slow to grade assignments, lets people treat their class like a study hall and does not answer my emails, I feel way less motivated in the classroom,” Lincoln, a junior at Montclair High School (MHS), said. Like many students, Lincoln’s drive and motivation comes from what students believe to be the sole focus of school – what comes after. He stated, “My motivation to come to school everyday and work hard is completely centered around college. I need the grades to get into the schools I want to attend.” 

Students often lose motivation when learning about topics they are so disconnected from, Lincoln said. “With most classes I just have to force myself to go through all the work even if I’m learning about something I could care less about.” Students’ interests are not often represented in the school curriculum and that has a big impact on their effort and motivation in the classroom. Teachers also get demotivated, but many try to keep students as inspired as they are.“I truly feel motivated in teaching my students and love updating my health lessons to challenge and educate all learners,” said Taryn Schnell, a passionate physical education and health teacher at MHS.

Similarly to Lincoln, MHS history teacher Brian Ford’s frustrations at work comes from the system they report to, Mr. Ford said. “There’s a lot of small BS that teachers deal with that add up – everything from poor leadership and communication to bad state policies.” However, Ford is motivated by a greater cause. “When there’s a student who is struggling and I’m able to help them, or when there is a student who says ‘Your class is the only one I don’t cut,’ that stuff can mitigate the effects of the BS I spoke about before.” Ms. Schnell thinks in a similar fashion, and pointed to “seeing students grow and evolve throughout the course of four years” as her source of motivation. Schnell elaborated, “I really enjoy supporting students and providing support to help them achieve their goals.”

Teachers also find their motivation from exploring their passions outside of work. After school, Mr. Ford works with organizations for social justice. He said, “I am the co-chair of our chapter’s newly formed BDS & Palestine Solidarity Working Group, and am a member of the national working group of the same name. Again, as part of my general anti-oppression, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist work, it is like my teaching. More specifically, I want to be more honest, brave and unapologetic about my approach to that particular issue in my classroom.”

Ms. Schnell is enthusiastic about her classes as well. “My love for movement and being outside is something I try to instill upon my students,” Schnell said. She talked about how much time she spends outside and exercising each day, showing how devoted she is. Schnell earned her undergraduate degree in history and political science, but “always had a strong passion for sports and movement.” This passion was so strong that she went back to school just to get a masters degree in teaching. “It was the best decision I made!” she maintained.

Mr. Ford and Ms. Schnell’s unconditional passion for the work that they do is impressive to anyone who suffers from burnout and being demotivated. Their eagerness is particularly encouraging to students like Lincoln who can see the effort and passion for their jobs that both Ms. Schnell and Mr. Ford have.