Half Term: Motivation beyond the classroom?

This half term has been unexpectedly hard. For the first time in many years, I’ve been able to plan effectively for the same structures – no changes of staff, syllabus or timetable construction – and we’ve been able to think carefully about what we want to do, how we want to improve it, and what updates, edits and tweaks we want to make to our teaching and content. But the initial perception of “this will be exciting” has worn off – as the workload, general busy-ness, and challenges of a normal half term wind their merry way in to daily life.

This got me thinking about one of the challenges of teaching: motivating, and continuing to support the morale and well-being of teachers. In many jobs – I’m married to someone who doesn’t work in teaching – the process of motivation and morale is shorter and much more immediate in terms of feedback. You do a great job, you and your team go out and celebrate, you come back to the next project. You have targets that are for the next month, the next quarter, the next time period – and you have something that you’re working towards and immediately aiming for. Do a great job, your boss will recognise and reward that.

Most critically, I think, you have a significant degree of ownership in how well that target goes: I think many people have a greater influence over the measurable/quantifiable output of their profession than teachers do. We have a significant role to play, of course – but so much depends on the students, the circumstances and context they are working in, and the wider picture of where our subject fits within their complex conditions.  

That immediacy of the feedback cycle is lost for many teachers: you are looking at how this lesson, or how this piece of work, or unit of syllabus, or component has gone – but most of the time, that’s a fairly internal reflection, and we don’t particularly “celebrate” that. Even considering it, it feels weird – why *would* you celebrate finishing the Population unit, or getting a decent result on the Earthquakes assessment – it’s only a stepping stone to that bigger picture of the GCSE or the A Level result.

And even then, we don’t do a great job of celebrating that – because, deep down, we all know that our work is only part of the component. The reality is that we could just be lucky – examiners, I think, know that as much as anyone – or the students and classes we have could have a particularly positive experience, set of study skills and components. Part of making peace with the fact that we are never fully “to blame” for exam results and student outcomes is the acceptance that we can’t take full credit for them either.

I think this is at least partially why so many of us as classroom teachers find such joy in other roles and responsibilities in the school environment. While we take great satisfaction from the intellectual stretching we do in our subjects, the sense of satisfaction from a residential, from a pastoral role, or a sporting or co-curricular activity can often be much more immediate, direct and visceral. It can be the thing that reminds you – on those dark evenings, when the idea of the summer’s results seems so very far away – why you work with young people, and why you went in to teaching.

It’s an interesting one: what roles do you have that find that joy, and give you the ability to remind yourself why you went in to teaching? What aspects of your subject make you smile? How do you get more of them?

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