A version of this essay appears in educational Horizons Winter 2001
©2000 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

The Deep Secrets of Motivation

Sure-Fire Techniques for Getting People to Do
Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want It.


Related Article:
Increasing Teaching Efficiency

edited 4/20/14
Not hammer-strokes, but dance of the water sings pebbles into perfection.

--- Rabindranath Tagore (1861 -- 1941) Indian philosopher

If the title of this essay clove your eyes to the page; if the subtitle caused a grumbling in your guts, a pang of prurience; if you suddenly sucked in a half-breath at its overwhelming promise of power, then you are probably too immature to continue reading on. Please skip to the next article.

There may be deep secrets of motivation; I very much doubt it. I have attended many seminars on motivation, and read many, many books and articles on it only to be confronted with the same ancient, basic truths, banalities -- if too clearly articulated -- that go generally uncelebrated because they are so obvious. You know them as well as I, if you have survived past your twenty-first year (to be patient I chose twenty-first, rather than tenth). You may have once learned them -- and deep down inside you still know them -- but, like many, many people who have persistent difficulties dealing with others, you chose to forget these motivational truths: for the sake of your ego; for the sake of what you think people might say; for the sake of social convention; or for the sake of dreams beyond the likelihood of achievement.

Or, if you are new in Education, you ignore your knowledge of human motivation for the sake of some half-baked educational fad which has been foisted off on you in the name of Raising Expectations, Enhancing Self-Esteem, Increasing Standardized Test Scores, Inculcating Values, promoting Anti-X or Anti-Y Education, whatever X and Y your local political aspirants deem it fit to burden the local schools with.

I occasionally teach a graduate course called Classroom Management and School Discipline. My students are a mix of change-of-profession teacher aspirants and practicing classroom teachers pursuing a Master's degree who have two to five years experience. Some come to the course really worried and confused, often looking for the magic wand that will turn them into a superteacher. Others really don't need the course. They turn out to be quite on top of things. I suspect that what they are seeking is legitimation for the methods they have adopted that give them success.

What do I teach them? Very little. Rather I help them find within themselves what they need to successfully deal with the students in their classes. For the sake of brevity, and my own pedagogical compulsions, I will list the basic "truths" my students and I have found to be critical to enhancing their classroom management skills.

The first secret is this: know why you want "better discipline" in your classroom. Don't kid yourself and don't try to convince the students before you are very sure yourself. For example, don't piously preach, "I want each student to learn to the maximum of his or her potential!" Nonsense. You don't know what any kid's potential is, much less his or her maximum potential. Don't say either, "I want these kids to learn so they can go on to college and a good job!" Are you a deity? Can you predict the future? What makes you think you are so important that doing well in your class is the absolute prerequisite to a decent future? Rather, admit that you want to be able to teach them in a reasonably enjoyable environment, to share your knowledge with them and know that they to some extent appreciate both your efforts and material learned. You would like them to like being in your class and feel it is worth while. Disruptive and off-task behavior prevents this from happening. That's why you want more classroom control.

(I have not considered the possibility you may just be a control freak indulging a pathological need to exercise power. I expect your supervisor would have spotted that and terminated your career early.)

The second secret is that discipline begins with yourself. If you're looking for love, get a lover -- leave those kids out of it. If you're feeling angry or frustrated with your life, beat your lover or leave your lover but leave those kids out of it.

One of my students complained to me that her fifth-grade pupils used foul language in the classroom, copiously and incessantly. This upset her a great deal, so that she would scream at them to stop and threaten punishments. But they would only laugh and do it even more. How, she implored me, could she get them to stop?

I asked her if she wanted it to be quick and effective, or much less successful at first, but somewhat effective over the long run. Quick and effective, of course, came her expected reply. Then I said, tell the students you want them to avoid bad language, or you will kill them. When a student then utters an offensive word, kill that student - shooting them is as humane a way as any. Until the police come to take you away, you will probably not hear another bad word from the kids.

This little Zen exercise is one way I reintroduce my students to the third secret of motivation: not every effective means of controlling behavior can or ought to be employed. If effective behavioral control were really so important as some would have us believe, then every school would have a torture chamber and a brothel. Then you could really watch those Standardized Test scores rise!

The practical advice I gave that teacher with respect to foul language is to realize that her displays of dismay or discomfort may be part of what is prompting further use of the language she objects to. The students are controlling her rather than vice-versa. They say a nasty word and she then screams or provides other entertainment. The suggestion I gave her -- which I and other veteran teachers have found really works -- is this. First realize -- if you have religious concerns -- that there is no general religious prohibition against using obscenities or scatological references, no commandment: Thou shalt not say "f__k you!" So do this. Write down every obscene and nasty word you have ever heard. Go sit in front of a mirror -- alone, might be advisable -- and repeat these words aloud to yourself until your have lost your sense of them; until they are nothing more than sound. It may take several sessions for you to reach this point; for, that is what they are, nothing more than sound. Consider, for example, that "mamow", "joy", "mared" and many other sound combinations may be obscenities in other languages, but you do not respond emotionally to them. Why let yourself be bothered by English sound combinations?

Once you have disciplined yourself into a desensitized state with respect to "foul language", and you are back in the classroom, choose not to hear the words, or at best, offer the mild reproof that they are not appropriate for the classroom. (NAFTC, some teachers say).

The fourth secret: the kids are prisoners. You are there by choice. They have much less choice in the matter and face sanctions if they exercise it (by cutting, playing hooky, etc.) You have a moral obligation to be somewhat entertaining, at least until you have secured their faith that you will not waste their time. This means that as a teacher you have two main burdens: first. you must learn to present your subject matter in as engaging a manner as possible, e.g. through games, puzzles, etc. Secondly, you must struggle in faculty meetings and through your teacher organizations to prevent additional burdens from being placed on your students. The brainstorms and agendas of those outside the classroom often translate into tedium and arid wasted childhood for the kids inside. How many eternal seconds have you lived through because someone somewhere decided that it would be good for you?


The fifth secret: they are rational beings. This is not to say much, but it is something very important. Some people like to dismiss the concerns and wants of others on the grounds that they are "irrational." This is either a power play, or a confusion. To say a person, or animal, is rational is to indicate that that person has goals and can recognize and adjust his or her behavior to be more efficient in their pursuit. It is not to say that their goals are socially desirable, or the same as anyone else's. To point out that a plurality of goals makes rational social action impossible is not an argument that the individuals constituting that plurality are individually irrational.

This means that students will want to do other than what you would wish them to, with your goals in mind. It means that they -- like most adults -- will most likely pursue short-term goals to the detriment of long-term ones. Most important, it means that they are capable of judging your behavior in terms of the goals you announce and evaluating you on their basis. If you preach against rudeness but interrupt or ignore a student for little apparent reason, expect them to hold that against you. If you prattle at them about preparedness but come to class unprepared … well, they know what you are. If you engage them in concerns about justice and fairness -- always a topic of interest among older children -- but blindly follow the dictates of benighted superiors, then you know what you are. Being a teacher often means taking your battles to the wider community to provide the resources of time and materials that make the classroom experience of children more than just tolerable. School, for kids, is Life.

The sixth secret: the system may very well not help you, or the kids. Especially in systems that preach too frequently and loudly something like, "Kids first!" This is not to say that people in education may not care about the kids: anyone who can make an easier buck in some other line of work probably came to education because of some thought of helping kids. But having a value does not mean that it is always or ever given top priority. Particularly in those aspects of education that require interaction with the political environment that constitutes our educational systems. And, official modes of treatment may well backfire in practice.

I had a thirteen year-old Cambodian girl in one of my middle school classes. Unlike her classmates she was very reserved and hardly participated when even her closest friends where deeply engaged in classroom activities. I initially dismissed it as a personality variation. Then, one day, a Cambodian boy said something to her. She stood up and in a voice I have seldom heard issue forth from one so frail and young, she began a tirade, a persistent series of rebukes and threats that lasted -- by my watch's timing -- four and a half minutes. Then she collapsed into her chair, sobbing.

I sent for the school nurse and asked another Cambodian student what the boy had said to provoke the behavior. The answer: nothing unusual or particularly insulting, she replied; that girl is not well.

The nurse reported that upon physical examination it was revealed that the girl was covered with whipping welts from below the neck down to her knees, probably made with an extension cord, or something similar. The official course of action to be followed: call in the social workers and investigators to visit the home.

We had had a similar situation the year before where we suspected a young girl of being sexually abused. Before any investigation could take place, the family disappeared. So this time, my colleague with whom I team-taught called in our Cambodian community representative. This was an educated man seen as very powerful in the Cambodian community because he was an undertaker -- the spirits of improperly buried Cambodians must walk the Earth and vampirize their relatives. (Don't have Cambodian kids see the movie "The Killing Fields!" They will not sleep. One of mine told me how his "uncle" from Cambodia visited him at night and sat on his chest.) To get back: our Cambodian friend went to visit the family. He returned and told us everything was all right. The girl would be fine from now on. No need to engage the authorities.

And so she was. Within a week she had become participative, lively, outgoing. We met our Cambodian colleague later and asked how he had done it. "I discovered her father was beating her because, he said, she was becoming increasingly "immodest." I told him I was making her my "goddaughter," so to speak. And I made him an offer he couldn't refuse."

(Obviously a well-Americanized immigrant!)

The offer: let the girl alone and you will be buried properly when you die. Continue to molest her and your early funeral will not meet Buddhist requirements. (Can you imagine a child welfare worker developing that plan of treatment?)

The seventh secret: this burden today, too, shall pass. Kids today are not what your professors knew them to be ten years ago; nor will they be what you find them to be now. Your career, not this class nor this behavior problem, is the measure of your character.

How will you look back on things after years of teaching? Or will you have dropped out, joining the ranks of the ten- percent per year who leave the profession because it didn't turn out to be what they had expected?

I can think back on my days as a public school student and remember little, if anything, of specific facts or materials I learned with each of my teachers. What I do remember is who taught respect by respecting us as persons, who taught self-reliance by letting us be self-reliant, who taught justice by being just and I do remember those miserable creatures who just pursued power for -- to us -- unseen ends, by trying to intimidate, to cram, to crush us into their own mold "For your own good," they would always say.

I can well remember. And so will your students.