Three tips for creating the basic motivational conditions in a classroom

By Neil Millington

I’m sure many of you have seen the comic strip that has been posted on Facebook and other social media recently that features a doctor talking to a patient in front of a chest x-ray. It has the caption below that says “You’re heart is slightly larger than the average human heart, but that’s because you’re a teacher.” It gave me a little giggle, but it’s true that many teachers are passionate about what they do and certainly care about their learners. I’ve seen many of my colleagues over the years go that extra mile to help their learners.

Does being extra kind benefit learners? Some would argue that it is an essential part of being a teacher and our job is to show we care. On the other hand, over the years I’ve had many a conversation with English teachers who are frustrated at the apparent lack of enthusiasm or perceived gratitude from classes. Especially after the teacher had spent hours prepping a class feeling that it was going to be a huge success. It makes them at least temporarily lose the desire to go that extra mile.

For me, I think kindness is an integral part of teaching. It can be particularly effective for improving language learning motivation over a sustained period of time. Indeed, being motivated is to be moved to do something. What better way to move someone than with kindness? I’m a huge fan of Zoltan Dörnyei’s Motivation Strategies in the Language Classroom and each year I attempt to implement strategies into my classes. To do this effectively, I think the learners need to see you and a kind and thoughtful person.

Dörnyei advises that a teacher needs to start by creating the basic motivational conditions. These basic motivational conditions are; appropriate teacher behavior, a pleasant and supportive atmosphere and a cohesive learner group. For appropriate teacher behaviors, Dörnyei talks about the enthusiasm of the teacher, the commitment and expectations for the students’ learning, relationships with the students and relationships with the students’ parents. Here are three ways I have tried to work on the first three of those points.

Enthusiasm

As busy professionals, it’s not always easy to display an intense and eager enjoyment or interest in 100% of the lesson. I always try to go into class with a smile, and when planning, I try to make sure the lessons will be of interest to my students. However, I’m certainly not always 100% enthusiastic. One thing that I have found effective is to explain to the class why you’re asking them to do something. Show that you are not just throwing random activities at them and reveal the purpose behind them. To put it another way, show them your enthusiasm for learning and that you care. I usually begin my speaking classes with a speed chat. Students partner-up and I give them a topic to talk about. They talk for a couple of minutes and then rotate to the next student. The topics are always simple and relevant and I join in! I do this for the repetition and because it helps loosen-up the class and make the atmosphere more relaxed. This has become a really effective warm-up activity now and I think this is partly because I told them why I was doing it. They got it and have bought into it.

The commitment and expectations for the students’ learning

For me, part of the key to this is remaining positive. At the start of the semester the class works together to set expectations for themselves and for me. We brainstorm and then do some group work and as a class develop a set of expectations for us all. The key then is to remind students when they have met these expectations and to make sure I lead by example and keep my end of the deal. This semester, one the expectations set in a class was to try to talk to someone different every class. To make this possible we do an interview activity each week and students move around the room and talk to three different people. This gives them the opportunity to talk to others. I also try to notice when they two students are talking for the first time and to let them know that I have noticed they are keeping their promise.

Relationships with the students

I think this is crucial in building creating the basic motivational conditions. It is also where kindness comes in. I try to remember all my students’ names and at least one thing about them. Now this is not that easy because I have some big classes, and I teach a lot of classes each week. To help with this, I use name cards. (I have attached it here and if you would like to use it, feel free.) I get the students to fill it out with a partner as a pair exercise in the first class. I collect them at the end of class and study them. I make mental notes of their hobbies or where they come from and each week I have them put them on their desks and collect them again at the end of class.

I try to move around class as much as possible and I use the information on the sheets to make small talk with as many students as I can each week. It is usually something simple like “Are you still working your part-time job?” or “How’s the part-time job going?” I then try to offer some personal information about myself. For example, I might mention that I worked in a clothes shop when I was younger. Over the course of the semester I have talked to all of the class in a one-on-one situation. I’ve usually learned a great deal about them and they get to know a little about me. I’ve also overheard many students saying that I’m kind.

I have some great classes this semester and I’m sure that these simple strategies have helped to improve the atmosphere and start to create the basic motivational conditions for language learning motivation to take place.

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