There are a few in every class: the ones who simply do not want to learn. It's not a question of good or bad. They may be perfectly alright – social, active, and intelligent – but they have absolutely no motivation whatsoever. They are perfectly satisfied with a passing grade, and are not interested in driving themselves forward, or putting in the extra effort necessary for advancement. They are content with where they are, and they see no reason to work any harder.
I was one of those students. Unless I really cared about the class, I would do the absolute minimum necessary for passing, and then put the whole class out of my mind. It just didn’t matter.
Getting students to motivate themselves is almost impossible. You cannot motivate what is not there. You cannot expect someone to change, no matter you do. You can only show them the door. They are the ones who will have to walk through it. It is a challenge every educator faces, in one time or another. Sometimes, it is a very real and permanent challenge. Because of this, some teachers single out students on whom they give up. They see that nothing is affecting them, and they just stop trying.
Of course, we all have our limits. There is only so much a teacher – caring though they may be – can put into a student. There are teachers who spend countless hours preparing classes, planning activities, writing exams, and developing new ideas in order to become a better educator for the sake of their students.
Influencing someone from the outside will only get you so far. In the short-term, successes can be obtained through use of measures such as reward and punishment. Eventually, though, this practice will not hold. It is not good for the long haul. Studies have found that teaching in a punishment and reward environment can damage the students' sense of autonomy, and hurt their chances of self-motivation. It may make them feel like an experiment, like a rat in a maze pushing a button to get some cheese. Success can be found in the short term, but in the long run it could be counter-productive.
The best thing to do is to simply give the student the tools and environment necessary for self-growth and self-motivation. You may not be able to influence the student directly – after all, you can't force someone to motivate themselves. It is a very personal and almost intimate decision, which one makes alone. You can, however, influence the students indirectly, and show them that self-motivation is something worth adopting.
The key to encouraging self-motivation is giving the student space to express his or her hopes and dreams. Simply talking to your students, getting to know them a little better, and basically building a relationship with them – this can all contribute to them lighting their own fire.
Teaching students to think on their own – as opposed to just lecturing them on various topics – can also add a lot to their feeling of self-worth. Promoting cooperative learning, in groups and pairs, can be the key to students who want to think for themselves, and engage the classes they are taught differently.
There are no ideal classrooms. Teachers and students alike have their own issues, and they cannot be turned off during school hours. It is more important than ever to discuss issues with your class, as opposed to simply piling on more and more information. Even though exams and grades are necessary (in most schools anyway), there are times when the student is more open to suggestion, and where a teacher can have great influence on his class.
Even though it may not be clear then, something in the student's mind and heart changes. This doesn't mean that the student will become a changed person suddenly out of the blue. No overnight successes will be found here – not in the long run. It does mean, however, that part of that student's future is looking brighter, i.e. that this student's attitude towards learning will go through some metamorphosis. That in time, he or she will be able to look back on that teacher as someone who really helped mold them as thinkers, and gave them the tools to motivate themselves.
As a teacher, you are not expected to motivate every single one of your students. That is impractical and quite impossible. But it is possible to lay the groundwork, make an effort, and provide the space necessary for these young minds to venture out of their academic comfort zones, and work harder for their future.