How Hard Should You Press? Motivating the Unmotivated

 How Hard Should You Press? Motivating the Unmotivated

“Whiplash” (2014) yields the question, “How hard should you press?” It is a film written and directed by Damien Chazelle which brings a surge of nostalgic appreciation for grit, as an elite competition jazz band director, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, squeezes primal rage, and ultimately a perfect performance, from a protégé drummer, also exquisitely cast with Miles Teller. If you like a sublime hyper percussion thrill, you will have to seek the jolting 9 minutes raw performance finale.

Wrapping up a 6-week stint teaching high school English, I pondered one of the classic lines of the film, when Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the director, states, “There are no two words in English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” He refers to how soft our expectations and work ethic have become.

Since when did it seem acceptable to be “good enough?” Have we litigated our society into fear or complacency? I remember when we lauded personal sacrifice and commitment. I counsel teachers, “If you take garbage from students, this is exactly what students will give you.” Imagine my chagrin to find short responses to simple essay questions reminiscent of 2nd grade level from 9th graders! It is not rocket science, nor is it wasted effort to employ the “re-do”, multiple times if necessary to learn to do things correctly. The recent teaching assignment validated that this tactic works beautifully to encourage small successes that further motivate students to employ effort, and this is relevant to business management as well as within school communities.

Back in the day, Coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers had Greek god aura for how his no-nonsense, hard-core, driven methods that brought men to meet their potential. As a Chicago Bears fan of the early 80s, I witnessed Coach Mike Ditka, known for his crusty, crabby, take-no-crap stance, who also brought solid performance from a team that inspired fans.

We have a book, Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, by Tim S. Grover, that is being read among us at my house. Grover was a trainer for basketball greats Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Kobe Bryant, among others. He describes the common denominator in these stellar athletes as their ability to find their “dark side” of competitive intensity and blind commitment to work themselves toward super human excellence, whatever the cost.

Both Whiplash and my own sensibility though questions, to what degree? The legendary coaches that come to mind are Bela Karolyi, Bill Bowerman, Tom Landry, and Pat Riley. They certainly actualized potential into reality for countless fans, and we praise their efforts. However, there undoubtedly had to be some casualties along the way. Not everyone can play in the highest league, but everyone should play to their best for the league in which they reside. The Special Olympics come to mind, and I appreciate the message they give to society. With effort, everyone can elevate themselves, and the ultimate competition is within one’s self.

I’d say though, that every teacher, every coach, every parent can do no wrong to at least set the expectation, and like spring rain on good seeds within fertile soil, see what grows!

Some are destined to be “good enough,” but let’s not gyp those who with challenge and encouragement can aspire toward greatness. We need to raise the bar by our own example and help our youth to rise.

Disruptive Students Shock Syndrome


Photo by ecastro

Disturbed by nightmarish anxiety, it might have been a mild form of PTSD, I woke from a dream realizing that I was once again a fresh, idealistic teacher confronted by a mob of snotty, bratty, uncooperative students. It did not matter that it never really happened exactly that way, this was my perception. In the vision, I was forced to start the first class of the year in an octagonal-shaped room, which I mentally noted was probably the catalyst for the surly mood of those students. Anything so unconventional or novel in setting can destabilize standard protocols. Once again, I felt the rush of stressful adrenaline, as my fright or flight impulse responded to a mix of bombardments from students who could care less about school and me.  I just wanted to be “nice” and expected compliant, eager to learn pupils in Social Studies.

Many teachers are probably still feeling this distress, and may not have the solutions that I found to be most useful when confronted by aggressive, non-cooperative, and unmotivated students. Knowing that there are great resources, I thought that this would be a good time to share my tips.

My next realization upon rising, was to reflect on what I could have done better. I suppose reflection has become a habit after so many years and lessons, and I mentally corrected my response to the situation.

With the aplomb of Cruella de Vil, I politely and somewhat sinisterly responded to the student apparitions, “Well, we are going to have fun this year!” Spoken with such confidence to mean, “You can’t show me anything I don’t already know,” and I leave them wondering why I am not intimidated by them. I do not implore their attention, I expect it. I earn it, because our class is so awesome, so relevant, so engaging. It is as if I said to them convincingly, “You will see, you will see!”

And so I reveal to you in order of my preference, the three most outstanding, life preserving books chock full of strategies and wisdom for teachers who could use a boost of life force in classroom management.

Fred Jones—Tools For Teaching
Richard L. Curwin, Allen N. Mendler, Brian D. Mendler—Discipline With Dignity: New Challenges, New Solutions
Harry K. Wong, Rosemary T. Wong—The First Days of School

It’s a good time of year to try something new, shake it up, keep students guessing what new spark of novelty you bring to your class. It can take a multitude of forms, but the point is to do something new! Celebrate your class community. Make it reflect the best aspirations because everyone wants to belong and be a part of something significant and productive.