The Art of Encouragement

By far one of the most successful early posts on this blog was 6 Motivation Techniques. I wrote it in March of 2007, as I was approaching the end of my fifth year of teaching. Now more than nine years later, I realize I was onto some good ideas, but I was off base. In this article, we’ll look at the missing piece that would have helped me so much in those early years of teaching: The Art of Encouragement

The Art of Encouragement

Without motivation, your class is just another block of time that the students have to suffer through. With motivation, you hear things like “hi, favorite teacher!” and “I love this class!” As a teacher, those are the kinds of things that we absolutely love to hear. They say that about half of all teachers stop teaching before their sixth year. I am on the home stretch or my fifth now. I would guess that most teachers who quit teaching do so because of they lack of these kinds of comments; they do so because they do not have enough motivated students.

I then went on to outline 6 motivation techniques:

  1. Love what you do
  2. Emanate passion
  3. Have fun
  4. Stop being selfish
  5. Be prepared
  6. Continue learning

The original premise starts out right

As I read through this article again, I am struck by how close the concepts are to my current views, but how very different the vocabulary is. I suppose that my vocabulary has refined over the past decade, such that I have a better grasp of these concepts. I would replace motivation with words such as passion and hope and encouragement. They all have different value, but they combine to uplift.

You see, without passion, your class is just another block of time, one that many students dread and merely tolerate. With passion, your students feed off of your energy and many of them really begin to come alive. You’ll overhear some say that your class is their favorite. So your passion feeds their joy, and their joy feeds your passion. It’s an uplifting positive spiral effect!

In fact, many teachers leave the profession before the beginning of their sixth year. I believe that a large part of that blame for the attrition problem lays at the feet of the teachers who stick around. These struggling teachers lack passion, many times because the joyless students suck it out of them. They have lost hope often, and do not seek out help. That’s their fault.

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Struggling teachers need your help

Often, when we lose passion, we lose hope. The hopeless life is lonely. I’ve been there. We’ve all been hopeless at some point.

Not you though! Not now! You’re reading this blog. You’re seeking help, or you’re looking to build up a reservoir of hope to share with others around you. You are part of the solution! Thank you. Now get out there and save a teacher!

Passion leads to hope

Once we have passion, we inspire joy in many of our students, and that helps to restore our dwindling supply of hope. That’s a great thing! But how do we regain that passion? I’m so glad you asked. I think I’ve found the secret that eluded me for many years.

But how do we regain that passion?

Encouragement. Pointing out positive things. Walking alongside someone in their struggle. Cheering the heck out of the home team. Whether they’re winning or losing. Encourage effort. This translates to classroom management quite fluidly.

Sometimes the very best positive that we can find is that the students all came to class without injuring each other in the process (or at least the students who showed up to class did). If that’s your baseline, then start there. Find something great, or find something good, or find something average, or find something that’s not horrible. Recognize it. Encourage that behavior. Or just encourage the students who made the effort.

A simple classroom leadership philosophy

That brings us to my current classroom leadership philosophy that I’ve used with myself and the student leaders in my marching bands for a few years. So be warned that the examples used will relate to marching band and student leadership, but they apply just as well for any teaching setting.

  1. Create a culture of encouragement
  2. Recognize effort, not achievements
  3. Remember that great leadership is lonely
  4. The best leaders lead by pushing, not by pulling

I want to unpack this a little bit to see how these concepts might translate to a classroom setting.

Create a culture of encouragement

When I began running after years of not working out, it was very difficult for me. I’m overweight. I hadn’t done any exercise to speak of in nearly 10 years. The idea of people walking faster than me running was embarrassing. The idea of people seeing me struggle in public was a challenge.

I found out quickly that pretty much nobody cared. They just did their own thing. The runners I knew who did marathons and such were all very supportive. I realized after I ran my first half marathon that the encouragement I received along the way had changed me forever. This brings us to:

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Recognize effort, not achievements

You must always start from where you are. Too often in teaching, we approach our classes as though they have a different set of knowledge, behaviors, skills, etc. than they actually have. We get upset when they cannot perform X skills as well as another teacher’s classes, or a class we had fifteen years ago, or the classes we student taught for, or whatever. I came to this realization:

Consistent effort expertly guided always leads to remarkable improvement.

Did you get that? So the effort is enough. If I have students who try hard, I can get them to do far more than they imagined. If I have students who have skills but don’t try hard, there will be minimal improvement. So my focus has shifted away from tangible awards and I am always looking for the students who work the hardest. In the long term, those are the ones who will amaze you.

Remember that great leadership is lonely

I remember one year telling my drum majors that great leadership is lonely. What do I mean by that? If you’re going to really lead, you must be in the front and you must be looking ahead. Great leaders trust themselves enough to know they are on the right path, and they trust their followers enough to know they will follow.

If we forget or don’t take this into account, the loneliness of leading can be shocking. And because leadership is lonely, we must make efforts to stay around positive people, and to take some personal time to talk with people from time to time. But only associate with positive people. Negativity breeds negativity. When you’re leading the charge toward greatness, you cannot begin to doubt.

You can’t listen to the whiners. There are always whiners.

You can’t listen to the haters. There are always haters.

Whiners gonna whine. Haters gonna hate. But not us. We’re winners, and winners gonna win!

The best leaders lead by pushing, not by pulling

This is simple. Just because it’s lonely doesn’t mean you need to run so far ahead of them that you away from them. Sometimes we have to slow down, go to the back, and push everyone. We push by encouraging effort. But it is up to us as leaders to set the example of effort. It doesn’t matter if you are the best performer or not, you better be putting forth your best effort before you complain that your students aren’t trying!

Encouragement may look like motivation…

What I have found is that when I used to think that I was motivating people, I was actually encouraging them in one way or another. I hadn’t yet identified it that way, though. This is why I am convinced that it is impossible to motivate anyone. As the old saying goes:

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Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still

So I just quit trying to motivate people and get out there and encourage the heck out of them! It works for me.

About Joel Wagner 522 Articles
Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

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