Motivation and Identity

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

From a very young age, I recall being told I was a “good student.” I remember receiving standardized test scores in what must have been the second or third grade, and shortly thereafter being placed in a gifted class. I was also told I was a poor athlete. I dreaded gym class and avoided participating in team sports. “Some people just aren’t good at sports,” is what I told myself.


As a teacher, I began to understand how equally detrimental both of these messages are. The former perhaps more so than the latter; telling someone that they're "inherently" talented or predisposed is just as damaging as telling someone they're naturally disinclined.


When I started teaching, I was no good. At twenty-two, I went back to school to get my Master’s in Urban Education and began teaching at a school in North Memphis, Tennessee. I was so poorly equipped on my first day of class that it was almost laughable. In those first few weeks in the classroom I had to make a big decision. Are people good teachers? Or do people become good at teaching? Whether the choice was conscious or not, I decided that the second option was True. And over the next five years, I grew from a novice educator to a teacher who consistently met or exceeded the expectations set by my administration. 


The truth is that people are unlikely to take ownership for a known area of weakness if they believe that that trait is part of their core identity.


When teachers say things like “You’re a great artist,” or “You are a wonderful writer,” we contribute to an identity narrative. This narrative informs the way students interact with the world, the things they are or are not willing to try, and the goals they set for themselves and their futures. Said a different way, when you link a student’s behavior or performance to their identity, it stunts their academic and psychological growth--even when your comments are positive or complimentary.


Students who believe they succeeded because of who they are become disengaged quickly when the going gets tough. Their apathy stems from a belief that a glass ceiling will prevent them from making further progress. What they don’t know is that this barrier is almost entirely self imposed. 


When it comes to courses in which our students and their families have historically struggled, it’s also helpful to choose a curriculum that does the same. This pertains especially to classes like Financial Literacy and Nutrition, two courses in our Life School suite. 


To combat apathy and foster a growth mindset, educators need to be extremely careful in the way they deliver feedback--both positive and negative.


Rather than saying, “You’re such a talented painter,” say, “Your ability to mix and pair colors has come a long way since the beginning of the semester.” The same rule applies when we speak about ourselves. Instead of saying, “Yeah I’m just bad at math,” try “I haven’t practiced or reviewed probability recently.” These differences, while subtle, help to break down age old notions about our limitations, our power, and our potential.