Special Report

You Don’t Need to Be the Hollywood Version of a Teacher. Here’s What Motivates Students

By Arianna Prothero — February 21, 2023 4 min read
Happy African American teacher receives applause from her students while lecturing them in the classroom.
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Everyone has had a teacher who has that special something: they are entertaining and inspiring. They draw you in and make you want to work your hardest.

What is it, exactly, that makes those educators so engaging? And are those qualities innate or can they be taught?

Education Week put those questions to Alex Kajitani, the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, who now spends his days training teachers on how to motivate and engage students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Are really engaging teachers just born that way or can other educators learn how to be that person?

I deeply believe that it really is something that can be taught. And I think that there’s this myth of the beloved teacher, that they’re always making the best jokes, and they’re always so engaging. And every lesson plan is like this Oscar-worthy performance, right?

But in reality, the teachers who students really love, the teachers who students really connect with, are the ones who are just confident in being themselves and really just own who it is that they are. And they’re genuinely interested in the students themselves.

They don’t need to be the Hollywood movie version of a teacher.

Alex Kajitani

Nobody needs to be like a Robin Williams character and standing on desks.

But is that superstar, Hollywood version something educators should strive for?

I’ve seen a lot of students who are having lots of fun in the classroom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re engaged with the academic content or engaged in the classroom.

They’re not actually emotionally involved with the academic content. Likewise, you can walk into a classroom that is completely silent, but you can just feel it: “Oh my gosh, every student is totally engaged and working on what they need to be working on.”

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And so engagement doesn’t need to be something that’s loud. Engagement doesn’t need to be something that’s fun, and neither does an engaging teacher. They just need to be emotionally involved. I always encourage teachers to be interested, and be interesting.

I’ve seen many instances where the amazing, incredible beloved teacher, [their] students go on to the next level of class the following year and they really struggle academically because they were so wrapped up in how awesome and amazing the teacher was that the teacher sort of overlooked really making sure that the kids got the academic content or the skills that they needed to move on from that class.

What are the secret ingredients for teachers to spark student motivation?

I have a few. The first sort of secret ingredient is simply confidence. If a teacher goes from having a soft voice and standing in the same place to having this confident voice and moving around and making eye contact, you’re just going to immediately be willing to engage with that teacher. And then by default, you just become much more confident.

And then the other ingredient that is really critical is just really being able to connect with students. You have to know if your students are into baseball or Minecraft or art or cooking or things like that.

The stuff on the screens and the stuff on the phones is really, really engaging. ... It's hard [for educators] to compete with that.

But then we fall really short a lot of times because it’s not enough to just know what your students are interested in. You have to take that and you have to bring it up from time to time.

So to know that Sophia is really into cooking is great. But then when you’re talking about fractions and you say, “Hey, today, we’re going to talk about fractions. Sophia, I know that you’re really into cooking and fractions are a really important part of cooking so that you can get all of your recipes right. You are going to love today’s lesson.”

Nobody needs to be like a Robin Williams character and stand on desks and things like that. (A reference to a teacher in the movie Dead Poets Society.)

A lot of times, quite honestly, real engagement in the classroom happens in a short little sentence, in small quiet interactions in the back of the classroom or at a student’s desk. Real engagement happens when you’re walking by a student in the hallway and you ask them how their music recital went last night.

Is it harder to motivate and engage students now than before the pandemic?

It’s really tough because all of us during the pandemic spent a lot of time on our screens. And you know what? The stuff on the screens and the stuff on the phones is really, really engaging. Everything that’s gamified, it keeps us coming back for more. It’s hard [for educators] to compete with that.

And so, finding ways to go, “OK, what is it that this technology is doing really well? How do I keep my students focused? How do I keep my students engaged and coming back for more?” Those are questions that we can be asking ourselves as educators and learning from the technology.

The first sort of secret ingredient is simply confidence. [...] And then the other ingredient that I think is really critical is just really being able to connect with students.

I really, truly think that students would still rather be in a classroom engaging and collaborating and working with other students and their teacher than staring at a screen. It’s just that we’ve got to find ways to make that time engaging.

Imagine being a student and spending a year or two on these amazing programs and apps. And then you get back to school and the teacher says, “Welcome back: Here’s a worksheet.”

That’s a hard one for students. So, there’s a real opportunity for us to learn from what it is that keeps people hooked on these apps, and this technology, and social media and go, “OK, maybe we’re not going to replicate that precisely in our classrooms, but what can we take from the level of engagement that these things provide and use it to help teach our kids the stuff that we need to teach them?”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as You Don’t Need to Be the Hollywood Version of a Teacher. Here’s What Motivates Students


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