I am, in all seriousness, the definition of an anal-retentive overachiever. I was the kid who wanted to get A++++’s in every class. I am the curve breaker. I am that kid that asked, “Can I read the next chapter too?” Yup, you probably hated people like me being in your class, or still do. But, I’ve always felt that I needed to produce high-quality products in every aspect of my life. Now, don’t get me wrong, this drive has gotten me to doctoral work in music education. It has allowed me to stay focused on the goal of becoming a college professor since I was 18. But, why did I do it? Why do I feel the need to do better.
Part of it is has to do with my own competitiveness. I never did well in sports, but boy could I “beat you” in science projects or research papers. However, I’ve been realizing that such competitiveness requires me to measure my own worth based on the worth of others. This is not the best way to be motivated. It means that when others who I might not see as “winning” as much as I get praise and I don’t, I feel jealous, I feel wronged. My self worth and sense of self is contingent upon how well you are doing in relation to me. If I’m doing better, I win. Do you see the problem here? I do and I’m taking steps to deal with it. The problem is that I rarely do work for myself. I rarely do things because they make me feel good, they help me develop as a person. Now, I’m beginning to wonder how much I’ve “inspired” my students to live for themselves or to live in opposition of others. Have I helped to develop agents or just competitors?
The other part of my motivation has to do with the reward. I’m always stretching for the carrot. When I get that carrot, the grade or the reward, I find a new carrot to run after. So, I’m amassed quite a collection of carrots, but those are only external things that appear of my transcripts, in newspapers, and clutter shelves. Rewards can be a good thing, but they can also be problematic when all one does is try to be rewarded. In high school, I worked towards getting straight A’s and being a valedictorian. In undergraduate, I worked toward straight A’s (which I didn’t quite achieve), to be distinguished as a music educator, and to become a university honors recipient (bronze tablet at UIUC). In my master’s degree, I still worked toward straight A’s and to be able to show that I was smart enough to get into a great Ph.D. program. I achieved all of these things, and I’ve remained driven, but what have I missed by staying so focused on external things? My varsity jacket of life is covered in patches and brass stars, but what lays underneath? When did I do things for me and not so other people would recognize me as being a great person? Grades have helped me stay driven, but do they signify that I have learned? What does an A or an S mean, anyway?
When I’ve done intrinsically rewarding things, I don’t really need the grades or the applause. I think back on creating an 80’s rock concert with my 4th and 5th graders. I could have seriously not even been at the concert to have felt the entire venture was rewarding. Kids sang solos and playing instruments to songs they picked and worked out. Dancers danced their own dances in front of a screen that displayed student animations and scripted comedy routines. What we did was fun and what we did was for us. The concert may have been an initial motivator, but it really didn’t matter because the experiences carried more weight for myself and my students (at least it seems so). Also, when I write song, I really don’t care if others like them, they are for me. But, in some ways, when I do things that feel good and are not as clearly connected to an extrinsic reward, I feel selfish and dirty. Why is that?
Why do I feel bad when I’m intrinsically motivated and feel awesome and focused when there is something out there to win? Am I alone? How did I get here? Is there some way to balance these impulses? How can I get my students to realize that it is okay to do something for themselves, something that makes they feel internally valuable. That doesn’t mean we should teach our students to be withdrawn and hedonistic. But, how can we help them see the intrinsic rewards of being driven and doing good? I felt intrinsically good when I helped a friend move recently. I did it because it made me feel good and I knew it helped someone I cared about. I didn’t do it for the pizza (which was delicious and unexpected) and I didn’t do it so he would thank me; I did it for me. But, how can we foster this type of motivation in our classrooms? Self-worth and internal growth is very hard to measure in any quantifiable sense. So, how valuable are grades anyway?
Instead of starting on a tirade about grading practices (as I know there are positives and negatives wrapped up in this realistic issue), I’ll just leave you with these wonderments:
- What motivates learners?
- How do learners measure their own worth?
- Where do grades fit in?
- What do we report on report cards?
- What motivates you?
- How do you measure your own worth?
- What does that mean for your life and for your teaching?