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Propel Students by Understanding What Motivates Them, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Tells Conferees

Every teacher has a bag of tricks to help them connect with students. But for Katrina Stevens, a former English teacher, her bag was empty. She couldn’t reach two female juniors in her classroom 25 years ago.

“I thought they hated me!” she said laughing, while relating the story Friday to an AASA national conference audience in San Diego.

It was no wonder since other teachers didn’t stick around long enough to try. The school in which she worked was a challenging one. She said teacher after teacher left and there was a steady string of substitutes. The school had even seen violence between a teacher and a student, too.

One day, Stevens told the conference attendees she excitedly shared with her class that she just got funding to implement a new program next year. The next day, the two girls tried to connect with her. What she would realize is that she said two magic words: next year. 

“These girls were not going to invest in me until they knew I was going to stay,” she said. “I was using a bag of tricks that wasn’t going to align to their motivation.”

Stevens now works as the director of learning science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Her breakthrough with her two students is the basis for her current work. What the research says that is learning can’t happen until the motivation exists.

During the one-hour conference session, Stevens and her CZI colleague Jared Joiner, applied learning sciences senior manager, illustrated this fact with a series of movie scenes from “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in which he the titular character helps a clarinet player improve.

In a twist, there was a clarinetist in the room who pointed out the connection.

“He actually addressed the emotional state rather than teaching the correct breathing support,” said Thomas Arnett of Clayton Christensen Institute in California and a 25-year clarinet player.

That’s the point, said Stevens.

“When kids show up in a classroom, they don’t just bring their math brain with them, they bring so many other things with them,” said Stevens.

The same holds true for the educators serving the students. By understanding the motivation needed to learn new concepts, educators can find that connection to propel students forward just like Stevens did in her North Philadelphia classroom.

That program she got funded was to support students applying for college. She was there when the two girls returned for their senior year to see them participate in the program and go on to college where they both graduated.

(Lesley Bruinton is the president-elect of the National School Public Relations Association and a contributor to AASA’s Conference Daily Online.).

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