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How to Motivate Teens to Want to Learn

This past year I spent a majority of my time in classrooms. I was there to encourage and support teachers, many of whom were burned out and completely frustrated.

“They just don’t care.”

“No matter what I do I can’t get them to engage.”

“Nothing I say matters. I am not sure they even know what’s going on.”

“No matter how hard I try, or how many times I change things up, the result has been the same: they just don’t want to do the work.

These are seasoned teachers. These are teachers who made it through the pandemic and are still in the classroom. These are teachers who care.

What’s the problem? We have a whole population of students who are completely unmotivated to learn.

If you are a parent, you get it too. I have worked with so many parents this past year whose chief complaint is that their teen is unmotivated to get school work done, get organized, and even get prepared for life after high school.

The question we should all be asking is Why? Why are they so unmotivated? Here’s the top three reasons I have seen in classrooms and heard from students themselves:

  • They do not find their course content relevant to their personal gain.

  • They do not believe they need to be fully engaged in every class and with every assignment, but the expectation is that they should be.

  • They are weary of a system that said one thing during the pandemic, and then did a complete 180 afterwards.

Now, before you start to believe “these kids just don’t get it”, take a moment to consider the education system from their perspective. They are in up to seven different classrooms, learning seven different types of content, every day. The focus of the majority of their classes is on preparation for college; the required classes they have to take to be eligible to be able to apply to colleges is usually what they are enrolled in, with some room for electives. Every teacher has different methods, grading, and even expectations. The majority of their courses are focused on making sure they get the work done to get a good grade so they can get into college. Rarely is the content shown to be relevant to developing professional skills of potential careers (unless it’s a CTE course, which are usually graduation requirements and take away space for other electives).

I have been a teacher since the early 90’s. I have been a parent of two children who experienced multiple education institutions (public, private, charter and homeschool) and I tell you I would not want to be a student in high school today. If you were to spend a week as a student, you wouldn’t either. Trust me.

Lack of student motivation is a huge problem for all of us. If they continue to tune out the world around them, narrowing their focus to only where they feel gratification, where does that leave them? Our communities? Our future?

We have got to fix this.

Here’s what we shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t label them lazy. They are not. They are uninspired and yes, it is up to us to inspire them to want to learn.

  • Don’t label them failures. They are not. They are just tired of trying to fit into the one-size-fits-all college-is-for-all mentality and don’t know how to build additional pathways to success that makes sense to them and yes, it is up to us to equip them.

  • Don’t label them the same as every generation before them. We can’t teach them the same way as we’ve been doing. They are over it, bored, and uninterested in the assembly-line approach we have built. They long for independence and freedom to explore, find meaning, and understand the relevance of their coursework.

Here’s what we should do:

  • Let go of being in control of the content. We have set the bar of expectation low so that we can make sure every student can succeed. This looks good on paper, but is disastrous in the classroom. We have standards. We have students. Why don’t we build accountability for them to develop their own ways to master the content?

  • Let go of the college-for-all mentality. The expectation that every student should go to college is outdated and, frankly, absurd. There are literally thousands of essential, livable-wage careers for which a 4-year degree is not required that should not be considered “beneath” any of us, or our kids.

  • Let go of insisting students learn the material “because.” Our subject matter is important because it sets up a solid foundation. However, the mentality around why we teach it is outdated. We can reframe students’ perceptions and ignite enthusiasm when we teach them how our subjects influence their future success in a career. It doesn’t matter if it’s an English class or a Math class. All subject matter can be made relevant to students’ future career ambitions. In fact, we can empower THEM to prove its relevance, rather than making sure we create it for them.

Low student motivation is affecting more than their success; its affecting the very teachers who sought to educate them.

We, parents, community members, educator, and career counselors, need to work together to reimagine the culture of success in our homes, businesses, classrooms, and schools to break the one-size-fits-all mold and instead equip all students to build a pathway to a future career they are excited to pursue.

When we do we will see a rise in student motivation, the return of passion to our educators, and the fulfillment of the careers necessary to run our communities effectively.

For more on this topic, please check out my June and July 2022 YouTube channel playlists.

I’d love your feedback! Connect with me on Facebook and Instagram

If you are a parent of a high school student or early college student, please join my College Is Not Mandatory Facebook group for encouragement, support, and additional strategies to navigate these years with confidence!


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