Lazy? Or What?

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking to 70 teachers or so at the Kentucky Accounting Educators’ Forum. At one point in that presentation, I made a comment that working with students who can often be incredibly lazy is a real challenge for every teacher. My guess is that every teacher has mumbled similar words over the years.

Later that day, Randy Hahm who is on the faculty at Kentucky State drove me to the airport. On the way, Randy told me about one of his favorite quotes from Zig Ziglar, the world famous motivational speaker: “There’s no such thing as a lazy person; he’s either sick or uninspired.” I don’t remember much else about that day but those few words have stuck with me since that car trip. My students rarely appear sick. So, whenever I’m dissatisfied with their efforts, is it laziness or is lack of inspiration?

Lazy or uninspired? On the surface, you might ask what difference does that distinction make? I think it makes an important difference as you think about your role as an educator.

--Laziness would mean that a lack of understanding and a resulting poor grade are basically the student’s own fault; the teacher is not the one to blame. I can wash my hands of any guilt. The student got what the student deserved.

--On the other hand, lack of inspiration can be attributed (at least in part) to me as the teacher. If students are not working up to their potential, I have not yet figured out how to get them interested or involved enough. I have not convinced them that the understanding is worth the effort. Instead of blaming the student, perhaps I should try some new type of inspiration. If Zig Ziglar is correct, then I need to look differently at students that I have previously classified as “lazy.” Perhaps, I have washed my hands of guilt a bit too quickly.

Question 1 – how can a teacher inspire students?

For most, inspiration is typically limited to carrots and sticks.

---“Learn this material and you will get a good grade.”
---“Learn this material and you will get a good job.”
---“Learn this material and your mom will be proud.”

Those are all common carrots used to inspire students to do high quality work. Do the work and there is a vague payoff down the line somewhere.

---“Learn this material because it will be on the test.”
---“Learn this material or you are going to fail.”
---“Learn this material because no one is going to hire you with a D on your transcript.”
---“Learn this material or you are wasting your tuition money.”

Those are all sticks used to prod students into working. If you don’t do this work, something bad is going to happen to you.

In the past, I’ve used both carrots and sticks. However, I’m not sure we shouldn’t get away from over-reliance on both carrots and sticks. Actually, I’m not sure they are really inspirations. They seem more like bribes and punishments.

Maybe we should think more about true inspiration.

---“You are capable of doing this. Let me show you how this material might be useful to you as you make decisions in your chosen career.”
---“You are capable of doing this. Let me show you why this material is actually interesting.”
---“You are capable of doing this. Let me show you how working out this answer is like solving a challenging puzzle.”
---“You are capable of doing this. Let me show you how understanding this material will help you as we move to our next topic.”

These are neither bribes nor punishments. A benefit is promised that is more immediate and goes beyond a simple letter grade. The teacher is trying to build confidence while giving the student a legitimate reason for doing the work. The teacher is working to promote inspiration over laziness.

Question 2 – is it your responsibility to inspire students?

But is the teacher really responsible for inspiration? I know plenty of college professors who will say “I teach my classes. The students are adults; it is their responsibility to motivate themselves. Whether they are lazy or uninspired makes no difference to me; it is their problem. It is up to them to prove they want to do well.” That’s a very good point. “Cheerleader” is not part of the job description.

In fact, I have this argument with myself rather frequently. In the end, I always come back to the same point: I want results. By hook or crook, I want results. I want my students to learn and understand. I’m willing to accept some responsibility for student inspiration if it leads to student success.

Recently, a colleague of mine, Randolph New, emailed me a copy of an article from the online version of The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 15, 2012) titled “Can Colleges Manufacture Motivation?” by Dan Berrett. (I do realize that “motivation” and “inspiration” are two different things but I’m not sure students realize that. In fact, perhaps we all try to motivate our students when we really should be trying to inspire them.)

The article discussed the importance of motivation in the success of college students. In this article, according to the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, 2/3 of four-year college students said their motivation levels had stayed the same or actually dropped during their college experience. That’s a fairly high percentage of students who felt absolutely no increase in motivation as a result of college. Okay, here’s the obvious question: How would the educational experience (for students and teachers alike) have changed if all those students had seen an increase in their motivation? My guess is that their classes would have been significantly better in almost every conceivably way. Perhaps some motivation/inspiration really can improve education.

There are two additional thoughts in this article that I want to mention. One was just a wonderful description of the teachder's impact on a student: “There was an identifiable moment in which a faculty member created a spark in them; students became energized or excited by a topic, an idea, or a discipline. In those moments, he said, a faculty member conveyed to the student that he or she could perform on the collegiate level.”

It is hard to read those sentences without becoming excited about teaching. That’s what I got into this business to do. I especially liked the way teachers can create that spark in their students.

The second thought was a more personalized observation within this article: “The researchers in the Wabash study attributed the differences in motivation more narrowly. Their findings suggest that motivation is a product of professors more than it is of colleges.”

When it comes to motivation (or inspiration), it is not the college that counts but rather it is the teacher. Whether you teach at the best known college in the country or the least known, it is not the school that makes the difference; it is the teacher that does. If there is going to be that spark, it has to come from the teacher. If we are going to move away from lazy students to inspired students, it has to come from the teacher.

Question 3 – how do you inspire students?

My final question is just a general one: How do YOU try to inspire your students? Forget about carrots and sticks for a moment. Get away from bribes and punishment. What do you do that might inspire your students? If you have not thought of that question before, today might be a good day to start. If you have even one student that you would classify as lazy, how can you turn that person into an inspired student? In the end, that might make all the difference in the world.

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