Do you easily identify with “Go to your room and think about what you have done!” or “You will clean the house the whole week for what you have done”? If the latter makes more sense to you, you are in the right company. Many parents, teachers alike, prefer using work punitively; no wonder most of us have poor work ethics. How can we change this mindset and convey the value of hard work to our students?
I cannot think of a better way to highlight the role of education as a path to good work than to reiterate the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Among its many roles, education — formal or informal — serves to help people experience and embrace such truths about work.
One of the things educators should guard against is external reward or its opposite: work punishment. I’m yet to meet someone diligent and industrious just because another person told them to be so, or promised to punish them if they didn’t. According to Daniel Pink in “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” an external reward will be highly effective, but only for lower-skilled tasks. He points out that paying casual workers more to put tires on cars faster does work, but this idea is short lived and unsustainable. Teach learners to work smart and hard for work’s sake not for rewards or fear of punishment.
Instead of rewards, stress the value of the task. Think about how you can make your subject matter feel important to your students. Consider creating a positive drive in the learners to enjoy the tasks you have created. If you’re saying to yourself, “I teach this because I’m told to,” then it’s time to think about changing your perception of your work and, by extension, the ways your students perceive your class. Assign students important, valuable tasks that make a personal connection, and they’ll work harder in your class.
Also, speak about work joyfully. If you speak to your class of the “blessed burden” of work, you will be far more likely to persuade your students to come along with you. We can all think of parts of our lives where a strong work ethic is a joy in its own right that encourages us to tackle a job with enthusiasm. Being able to see the joy of working hard and the feeling of satisfaction at the end will provide a strong example to your students about why they should do the same.
Finally, don’t judge the ‘lazy’ student. More often than not, you will find that ‘lazy’ students have issues that go far beyond their work ethic. Rather, they may lack the support at home, have had poor experiences with teachers and learning in the past, or could not make a connection with the subject matter. Your first move should be to not superficially judge them and then attempt to connect with them during a one-on-one meeting. Explain the subject matter, offer to be there to help them master it and reinforce your expectations. Often, a personal touch like this is all it takes to get through to a child who seems unmotivated.