Jessica Watson

I don't want to learn!

The biggest teaching hurdle: motivation

Motivation. It is something everyone struggles with both in life and teaching; motivation to learn, motivation to forge ahead and motivation to keep pushing on even when you are starting to feel a bit hopeless.

Motivation in the classroom, both from the teachers and the students, is essential for learning but it is a tricky balance to strike since the two are so interconnected; if the teacher loses motivation, so do the students and if the students lose motivation, so does the teacher.

Recently, I have been trying to strike this balance with my current students; the ones who are older than 5 and have realized that school is no longer about singing songs and coloring pictures.


I'll be honest, it hasn't been easy and I've been wary about how many "motivational tools" I use like stickers because I don't want to fall into the trap of having them expecting rewards for every single thing they do in every single class.

Eventually, they need to understand that learning doesn't always have physical rewards like a sticker. I remember being just as unmotivated and bored by the material as my current students, but it doesn't mean as a teacher, I don't get frustrated when the students aren't listening to me or not taking the lesson seriously.

There have certainly been a few cases where I wanted to rip my hair out, or just walk out, or scream at the top of my lungs. But, we all know that those reactions are not useful, and instead I put on my game face and tried to get as creative as possible.

Student engagement

I have been incorporating some movement in the classroom, i.e. having them float around the classroom and asking questions of each other or playing charades, and I have seen some improvement from that. I remember being annoyed in class by the rigidity of sitting in one place for a long period of time, and so I think getting the students to move around and bit and interact with each other keeps them better engaged with the material.

I've also had some success with team-building exercises and some healthy competition; they seem more motivated to learn the material if they are competing against someone else. These implementations have kept the class a bit more lively, and I've seen a bit more interest in the "boring" subjects like spelling and writing.


My other suggestion is: discover what makes your students tick. For example, my students LOVE Hangman, so much so that they beg me every class to play. Instead of letting their incessant begging annoy me, I made a deal with them that they get three stars and if they misbehave, don't listen or don't take focus on the material I will erase a star and if all three stars are erased, then we won't play a game of Hangman at the end of class.

So far, it has worked and now I have other students monitoring their friends behavior because they know if one misbehaves, all of them don't get to play a game.

I also have a student I give one-on-one lessons to who struggles with motivation and he even told me flat-out he doesn't want to learn. The same day he told me that, I had brought in a brand-new lesson plan that was part of a series based on a detective story and I was really excited about it, so that was a huge blow to my motivation.

Well, I remember that the student likes to draw, so I asked him to draw me pictures depicting the vocabulary words and the story and voila! The student's interest in the lesson returned, he retained the vocabulary words and the lesson was saved and we are both looking forward to the next one!

What can the teacher do?

Find something that interests your students, use material that intrigues then and get their attention by using a bit of movement in the classroom.

It won't be easy at first, I know, but persevere and and when you get really frustrated, just remember what it was like when you were a student and laugh at the irony of now being a teacher and being frustrated with the same antics you and your friends pulled many, many, many years ago!


I would be happy to help! and I would love to learn more about your teaching in Georgia! Can you please email me at

By Jessica, Phnom Pen, Cambodia (20th December 2011)

Hi Jessica
I have tried to email you but this computer blocks so many sites and your personal blog is one of them. I am currently teaching in Georgia and my sister and I would love to move to Asia in June 2012. Cambodia and Vietnam are on our list! We don't have TEFLs and dont plan on getting one anytime soon. Can you email me back and advise me on what we can do? And where we can start to look for jobs. We are South African! Thanks and I feel you on the lack of motivation in second language classes!

By Zarina, Georgia, Europe (20th December 2011)

Motivation doesn't seem to be one of your problems :).

Enjoyed your piece, again.

By Scott, China but will soon be back in BKK (10th December 2011)

Cheers to you for teaching M students! I'm still a bit intimidated by that age group as they can be a lot more brave with their comments and behavior!
I enjoyed reading about your methods too, and will keep the in mind when the time comes to teach older students. I think it's important to strike a balance with rewards and encouraging them to be engaged in learning all the time. I agree that games that include some English are the best "rewards" because they are at least still practicing the language. And I really like using a "3 strikes" method that is visible to the students because I feel it gives them more control and keeps them accountable...and I especially appreciate when they start telling their classmates to be quiet or pay attention because they realize if their classmates misbehave, no one gets to play a game....makes the job a bit easier!

By Jessica Watson, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (7th December 2011)

Yes I agree, it's not good to continuously give stickers or candies as rewards for paying attention in class....I've been a lot more scrupulous with my stickers this time around. Instead, I'll reward them with a game that incorporates English, like Hangman...they get their "fun" and I feel satisfied that at least they are still practicing English(and I don't have to spend money on stickers!).

By Jessica Watson, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (7th December 2011)

I enjoyed reading your post on motivation, and insights you shared on motivating your students. As you stated, everyone struggles with motivation at some point. I teach M1-M3 students, and I experience similar challenges with motivating my students.

My techniques for motivating students are similar to your techniques. I keep students engaged with material that is relevant to their lives. It can be a challenge to teach Excel to M1 students, and keep them engaged and enjoying the class. Finding ideas that get them interested in the topic is my first step.

I like your use of the “three stars” to get to play the game at the end of class. I employ a similar system. If the class is able to “hold it together” for the class time, I will provide some form of reward in the form of an English language game such as Hangman. If we are in the computer lab, I will give them time to play on the BBC educational websites ( or depending on grade level). They’re great sites with lots of educational material and games, and the fair majority of students tend to enjoy them.

Inevitably, I have at least one student who approaches me each term, and tells me they have no interest in learning, being in school, or doing any form of work. Similar to you, I have to find out what the student likes and doesn’t like. Most students thoroughly enjoy playing in Photoshop. Whatever they might like to do, like you, I’ll tie that in as a reward for good behavior.

At any rate, motivating students is an effort that requires time and patience. I enjoyed reading your post, and look forward to reading more.

By Brett, Bangkok, Thailand (4th December 2011)

Very good ideas. Yes, I use to give a lot of stickers dor motivation and even candies. But how long can I sustain their interest to learn by these. Yes,, games are very helpful and I integrate them in my lessons. You are right in saying that we have to find something that the students like to do as a trade for their lack of interest and disruptive behavior. This is what I do with my super active Grade 2 class. I tell them, we can have video from my notebook if we finish our lesson and you behave.- It works a lot.

By Benito Vacio, Nonthaburi (4th December 2011)

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