Changing the School Environment to Change Student Motivation

10.15.2020 ,

By Paul Hussman, Counselor at Parkway Central High School

The subject of student motivation is an extremely complex one. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to instill in our students sources of internal pride and accomplishment through means of intrinsic motivation. Virtually any literature you look at across race, socioeconomic status, or gender shows you that students learn better, and are better set up for future success if we are able to inspire their intrinsic motivation. For these reasons I see why chose to focus on the motivation of students in Principle 7. If we can get our students to do good for the sake of doing good, and learn for the sake of expanding their knowledge, we are certainly setting up our students for fulfilling and successful lives. That would be the ideal, and while I do believe that Dr. Benninga made some good points in his critique of Principle 7 by analyzing it through the lens of human development, I do think acknowledges that external rewards can be utilized initially with the goal of building intrinsic motivation. Concerning the motivation of students, I believe a more glaring issue needs to be addressed. In my experiences with marginalized students (race, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status) our society doesn’t provide them an equal playing field in education. Without safe and trusting environments, it is even harder for intrinsic measures to be the primary motivators for students.


When we started a support group for male students of color last year it proved difficult to get students to show up, and I could not blame them. Why should they give up their time and trust to a white male authority figure when most of what they have experienced and seen in our society tells them that it isn’t worth it, and often times is not safe? These marginalized students are growing up in a country that was built on, and continues to thrive on systematic racism. There are very few spaces that they are allowed to be themselves and let their guards down. A support group led by a while male, in a predominantly white school, certainly isn’t one of those places. In order for students to look beyond grades, or look beyond other extrinsic motivators they need to feel like they are safe and in a trusting environment. A lot of students at my high school who are white, come from upper-middle class homes, and are privileged in many senses of the word, do experience a safe and trusting environment at school. For some of my students though, that just isn’t the case. Many of the students in our support group come from neighborhoods that look nothing like the one they go to school in and oftentimes feel like outsiders at school. These marginalized students are just as capable of finding the motivation within themselves to learn and contribute positively to our school, but they often have to keep their guard up or have to question why they are treated differently than other students in the building. Our current school environment, and I would imagine most school environments around the country, do not provide an optimal climate that encourages intrinsic motivation for our marginalized students.


We ended up having some very real conversations in our support group around some of the same issues I have talked about in this essay. The young men were able to let their guard down and talk about how they felt like outsiders in their own school, and the subtle and not so subtle racism that they encountered every day in our school community. In an ideal world these students would have wanted to be a part of the support group just for the sake of learning more about themselves and becoming better human beings. Those intrinsic motivators are great to strive for as educators, but in reality we brought pizza to the first meeting as a gesture of good faith and to welcome them to the group. By using that extrinsic reward we were able to help build a trusting environment that will hopefully one day lead to the growth and expansion of intrinsic motivation. Before that can happen on a consistent basis, we have work to do as a school and a society in general. We can start by providing training to faculty members on trauma informed care and social/racial justice. By helping educate the people who are creating the learning environments for our students, we can create a safer, more inclusive, and more trusting environment that will help all students find the intrinsic motivation within them to succeed.