In our culture, we often label people as “unambitious” or “unmotivated,” as if self-will is the only driver of success. And when we speak of structural obstacles, we risk being labeled as “lazy” or “complainers.”
We like to think that everyone has an equal chance in America, that we play on an even field. We like to think our successes are due to our own merit. We often forget that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and that we enjoy advantages in some areas of our lives that we didn’t earn by our own effort.
Recognizing our privilege can feel threatening. Compassion can be difficult.
You may have heard the cliché about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” It’s an old analogy, and the origins aren’t familiar to most people today. It dates back to a time when a person needed assistance in putting on and taking off boots. If you were a peasant, for example a farmer, your boots would have flaps hanging down on each side, that looked rather like puppy-dog ears. You would use these “bootstraps” to pull your boots on, then later you’d use a “boot jack” to take them off.
Bootstraps still exit today in this form (you may have these on some of your own shoes and boots):
“Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” means living independently and taking responsibility for yourself, not expecting any assistance from others. It can be a useful idea – as long as we remember that not everyone has boots, let alone bootstraps. The tools for success are not readily available to all of us.
Let’s cultivate compassion today. Let’s remember that we live in community with others.
A few days ago, I learned that one of my high school teachers had passed away. This knowledge has led to some very mixed feelings, as I see on social media that many of my former classmates are mourning him and reflecting on his positive qualities. To some, he was an inspiring individual who pushed them to do their best.
I was afraid of him. To me, he was a bully. He openly played favorites, and even those who were his favorites would acknowledge this. They recognized it even then, but what could they do? If you were a favorite, you enjoyed your status, and if you weren’t, you tried to endure it. Teenagers don’t always have the mental and emotional resources to cope with these things.
One of my former classmates posted a video from the late 80s, where this teacher reflected on his career and the students he’d worked with. He used the word “motivation” countless times in this interview, stating that he most enjoyed working with the “motivated” students, disliked working with the “unmotivated” ones, and felt that “motivation” was the X-factor that caused some students to succeed and others to fail. As I listened to this, I found myself hoping that he eventually came to understand student performance differently.
For me, motivation wasn’t the issue – I liked school and wanted to do well. I usually did. But this teacher’s hyper-critical nature scared me so much that I was unable to perform at my best (or at all). I remember having his class first period in the morning, and being unable to eat breakfast, going to school every day with nausea and an upset stomach. Many of his verbal barbs were directed at me, and it hurt. I was still a kid, and kids want to believe that adults support them, especially those in positions such as “teacher.” He scared me, he hurt me, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Over the years I’ve heard a bit about the personal difficulties he went through during those years, and how those affected his demeanor. I can forgive that; he was human. But whether I forgive it or not, the scars are still there, and can’t be undone. Since I can’t change any of this, I can reflect on how it affects my own teaching, and how my students might feel if I criticize them harshly, instead of helpfully.
Above all else, I sincerely hope that this man came to rethink his attitudes about “motivation” being the X-factor in student success. Intrinsic motivation is only one of the keys to a young person’s confidence and ability to flourish, and whatever their drive to succeed, that drive is not the only thing they need. As anyone who’s studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs can tell you, we need to have our basic needs met before we can even think about “success” – and for students, these needs encompass not only food and shelter, but a supportive family, and a nurturing circle of adults around them.
I was motivated, but he scared me. He was harsh, even cruel, at times. That threw a great big bucket of cold water over my motivation.
Let’s work to dispel the myth that if someone just works hard enough, tries hard enough, is “motivated” enough, success is sure to follow. Motivation isn’t the only driver of success, and motivation can be a delicate thing. Sometimes the motivation itself needs to be nurtured in order for the young person’s talent to truly emerge. They need more than motivation – they need confidence and support.
Rest in peace, then, Mr. __. I can’t say I liked you or admired you, but I did learn a lot from you. Mostly I learned how I don’t want to be.