Fires in the Mind

In middle school, does a ‘hater’ motivate?

“You need a hater and you need a motivator,” a Chicago ninth grader named Lonya declares in chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind. “The person that’s telling you that you can’t do it–that’s your hater and you want to prove them wrong. And your motivator is the person that’s supporting you. You try your best so you can make your motivator proud.”

Erin Walker, a masters student at the University of Michigan who is preparing to teach middle school math, raised this interesting issue in a letter to me this week:

I personally identify with the idea of a hater and a motivator, but I am not confident that I would have been driven to work harder by a “hater” in 7th and 8th grade. I am doing my student teaching in an 8th grade mathematics classroom, and I am beginning to try to understand the psyche and motivational factors of that age group. I think the desire to defy and prove someone wrong maybe comes later, like early high school years. I think it is easy to quash the motivation of early adolescents because, at this point, they still submit to the authority of the teacher and the parent. The age of rebellion comes later.

I think gentle “hating” still has its place, and could be a great motivator in the classroom. Sometimes when I provide a challenge or a bonus question in my algebra class, I could say something to the effect of “I will be really impressed if you can answer this question because we have not mastered the skills to solve these kinds of problems.” I am not pointedly saying, “I don’t think you can do this,” but I am egging them on a little bit.

Erin makes a great point. In fact, not just middle schoolers but all of us have to believe we can succeed at something if we’re going to lift a finger to try. Perhaps Lonya, in ninth grade, believes that herself–so strongly that she can respond to a put-down with fierce determination to “prove them wrong.” And maybe that confidence was nurtured by some middle school teacher as perceptive and supportive as Erin. What are your thoughts on this?

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2 Responses to “In middle school, does a ‘hater’ motivate?”

  1. Jenna B says:

    I think there are two nuances to this idea. For one, I think that the motivator has to be more meaningful to the student than the hater. That is to say, the student will be more affected by a person whose opinion they value more. If the motivator is someone that the student holds in very high esteem, while the hater isn’t, then they have enough positive reinforcement and JUST enough hating to really push them to succeed. If things are the other way around, with a role model or valued authority doing the hating, it could crush the student’s determination.

    Related to this idea is the difference between peer hating, and authority, or teacher hating. I think even in middle school, a peer or classmate that is a hater would provide a student with more determination to succeed. I think Erin is right that at the middle school age, a teacher hating would probably do more harm than good, even with the presence of a motivator, I think that kids develop a desire to prove unfriendly peers wrong very early in life. So maybe the bigger factor is not the age of the student in question, but the age or status of the motivator and the hater.

    I have a student in the high school English classroom where I am student teaching that wrote a journal entry to me in which he talked about his ADD. He said that no one in the school understood him, even his counselors, saying that his ADD wasn’t a “disease” but just caused him to look at the world differently. It sounded like he viewed teachers and counselors as haters, who thought there was something wrong with him. But he also said that he’s doing extremely well in his hands-on engineering class, and this success has given him the confidence to see his strengths, and not just his shortcomings. I’m not sure what his relationship is with the teacher of that engineering class is, but I’m glad to know that he’s not letting his haters get him down, and he’s been able to identify and embrace his strengths.

  2. I want to ask kids about this again! The middle schoolers who contributed to my previous book Fires in the Middle School Bathroom seemed VERY sensitive to the “hating” of their peers–it would either shut them right up, or it would start fights! If other readers want to ask students about this I would be very interested in their posts!

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