“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?