Developing an Effective Work Ethic in Your Students

Why do people work hard?

If you’re reading my blog on your own time when you could be doing other things, you probably have a strong and effective work ethic, which has one side effect: Your work ethic is so deeply ingrained that it’s impossible to consider the question objectively.

Tips on improving students' work ethic

The question that we should be asking is: How do we convey the value of hard work to our students? Keep these points in mind:

Remember, you’re planting seeds

Over 20 years ago I cut this quote by Thomas Merton out of a newsletter:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all. … As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of the personal relationship that saves everything.”

I’m sharing this as a reminder that helping students develop positive qualities like increasing their academic knowledge, making worthwhile personal choices and being contributing members of society may flourish only when they’re long finished with your class. Perhaps years or even decades down the road, something clicks with them, and those things you wanted them to know, think and believe become parts of their lives.

Merton wants us to focus on the personal relationship, that connection, that should drive our work. You can turn yourself inside out trying to reach your students and get nothing more than a shrug for all your efforts. Even so, don’t give up.

Be careful with external rewards

I’ve never met someone who was diligent and hardworking because another person told them to be. A strong work ethic can come from a variety of factors.

Try to avoid external rewards like pizza parties or stickers, which lose effectiveness after third grade. According to Daniel Pink in “Drive,” an external reward will be highly effective, but only for lower-skilled tasks. He points out that paying assembly line workers more to put tires on a cars faster does work, and that a bonus can lead to performance improvement, but this idea doesn’t always work for the highly cognitive work of doctors, lawyers or teachers.

Also, connecting a cash reward to something measurable opens the door for misbehavior. If you want proof, do a Google search for “Atlanta cheating scandal” and prepare to be shocked by the extent to which hundreds of teachers and school administrators cheated on state tests that were tied to bonuses.

Stress the value of the task

Think about how you can make your subject matter feel important to your students. If you’re saying to yourself, “I teach this because I’m told to,” then it’s time to think about changing your perception of your work and, by extension, the ways your students perceive your class. Assign students important, valuable tasks that make a personal connection, and they’ll work harder in your class.

Speak of hard work as joyful work

If you speak to your class of the “blessed burden” of hard work, you will be far more likely to persuade your students to come along with you. We can all think of parts of our lives where a strong work ethic is a joy in its own right that encourages us to tackle a job with enthusiasm.

Think of the home hobbyist who spends hours perfecting the model plane or the author who labors over words and text long into the night. Being able to see the joy of working hard and the feeling of satisfaction at the end will provide a strong example to your students about why they should do the same.

Don’t judge the ‘lazy’ student

More often than not, you will find that “lazy” students have issues that go far beyond their work ethic. Rather, they may lack the support at home, have had poor experiences with teachers and learning in the past, or could not make a connection with the subject matter.

Your first move should be to not superficially judge them and then attempt to connect with them during a one-on-one meeting. Explain the subject matter, offer to be there to help them master it and reinforce your expectations. Often, a personal touch like this is all it takes to get through to a child who seems unmotivated.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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