Gwen Webster is standing in the open doorway of her fourth-grade classroom. One moment she is looking out to the playground where most of her students are playing and the next moment she turns to look into the classroom where two students continue to sit. She has kept the two students in because they have not finished their assignment. She had certainly warned them of this possibility, but they wouldn’t get to work, so now she has determined to “increase their concern about finishing the work.”
Except, as she looks back into the classroom, neither Vaughn nor Laurel seems the least bit concerned about their work. And so Gwen stands in the open doorway, fretting just a bit about the cold of the winter morning air exchanging places with the warmth of the heated classroom through that open door, and fretting just a bit that she can’t be with her colleagues, whose classrooms shared this recess time, chatting in a small group out by the playground equipment.
As her frustration grows, Gwen Webster begins to think about other ways to make these kids get their work done. Tony got his work done, although as she looks at the disheveled worksheet that he thrust into her hand before zooming out the field to play football with his classmates she realizes that what he completed barely merits a passing score. Yet he turned something in. What is with these other two kids? she thinks to herself. And so she stands in the doorway, her left side feeling the warmth of the classroom, her right the chill of the winter air, and continues to think about what she needs to do to get Vaughn and Laurel to finish their assignment.
She looks at Laurel, who is quietly reading a book at her desk, seemingly oblivious to her teacher’s concern. And then she looks at Vaughn, who is quietly yet angrily sitting at his desk. Well, he can be as angry as he wants, she again thinks to herself. As far as I’m concerned, he can sit there until the cows come home, but that assignment will get done. She looks at her watch. Still 10 minutes to go for recess.
This excerpt from Soul Shapers: A Better Plan for Parents and Educators (2005) is based on a common classroom occurrence – that being, students don’t complete work so the teacher comes up with a response intended to make them do it. Let’s continue with the excerpt and see what we can learn from Gwen Webster.
Earlier in the morning she had threatened to keep students in from recess if they did not finish their assignment. A number of the students got to work and finished it on time. Was it wrong for Gwen to think that she made them do their work? They hadn’t been doing their work, but she intervened and made them do it. Right? As you are thinking about this, let’s examine the experiences and thinking of several of Gwen’s students, including Laurel and Vaughn, who are still sitting at their desks.
Avery is one of the students out on the playground. He is an excellent student and actually was enjoying the social studies worksheet. He does well in all of his subjects, even the ones he doesn’t particularly like. He likes to read and is good at organizing his thoughts and writing them out afterward. He knows he is considered smart by others and wants to continue to be viewed that way. The approval of his teachers and parents is important to him. When his teacher was threatening his classmates to get to work, Avery was so focused on completing his assignment that he was only vaguely aware of what she was saying. He was now out on the playground, but the fact that he was out there had nothing to do with his teacher threatening him and making him do his work.
Kendra is also out on the playground, even though she is not known for being an excellent student. Kendra is actually quite bright and is, in fact, gifted in the areas of music and art. She isn’t that exited about reading, and struggles a bit with writing her thoughts out, unless it is lyrics to a song. She was one of the students that got to work when her teacher threatened to keep people in who didn’t finish the assignment. She likes recess and figured the work wasn’t that big of a deal. She also didn’t want to get on her teacher’s bad side. Better to do it now, she figured, than to have to do it at home later. One of her favorite TV shows was on that evening, and there was no sense in jeopardizing that. She didn’t consciously process all of these thoughts, but regardless, she ended up choosing to finish her work on time.
Tony was another matter. He is kinesthetically gifted and seems to be a classroom leader, although his leadership is not always appreciated by his teacher. Actually, he is smart in other ways, too, but so far people have caught only occasional glimpses of the kind of quality work he can produce. He is a good reader and writer when he wants to be.
On this particular morning he and some of the other boys had been talking about the football game on TV last night, and that had led to some bragging and such; next thing you know, teams had been divided in preparation for the “big game” during the morning recess. Tony took this pretty seriously and was working on getting ready for the game, assigning positions for the guys on his team and making new plays instead of completing his assignment. When he first heard his teacher threatening to keep students in from recess, he looked at the clock and figured he would have time to get it all done. But as recess time grew closer, his thinking changed from I still have time to get this done to She won’t really make us stay in if we don’t have it done.
A conversation Tony overheard between his teacher and Vaughn convinced him that she was serious, though it was too late. Tony panicked as he saw that only kids handing Mrs. Webster a completed assignment could head to the playground. His powers of intelligence kicked in and he scanned the paper to assess what he could do to fix the situation. He quickly realized that while reading the assigned section in the textbook would improve the quality of the answers, one could actually answer the questions without doing the reading. This he quickly proceeded to do.
He presented the assignment, a bit crumpled and a bit hurried, to his teacher while glancing out to the playground to make sure that the teams looked right. “Oh, all right, go ahead,” Gwen Webster said, indicating for Tony to head for the door of freedom to the playground. She could see that his answers were hurried, but he did turn something in. His worksheet might have been hurried, but the three pages of football plays stuffed in his pocket were really quite good.
All of Tony’s plays were designed on the principle of faking out the other team. Send all of your players to the right, except for a halfback who delays and then goes out to the left. The play is meant to make the defensive team think that the play is heading a certain direction when actually it is going the exact opposite direction. Gwen Webster had just been faked out. As she stood in the doorway telling Tony he could go out to the playground she wasn’t satisfied with the quality of his work, but she did feel that she had succeeded in “making him” do it and turn it in. In fact, this was not true. Tony had reasons of his own, motivations that were important to him, that prompted his choice to get his work done.
That brings us to Laurel and Vaughn, still at their desks, and still not having started the assignment. Laurel sits with her knees curled up to her chest (not easy to do on a classroom chair) and reads a book she has brought from home. She is an excellent reader and a good student, even an excellent student at times. She has an inner strength about her that is noticeable, a self-awareness, if you will. Her answers are thoughtful and usually come from a perspective that is unique compared to that of the rest of her classmates. Her classmates are important to her, and she is also aware of and talented with social connections. She has a tendency to be “up” or “down,” though, which can be hard to figure out until you get to know her.
On this morning a couple of things are on Laurel’s mind. One is not so important, the other is very important. The less important thing is the fact that she left her house this morning without her jacket. She thought she had left it in the car the day before, but when she got to the car it wasn’t there, and they were already running late, so she arrived at school without it. The more important thing has to do with the fact that she and Stephanie are in a tiff, and now some of their mutual friends are involved. Laurel thinks, is sure, in fact, that they are going to snub her at recess. Stephanie is acting as if I should apologize to her and it telling our friends that, when in fact it should be Stephanie apologizing to me, Laurel thought to herself as she sat at her desk, curled up and reading. She didn’t want to have anything to do with any of them. So there! she added silently, yet emphatically.
Without insightful probing, there isn’t much chance that Gwen would know what is going on in Laurel’s thinking. And the issue for us at the moment isn’t what Gwen could have done or said as much as it is the need for us to realize that Laurel is motivated by thinking and perceptions that are important to her. The teacher’s threats did not overrule the fact that she did not have a jacket and didn’t really want to go outside, or that she was in a tiff with her friends and would just as soon not have to deal with them right then. Laurel is an example of a person who makes a choice, even in the face of threats or punishment, for reasons that have to do with internal motivation.
Vaughn is another such example. Vaughn sits at his desk, still and seething. His little heart is beating a bit faster, and if he had a pencil in his hand at the moment he would probably break it. Vaughn is actually quite bright, but most people miss his brightness and focus on his troubled life. Vaughn is at school because his grandmother is paying for the tuition (she can barely afford it on her fixed income, but the church is helping a bit, too). He lives with his mother (another story in itself) and his little sister. No one seems to know anything about the missing dad.
Although young, Vaughn already feels that he has to fight to get his “place in life.” He lives by the adage that “it isn’t important that you get good attention or bad attention, as long as you get attention.” To be sure, most of the attention that Vaughn gets is bad attention. Other students care about what their teachers think of them; Vaughn doesn’t seem to. Other students want to go to this school; Vaughn doesn’t. He seems to range from defensive to aggressive, and adults seem to talk a lot about what to do with Vaughn.
He doesn’t read much, as there are almost no books at home. He doesn’t write much either, although he is certainly capable of both. He looked at the social studies worksheet when the teacher handed it out, but nothing on the worksheet grabbed him. It was just one more thing that he was supposed to do in school. He delayed a bit in getting started, since he was somewhat involved with some of the football talk going back and forth. Ted had encouraged him to get his assignment done so that he could be on Ted’s team.
Vaughn was actually getting his textbook out of his desk to get started when Mrs. Webster first announced that anyone not finishing the assignment would not go out to recess. The more he thought about what she said, the more it bugged him. People are always trying to make me do stuff, he thought to himself. I don’t want to do this stupid worksheet anyway. She can’t make me do it. Better yet, maybe they’ll kick me out. At his young age Vaughn had only a vague appreciation for his own reputation, although that sense was growing. Something inside was driving him to be unique, to be himself, to create his niche.
“People behave for TOTALLY personal reasons.”
Gwen was beginning to engage in a “fight” with Vaughn, though not on purpose. She would not have described it as a competition, but that is what it was. If pressed, Gwen would have said that “for Vaughn’s sake I am going to win this thing.” Again, the key at this point isn’t reviewing what Gwen was doing. The key is understanding that Vaughn sat there seething and determined for reasons totally inside of himself. Regardless of her arsenal of stimuli, Gwen was not going to make Vaughn do much of anything.
The story of Gwen Webster, Laurel, and Vaughn explains how people behave for totally personal reasons – not occasional personal reasons, not some personal reasons, not even for mostly personal reasons. Again, people behave for totally personal reasons. This is the key to internal control psychology. It is a key to understanding and applying Choice Theory.
Boss-managers firmly believe that people can be motivated from the outside:
they fail to understand that all of our motivation comes from within ourselves.
This excerpt from Soul Shapers is taken from a chapter entitled – Dog Saliva, Pigeons, and Children – which explores the effects of stimulus-response strategies in homes and classrooms. Soul Shapers can be easily accessed through Amazon. I was recently informed by my students that a cheap digital copy of the book is available through Google Books.