I remember the first time I decided to try and use a student’s natural competitive spirit as a way to motivate her to improve her behavior in my classroom. Now, I know what you’re thinking… “That’s a no-brainer.” Before you jump to any conclusions, let me paint you a little picture of what I’m talking about. A few years ago, I was teaching Algebra to a class of unruly freshman. Despite the inherent challenges of teaching that class, one student stood out to me. She was an excellent student. She didn’t just complete her assignments on time. She was thorough, mindful, and carried with her a maturity that was beyond her years. I often got the sense that she felt like the adult in the room compared to her peers, maybe even at times compared to me. She had so much potential, and a real shot at going anywhere and doing whatever she wanted to do in life.  Still, with all the many great qualities this student had, I felt there was just one thing holding her back from all that potential. You see, she was a major complainer! And I’m not talking about a few grumbles, or a difficult day here and there…her griping was incessant!

Unlike her peers, she would always comply with my instructions. But not without first offering me a few sarcastic remarks, groans, and negative comments. For months, I put up with this because, after all, she was doing what I asked of her. Eventually, though, I came to realize that I needed to (and should) expect more from her. As a person with so much glowing potential, she deserved a little tough love and maturing.

It was around this time in my teaching career that I began implementing an awards model in my classes that recognized students for specific improvements in behavior or character. While thinking through each days’ events from the previous week, I realized who better to challenge than her? I decided that I would award this young lady if, and only if, she took me up on the challenge I was about to offer her.

The next day I looked her square in the eye and said, “I want to see if you can go an entire class without saying one complaint.”

Her expression was a priceless mixture of shock and bewilderment. “Why would I do that?! That’s ridiculous.” Not really knowing what to take of my request, she shook her head and walked back to her desk.

The next day before class, she stopped me in the hall and said, “I talked to my mother about what you said. She told me I don’t have to do what you ask me to do yesterday.”

After a brief pause, I replied, “I know you don’t have to do what I asked, but you could choose to do it.” To say the least, the perplexed and somewhat intrigued look on her face was entertaining. With a huff, she stomped back to her seat.

The conversation ended there, and to be honest, I thought little of it again over the next few days. That is, until one morning after about an hour of teaching, when she spoke up and said, “Mr. Morris! Did you notice?”

“Notice what?”

“I haven’t complained at all today.”

Really? I thought, trying to recall the last hour’s events. After a moment of reflection, I realized not only had she not yet complained 60 minutes into the lesson, she hadn’t said anything at all. With a smirk, she glanced my way as if to say, “Game on!”

Sure enough, this young lady lasted the entire period without one single complaint, just as I’d challenged. I couldn’t believe my ears!!

“I have to say, I’m proud of you. Not only did I assume you couldn’t do it, I didn’t think you’d even try!”

“Mr. Morris,” she replied. “I didn’t complain one time…but, I thought a lot of thoughts!”

I couldn’t help but smile and appreciate the inherent sass and wit she possessed. As I intended, she won the “No Whiny Award” the following week, and she took ownership over it from that day forward. Even though she still complained periodically throughout the rest of the year, it never was as prevalent as before I challenged her.

My point is simply this: don’t be afraid to plainly state what it is that you want your students to work on when it comes to their behavior. Be clear in your expectations. But when you tell them, issue it in the form of a personal dare. Rather than simply telling them what they’re doing wrong and leaving it at that (hoping they’ll just stop doing it on their own), offer up to them what they should challenge themselves to do instead.

“I bet you can’t last 30 minutes without cussing.”

“I wonder if you can make it three days in a row without falling asleep in my class?”

“I bet you can’t get through this lesson without interrupting

Sure, you’ll have some who will shrug it off and act as if they don’t care, but give it some time. You’ll start to see they’ve taken your dare to heart and you, too, can positively shape someone’s character by using their naturally competitive nature as a teaching tool. They’ll want to prove you wrong, or show you they can do whatever it is you’ve challenged them to do.

The key is to then recognize that person once they’ve stepped up to your challenge and celebrate them, in the moment, when they make those strides toward self-improvement. Be effective in your acknowledgement of their specific efforts. Giving the correction or directive with a positive, competitive spin makes all the difference in the world.

If you are an educator or leader looking for a way to recognize and encourage your unmotivated people, look no further. That’s the problem we solve at Morrissey Model. You can do this. We can help!