The most common question I get asked as an academic coach and teacher trainer is, “how do you motivate students?”

Today, I’m going to share with you four different phrases you can practice taking on in your classroom with students or your 1-to-1 coaching sessions that will help bump up students’ motivation and make you a more skilled coach, even if you’re a classroom teacher.

First, a story to help set the context… 

I train educators how to start their own businesses as academic coaches, as well as training school-based folks how to be more coach-like in their teaching. Somebody new in my program still has her teaching job while she’s getting her coaching business going, and she said it’s hard for her to wrap her mind around how to move from teacher mode to coach mode.

For her, those are two distinct modes. 

Now, for me, because I’ve been doing this work forever, whenever I teach a group of students, I am coach-like, and whenever I’m coaching 1-to-1, I am both a coach and teacher-like. So I don’t have that distinction in me anymore, but it is true that many teachers don’t know what it’s like to go from presenting content to students to actually being connected 1-to-1 and helping them tune into their motivation.

I know I started this by saying this will all be about helping students be more motivated, but the best way to do that is to learn how to become more coach-like in your teaching! This is great for coaches and parents, as well, because anyone can use these four phrases with students, and sometimes we simply have to start using the language of a coach in order to shift our mindset. 

Four Phrases to Use to Increase Student Motivation

  1. The first phrase I notice I say all the time is… (I just gave you a clue!): “I noticed….”

I’m such a goofball, but it’s so in my being to shift into languaging where I’m no longer naming platitudes or even interpretations or judgments, but I am noticing what observable behavior patterns are happening inside myself, inside students, and  in between myself and students. So rather than just jumping to interpretations, such as, “You all are lazy; I’m so disappointed in you” (which I have heard teachers say, by the way, so I’m not being dramatic here) we focus on starting a conversation with specific, observable data. 

When we say “I notice…” we also model metacognitive thinking. It’s really important to help students notice their own behaviors and notice what’s the context that’s happening in this moment and then make choices from that context, not just from impulse. So you’re modeling this kind of thinking and behavior. It also then creates a space for students to respond to fill in the details. 

“So I notice that you’ve had late work the last three assignments…”  The point is to make it observable data. 

You can even make it about yourself and put a little buffer in: “I feel a little frustrated because I really want to support you, and I’m not sure what the best way to support you is” or “I notice that I’ve offered help three times and you haven’t come in to take advantage of that help.” 

Whatever it is, the “I notice” is a really important way to be more coach-like as an educator, but also to help a student tap into motivation. It might feel weird that a statement like this sets the stage for motivation, but I’ll show why in the next few phrases. 

The last point I want to make here about “I notice” is that it’s a jumping off point for collaboration with the student! So many teachers tell students what to do and feel that’s the best way of supporting a student, but actually a better way is to find a place where you’re more peers, where the power dynamic is not so strong, where a student’s reaction to the observable data and then adding more data in puts you on the same playing field as the student so you can work together to find a solution to whatever the issue is. So, “I notice” is a great place to start.

  1. The second phrase I recommend you start using when you’re talking to students is,  “I’m curious….”

The first warning here is, please ask this question honestly. Don’t be like, “I’m curious what you were doing last night?” if you’re actually judging the student. Instead, be like, “Gosh, another piece of late work…I’m curious what happened last night?” or “I noticed there’s another piece of late work; I’m curious what happened last night to get in the way of you turning this in?” Please be honestly curious! 

You’ll find that place of honest curiosity represents a calm nervous system. So many of us teachers have so much that we’re tackling in the midst of the day and coaches have so many details we’re tracking that we can easily go into upset or annoyance. I had a coach in my training program reach out to say, “I’m at my wit’s end!” If we’re at our wit’s end, we’ve moved into the fight or flight space in our nervous system, and we are no longer in the color green (I use a color a color system in the way I understand nervous systems). But if we can find the place of true curiosity, it demonstrates that we haven’t moved so deeply into fight or flight. Instead, we’re still in our open, calm nervous system space. If you’re dipping into annoyance or anger, looking for the thing that you’re honestly curious about will help keep you in your window of tolerance. 

It also levels the playing field, similar to what we did with “I’m curious.” The student has  information that’s helpful for you, and helpful for the two of you. When you’re willing to hear what the student has to say,  it’ll give you some information that many teachers won’t bother to dig for about the student’s situation that actually might help you help the student more effectively. There are so, so many reasons why “I’m curious” is a good phrase! 

  1. The third phrase I recommend is, “Might you be willing …?”

Now, this one’s a little trickier for classroom teachers–it’s easier when you’re working one-on-one with a student or if you’re a parent talking one-on-one with your kiddo. 

“Might you be willing to come up with a few ideas of things you can try differently to get your work turned in?” is an example. What this phrase does is it allows students to step out of passivity and connect to their own agency and motivation. If their answer is, “You know what? Honestly, I’m not willing to do that,” then that’s important feedback. In that case, we need to be looking for what they might be willing to do. Too often students are used to going into a very passive listening and responding and just following directions space with the adults they’re talking to, so this “might you be willing…” is a little verbal cue that reminds them they have autonomy and agency they can choose to tune into. It, again, helps students partner with a coach or with an educator who’s talking to them.

If you’re a classroom-based educator, you might feel it’s a bit scary to use this phrase, because if the answer is “no, I’m not willing,” you know you still need them to do the assignment because you have to collect grades. So, here’s a tweak for you! Invite students, before they sit down to do an assignment, to simply notice, on a scale of one to ten, how willing they are to deepen their learning through this assignment.  

It might go something like, “I’m asking you to do this worksheet because I want you to use this as a retrieval practice right now as a way to test yourself to see how much you heard from today’s discussion. Notice, on a scale of one to ten, how willing you feel right now to do retrieval practice. Even if the number is low, you can still do it, but just notice to yourself how willing you are.” That way, it connects students to their own truth, their own motivation, and also shows them that, even when our motivation is low, we can still actually take action.

  1. Now, here’s the final thing that coaches and teachers can say to students. It is. “What is the smallest action you are willing to take right now?”

When we’re talking to students, it can really help to remind them that the next step is not this big, scary thing, but that they can do small things to get themselves into action! I love sticking with this question until I help a student decide on that smallest thing. Sometimes, it’s only a 30 second action, such as getting out their notebook or getting out their textbook and opening it to the page they need or putting a bookmark in the page for the homework they’re doing that night. 

You can use this in combo with the question, “What’s your take away from this conversation?” or “What feels relevant to you from what we’ve talked about?” And then this is a really nice next question after that. This helps the student take a moment to internalize what they have just heard when they have to speak it out loud. It’s a way of, to use my Study Cycle language, practicing retrieval–noticing what stuck from the conversation–and then it creates a bridge to action! Sometimes a student, especially one with executive function challenges, can feel motivated, but then not be able to take action for a variety of reasons. So helping them think through the next teeny, tiny step is a huge thing to do. This is easy to implement as a coach.  You can do this as a teacher in the classroom by simply having a habit at the end of class of having students write in their planner not just the full assignment, but the teeny, tiny, 30-second step they can do to start that assignment. Getting them to think that through will help them be able to take the next step. 

Those are my four phrases, and I would be so interested to have you do a little experiment on yourself. Practice some of these, and then come back to this post and comment below or send me an email telling me what you’ve noticed about tweaking your language this way in either group settings or in one-to-one coaching!

But before you go,  I’d love to ask you if you’re willing to take your own learning about how to be a coach-like teacher to the next level? 

If you are, I have a free resource that will really help. It’s all about what I call The Consent Burger, which is another way to connect students in to making the link between their own motivation and whatever it is you have to teach them. Like today’s post, it’s another set of phrases you can use to do that. It’s great for teachers, coaches, and parents. I’ve even set it up to be good for students because a student can also just choose to connect into their own consent when they’re doing work. So go ahead and check out The Consent Burger here.  

Good luck and have fun, y’all!