What Bringing Two Cats Together May Have Taught Me About Student Relationships | Lesson 4

The first two weeks of the school year are now finished. My students and I have started some projects and a few of them are finally starting to understand my sense of humour. It’ll take the better part of the first term for most of them to start laughing with me and making fun of me. I’m looking forward to it.

The lesson below is about what motivates us. Lesson 3 was about different approaches students take to their relationships. Lesson 2 and Lesson 1 focussed more on how students come together to form a community, in their own time and when they are comfortable. As I continue writing about these learnings, I’m starting to realize how closely related they are to one another. The real differences are found in the nuances. This is fitting, given how intricate (student) relationships are.

The Cats Need to be Motivated

When I first wake up, I’m greeted by two meowing cats – one in the bed with us and the other on the opposite side of the bedroom door – who are hungry and want to be fed. When Riel and I were living alone together, he would bunt up against my face as I was waking up. Initially, I thought this was just him trying to greet me nicely first thing in the morning. Soon, I realized that he was hungry and wanted me to put some food in his bowl.

Mikka is more direct with his intentions. When he sees me, he looks up and then starts toward his food bowl. After a few steps, he’ll look back to make sure that I’m still there. When he finally gets to his food bowl, he’ll sit and meow at me.

Before I do anything else in the morning, I put on a pot of coffee. This three-minute morning ritual is often too long a wait for these two cats. Their meowing grows increasingly louder; it becomes more earnest. Before I finish the rest of my morning routine, I feed the cats.

This short daily ritual is predicated on motivating factors: the cats are hungry, and I just want some peace and quiet with which to enjoy a hot, black coffee. The cats’ hunger is what is driving their behaviour and I feed them because I’m motivated by the promise of quiet. Riel is cautious about how aggressively he gets me out of bed – he doesn’t bite me or nip at my legs like he does when he wants to play. Mikka is careful that I’m following his lead, circling back if I’m not on track. I’m worried about stepping on one of their tails or a water bowl as I make my way to the kitchen without my glasses. Every morning, we take these risks because we believe the reward is worth it.

Students are motivated by any number of different factors. For some, it’s a legal obligation to show up to school. For others, parents are putting pressure on them to succeed. Some, too, are motivated by the prospect of learning something new. Others, as well, have a vision for their future that requires them to complete grade school. Whatever their motivation, these are the students who are sitting at the desks in our classrooms and it is our responsibility to rise when they call and follow when they lead.

In order to be effective educators, we should understand what motivates our students, or at least attempt to. We often talk about “student-centred,” “student-led,” “student-choice,” teaching. We are told to (and do) practice Universal Design for Learning and backward-design planning strategies. Teachers are tasked with understanding the motivations of students so that we can plan engaging and meaningful lessons that effectively incorporate “student-first” ideals while also meeting the expectations set out in our curricula. Planning involves a careful balance between what we hope the students will achieve (what we will report on) and the learning needs, interests, and motivations of the students themselves.

As an aside, I haven’t figured out how to achieve this balance. I find that I’m constantly running to either side of this teeter-totter in an attempt to distribute my weight evenly, with only brief moments of balance as I rush past the fulcrum.

Before beginning any lesson, it’s important that we ask ourselves why we are teaching what we are about to; we need to understand our own motivations. Sometimes, we may find that we are “teaching” something just so that we can find a few moments of peace and quiet. More often than not, we should be motivated by our students and the balance between what they want to learn, what we are required to teach them, and what we think is most important for them to know. If we are effective in this, the learning won’t be quiet. It will be a cacophony of thoughts and ideas.

Each of the students sitting in our classrooms has a different motivation and the only way to really pique their interest is to explain why what they are learning is important to them. This explanation needs to be clear and precise. The students will decide for themselves if they need this new knowledge or not but sharing our reasons with them will help them work with us.

Our cats have learned this: whether I’m interested or not, they are hungry and want to be fed. They make this clear to me every time they meow incessantly for food. Not only are their intentions made clear to me, but they also understand that they need to deal with me in the right way to get what they want – Riel won’t bite or nip at me and Mikka will make sure that I follow his path. Together, they have found the balance that works to get them fed.

Teeter-totters are no fun when they’re not falling from one side to the other and are the most fun when briefly in perfect balance.

What Bringing Two Cats Together May Have Taught Me About Student Relationships | Lesson 4
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