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The Dos and Don’ts of Teaching the Work Ethic

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January 04, 2024


How To Teach Work Ethic

Imagine a scenario where you give an assignment and get back half-hearted work from your students. It isn’t hard to imagine, and it’s a scene that plays out in classrooms on a daily basis. It’s human nature to want to put out the least amount of effort possible. That is unless we have motivation to work harder.

A strong work ethic is one of the most important traits teachers want to instill in their students, so how can we help them learn to love hard work?

Do: Praise students for effort rather than being ‘smart’. If students see that you value hard work, even when the product is not perfect,  then they see you are rewarding a work ethic that will often serve them better than their smarts

Don’t: Allow students to remain stuck in ‘System 1.’ No, your students are not robots, but in System 1 you might start to think they are. What is System 1? According to Todd Finley at Edutopia:

“The efficient and fairly unconscious mode is System 1. Involuntarily reading a Wheaties box, scorning new “athleisure” clothes, and opening a combination lock are all System 1 mental events.”

System 1 tasks are tasks that take minimal thinking and don’t challenge students. What might be a System 1 task to a high school student would be a System 2 task for a younger child, so tailoring the difficulty of tasks to your students is key.

Do: Give assignments that push students to ‘System 2.’ “System 2 mental activities are things like solving problems. System 2 is attention-hungry and physically straining. Your eyes dilate, your breath becomes shallow, your blood pressure quickens, and your muscles bunch” Finley says. Push students beyond the status quo. Of course, every activity shouldn’t be ‘System 2,’ but getting students off autopilot will help them develop stamina and hard work.

Don’t: Become a drill sergeant. While it is important to push students and help them build the stamina to work hard all day, they are still children. They need downtime, they need to laugh, and they need a break now and again. If you become too strict, students will consequently rebel and won’t do their best.

Do: Make it fun. Can you challenge students and have fun at the same time? Absolutely! Meeting a challenge is innately fulfilling. Make difficult tasks relevant to students or include competition as part of the activity (teams against each other, beat the timer, etc.)

Don’t: Expect students to jump into new and challenging activities and to love it from day one. If students are used to going through school on autopilot, then increased expectations may be very stressful for them. They are going to need time to adjust to new, higher expectations.

Start small and build from where students are.

Do: Support students. Push them a bit more each day to do better. You don’t have to revamp your entire curriculum and all their activities, just add a dimension of difficulty to tasks they are already familiar with. You can add a writing component, have students work in groups, do some research, etc. Incorporating more in-depth activities bit by bit will help move students toward higher level and deeper thinking.

Don’t: Choose completely teacher directed activities. Students will overall be far less likely to buy in and increase their effort if all the activities they are participating in are close-ended, teacher directed, and irrelevant.

Do: Encourage Creativity. Give students some ownership in their learning. Help them to choose activities that are relevant to them and to be creative. Give students open-ended tasks and encourage out of the box thinking. Play to their strengths by incorporating a variety of activities for students to participate in so that each student gets to experience both what they are strong in and what they are not.

While it may feel impossible to get your students motivated to work hard, rewarding the hard work for its own sake can create a culture of “GRIT”* in your classroom.

* GRIT: Continuing to strive toward goal completion despite set-backs; overcoming the natural temptation to put forth the least amount of effort.

Amy Curletto has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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