By Tamra Nast, Birmingham Covington School Counselor
Edited by Lori Soifer, Michigan State Schools of Character Coordinator

There is no owner’s manual for parents and teachers to tell us how to help each child grow into ethical, empathetic and responsible learners, leaders and citizens. Students come to us with unique abilities and talents. I believe the development of self- motivation is a lifelong skill, and one that can be a powerful force in a person’s life.

Principle 7, of the 11 Principles of Character Education, emphasizes intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards. In other words, doing the right thing for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. True satisfaction and joy come from finding meaning and purpose in what you do in life. This principle emphasizes true heart change over compliance, celebrating and recognizing over rewarding.

Meaningful service learning (embedded in the curriculum), allowing students’ voice and choice, and implementing a discipline system focused on learning, fuel the growth of self-motivation in students.

Last year, a group of 30 middle school students from Birmingham Covington School, attended the National Forum. They came to teach teachers about their service-learning project. What started as a local water project focused on sustainability grew into a global project focused on eliminating poverty in rural sub-Saharan Africa. The depth, breadth and scope of this project grew exponentially, all because their teacher, in fostering students’ self-motivation, allowed the class voice and choice, and nurtured each student’s talents to determine how best they could meet the goals of the project.

Students had voice and choice in determining how they were going to raise the $12,000 needed to purchase 2 two wheeled tractors for the Zambian village of Chilupula. As a class, they decided to fundraise in sustainable ways.

One group created a small business, ZINC Jewelry (Zambia incorporated). They collected used store gift cards to make jewelry, which they sold while educating their customers about their project. Another group organized a can drive, collecting returnables at 10 cents apiece. Yet another group worked with experts from the College for Creative Studies to create an educational YouTube video. Along the way, these students, empowered by voice and choice, and inspired to solve a real life problem through service learning, engaged many adults, including the folks at Microsoft and Skype! These students learned that they could solve problems and make a positive impact on their world. That discovery was intrinsically exciting, gratifying and fulfilling.

As you might imagine, with many student created and student led groups working on this project, some turned out well while others had obstacles and bumps along the way. In our school, discipline is viewed as an opportunity to learn. We know that kids are going to make mistakes and we focus on helping our students make things right. One of our students wanted to create an online game so that other kids would be able to learn about the project in a fun way. He joined an online coding forum to share his ideas and the group responded favorably. Unfortunately, he misrepresented his age to join. Once the adults in the forum discovered that they had a 10 year old in their group, they tracked down the teacher to inform her. Instead of punishing the student, the teacher worked with him to make things right with the adults in the forum and took the opportunity to explore Internet safety. The adults in the online group appreciated this student’s willingness to make things right and ultimately helped him code his game.

This project is full of stories of how students were motivated to learn, solve problems, and to make a positive impact on their local and global communities. You can view the students’ 2014 session here.

I frequently say Principle 7: The school fosters students’ self-motivation, is my favorite principle. Providing meaningful service learning opportunities, allowing student voice and choice, and creating a discipline system in which students can learn from their mistakes are areas which I have learned to be successful in helping foster students’ self-motivation.

Want to learn even more about motivating students? Check out our guide to principle 7, Fostering Students’ Intrinsic Motivation!