Marck Abraham, left, with Sandra Gonzalez, the principal of Antonia Pantoja Charter School in Philadelphia.

As an educational consultant, I have the privilege of traveling the country to support school leaders from Anchorage, AK, to Philadelphia, PA, and everywhere in between. One thing that I have observed in the wake of the pandemic is the lack of student motivation.

To address this concern, I recently wrote Success Is Ten Steps Away, a life-performance playbook for young adults. This book provides teens with a step-by-step guide to increase their motivation and academic performance in a practical manner. Although the book is aimed at motivating teens, it highlights principles and systems that some of my secondary school principals have successfully used in the last couple of years to increase student motivation, increase academic proficiency, increase student attendance, and decrease suspensions.

To increase student motivation among teens, secondary school leaders must first understand their data. In a previous article, “Leading a Data-Driven School: Analyze Your Numbers With the ABC Success Metric Tool,” I discussed what data sets need to be evaluated to move a school forward. But quantitative data tells only a part of the story.

A data set that I did not discuss in that article is one that most schools do not measure: the qualitative data. The qualitative data reflect students’ voices—in their voices, we find their motivation. Understanding that this data set is very difficult to capture in a single school year, a school leader must infer what the data suggests. Making inferences based on it is something that one principal I am coaching, Sandra Gonzalez, EdD, successfully did last year to improve her school.

Gonzalez is a veteran principal with a wealth of experience in education. When examining her school, we observed that post-COVID, there was a significant decline in the ABCs of her school (ABCs stands for Attendance, Behavior, and Course-passing data). Gonzalez has served as the principal at Antonia Pantoja Charter School in Philadelphia for over 13 years. During that time, she has established norms, led a consistent staff, and served as a pillar of the Latino community. The only thing that changed was the pandemic.

When her school reopened, students returned sluggish, some had a hard time following the school’s behavioral norms, and some were not as motivated to learn. To motivate her teens, she created a strong vision for the school by celebrating what she expected of students and by putting her staff in the best possible position to succeed. As a result of this transformational work, Gonzalez saw her students’ motivation increase, which in turn led them to thrive.

The Benefits of a Strong Vision

To increase motivation among unmotivated teens, school leaders must have a strong vision. According to the research, successful schools are led by principals who are involved with instruction, have a purpose and a clear vision for where the school is going, and share a belief that all students can learn. For the last school year, Gonzalez created a simple but powerful vision: “Yes We Can: Excelling in the ABCs.” Not only did she create this vision, but she talked about it, explained it, and celebrated it every day of the school year. By doing so, she generated a sense of excitement about education within her building.

When school leaders can get teachers excited about the work, student academic excitement increases and, as a result, so does student success. Remember: Secondary school principals have an indirect impact on student achievement. One of the most effective ways to increase motivation among teens is for school leaders to create a strong vision with a theme that sparks motivation among students and staff.

Celebrating the Positive

In addition to the schoolwide vision, school leaders must also examine how they view their students. As a leadership coach, when I walk into a school, I always ask the leadership team to give me a list of their most challenging students. Without hesitation, the leadership team provides me with a long list. Members of the team typically tell me a story about why each child made the list. After listening patiently, I ask, “Tell me, in each grade level, who are your top-performing students?” In most cases, that question is met with silence.

Once the leadership team provides the list of top performers, it ends up being much shorter. Often the team shares the names with less enthusiasm. As school leaders, we believe what we see. So, if all we are looking for are the challenging students, then won’t that influence how we perceive all the students? To motivate her unmotivated teens, Gonzalez began to change the narrative of the school by having her team focus on not only the students who were having a hard time following school norms and expectations, but on those who were doing well.

Instead of spending so much time dealing with unfavorable behaviors—as is the case in some schools—Gonzalez and her team started highlighting the students who were following the school norms and core values of kindness, respect, responsibility, integrity, honesty, cooperation, and citizenship. The entire school started to focus more on the students who were making positive choices. By doing so, the leadership team began to easily identify these students as leaders. On a weekly basis, teachers met with those students who had demonstrated positive leadership qualities and behaviors, and teachers also engaged in rich conversations with them. Gonzalez did continue to address negative behaviors, but she encouraged everyone to start looking for the best—not only the worst—student behaviors in the classrooms and in the hallways.

To that end, her team created a recognition system for student leaders and gave all students the opportunity to join the school’s leadership club. Today, club members proudly wear red neckties (which they earn by demonstrating leadership) to school every day, and the club executives wear red sweatshirts. As a requirement for club membership, students in this club all choose one act of service to impact school culture and climate. Every morning, some club members meet briefly with peers to mentor them, while others read the school announcements over the loudspeaker. These students also receive training in how to lead and properly mentor others to improve their leadership skills.

Although this leadership club had been in place previously, few students would participate. However, last school year, when all staff members started to look for the best in their classes, the school saw its largest increase in the number of students participating in the club. There was a new excitement in the school about keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize—which was success. In addition, the members of the leadership club were able to regularly participate in fun activities such as “dressing down” on Fridays and attending trips to museums, the zoo, and amusement and water parks.

Student morale soared last year, and I have no doubt it will do so again this year. So, rather than say, “I have no one to celebrate” in schools where some students lack motivation, school leaders can instead ask, “Who can I celebrate?” Asking this question can effectively build a culture of motivation and belonging. It’s a small change that can lead to some big results. Just ask Principal Gonzalez.

Marck Abraham, EdD, is the president of MEA Consulting Services LLC, a motivational speaker, and the author of What Success Looks Like: Increasing High School Graduation Rates Among Males of Color.


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