9. How can I get my students to want to achieve?

Set a big goal for the class

Reluctant, disrespectful, recalcitrant, complacent, demotivated, disaffected or disillusioned: any or all of these adjectives may apply to the students you teach from September.

So how can you even begin to turn this round, and get your pupils motivated to learn and succeed?

It sounds impossible. I remember one moment, before I’d met my Year 10 class, where an English teacher sat me down to circle the troublemakers on my register. Out of 30, she went down the list, circling over 15 of them in red. Gulp. The first term was a nightmare of disruption. Each lesson felt like confronting a pack of howling wolves baying for blood.

What won them round was trust. Turning up full of energy and positivity each lesson, praising effort, getting rapport with the ringleaders and getting them each to experience success: all of these things earned their trust and turned it round.

But if I had to recommend one thing that got them to want to achieve, it would be this. Set a big goal for the class. Display it at the start of every lesson as they walk in to remind of what they’re working towards. For example, here’s the one I used with that Year 10 class:


The benefits are brilliant. It guides everything else you plan: will it help them achieve their goal? It motivates them that you believe that they should all aim high. And it brings real urgency to all your lessons, as no one wants to let the class down.

This next slide I designed to tap into their chronic cult of instant gratification with an instant snapshot of the big picture, and combat it with the reason why education matters to them in the long-term: average annual salaries! After this, they were all asking me, “what’s an MBA? How do I get one, sir?” “You start by putting the effort in, here and now…”


How can you design class big goals?

Big goals need to be ambitious but achievable, and most of all, meaningful to your students. That’s why I tapped into the 2012 Olympics with the ‘Best of Britain’ idea. You can follow these four steps to creating your own – diagnose, understand, pinpoint, then design:


Here are a few more concrete examples:





There’s more on how to set big goals here and in this book I recommended.


2 thoughts on “9. How can I get my students to want to achieve?

  1. What are the caveats to the big goal?

    There are three big caveats:

    First – Changing sets
    You might find that students regularly move in and out of your class. Worst case scenario, there may be one, or even two entire set changes in the year, for any given year group!

    Setting a big goal and getting kids and other stakeholders invested in it is an up front investment. The idea is you invest that time early on, then keep the dream alive, and reap the reward in student motivation and aspiration.

    However, if that group changes significantly, all that up front work building the ethos of your classroom is lost – it may not even be possible to go through the motions again with a whole new group! Be aware that this is a very real possibility, depending on your school.

    Second – The seemingly impossible
    I found that an ambitious goal and well stated belief in the ability of my students *did* have a positive impact on their motivation and self-image. However, I also found some students (who went into Y11 with a C in maths) simply found the goal of an A so far beyond their reach that it served only to actively *demotivate* them!

    When establishing a big goal, it’s important to know your group. A strong vision might motivate them, but the wrong vision can equally cause them to give up before you even get started.

    This depends on the students you teach, and their particular circumstances. In the end, you’re better off trying something and seeing the results for yourself.

    Third – The actually impossible
    Michael Jackson reportedly set a big goal for his production team on the Thriller album – sell 100 million copies. They thought it was impossible, and so he pulled the plug on the project; if they weren’t prepared to get behind his vision, then they wouldn’t do it at all! So, seeing how determined he was, his team rallied round him. Thriller sold 110 million copies world wide.

    Spurred on by success, for his next project, Bad, MJ set an even more ambitious target – 1 billion copies! It sold a ‘mere’ 30 million.

    Real or apocryphal, this stories has a valuable lesson to teach us. Believing your students capable of achieving outstanding success, and believing yourself capable of helping them achieve it, is quite different from *actually* being able to deliver.

    Over a year, you develop significantly, but it’s a slow process, and it eats precious time. At the start I had no idea how to teach, or what to teach them. As I slowly picked this up, time had been lost, and I was beginning to see just how much was really missing from their knowledge. Then come the exams, and you realise they’re a game you need to teach kids to play, all aside from actually learning maths! Exam technique, revision technique, specific GCSE questions… do you actually have the time and resource to instil in the students the exam technique they need, the drive to work, plug the gaps in their knowledge, teach them new knowledge (that they should have been taught 2 years earlier), track their progress, provide them with revision materials, homework, practice papers, model solutions and so forth…

    Sadly I didn’t. Whether you will, will again, depend on your school and the systems it already has in place when you join. It takes time to know the limits of the system you work in, and your own capacity; if you want to set a big goal early in the year, just be aware that these limitations may reveal themselves later, and adjust the goal accordingly.

  2. Great post Jo – would it be possible to get a copy of your ‘the more you learn, the more you earn’ graphic?

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