Top Motivational Books for Educators

Educators are in the motivation business. We motivate our students to learn each and every day. However, sometimes educators need to conquer their own fears in order to achieve at a higher level. The following books all are excellent sources of motivation. Remember, motivation comes from within but these books can help uncover the factors that are holding you back.

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Perpetual Motivation

Dave Durand explains how to achieve the highest level of motivation and become what he calls a "Legacy Achiever" in this excellent book. He write in an easy-to-understand style that provides much more than a typical self-help book. It truly uncovers the foundation of motivation and empowers readers to achieve at the highest level possible.

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Zapp! in Education

This is definitely an important read for educators everywhere. It explains the importance of empowering teachers and students. Make sure to pick up this easy-to-read volume, and make a difference in your school today.

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How to Be Like Mike

Michael Jordan is considered a hero by many. Now Pat Williams has written a book about the 11 essential characteristics that make Jordan succeed. Read a review of this awesome motivational book.

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Learned Optimism

Optimism is a choice! Pessimists let life happen to them and often feel helpless in the face of defeat. On the other hand, optimists see setbacks as challenges. Psychologists Martin Seligman sheds light on why optimists are the ones who succeed in life and provides real-world advice and worksheets to help you become an optimist.

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Love the Work You're With

This book's subtitle truly says it all: "Find the Job You Always Wanted Without Leaving the One You Have." Author Richard C. Whiteley shows that your attitude is what truly helps you become happy with your job. Learn to change your attitude and change you life.

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Reject Me - I Love It!

One of the main items that holds us back and drains us of all motivation is the fear of failure - the fear the rejection. This book by John Fuhrman details "21 Secrets for Turning Rejection into Direction." This book is an important read for teachers and students alike.

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Attitude is Everything

As educators we know that the students who have positive attitudes are the ones who succeed. All of us need 'attitude adjustments' at different points in our lives. This book gives 10 steps to lead you to a 'can do' attitude that will allow you to achieve more than you imagine possible.

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Why You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be

How many times have we told students they can be 'anything they want'? This book by Arthur Miller and William Hendricks takes a new look at this concept and argues that instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, we should find what truly fires our imagination and pursue it.

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David and Goliath

From the first chapter of David and Goliath, motivation is evident in the archetype representing the triumph of the underdog over a more powerful force. Gladwell is clear in pointing out that throughout history the triumph of the underdog is not so surprising.  There are a plethora of examples to support the view that the underdog continuously overtakes the lead dog in sports business, politics, and art, and Gladwell mentions a number in the text. Whether he is discussing the Redwood City girls’ basketball team or the Impressionist art movement, his familiar message is that someone who is highly motivated will always challenge the lead dog.

Gladwell uses the principle of legitimacy as a factor in developing motivation. The principle of legitimacy is explained as having three elements:

  • people have to feel they have a voice
  • law has to be predictable
  • authority must be fair

Gladwell offers a twist on this principle of legitimacy by suggesting that to challenge the powerful, the underdog must establish a new paradigm. 

Finally, educators at every level must consider Gladwell’s statement that, "The powerful have to worry about how others think of them...that those who give orders are acutely vulnerable to the opinions of those they are ordering about" (217). Educators at every level of education must be careful to listen to all stakeholders and respond using principle of legitimacy in order to keep motivation as a force for continuous improvement.

The use of motivation for student achievement was also offered by Gladwell in his discussion of Shepaug Valley Middle School Regional School District #12 (RSD#12) and their crisis in declining enrollment complicated with a model of an “inverted “U” of student achievement. Since the crisis of RSD#12 is also mirrored in RSD#6 problem of declining enrollment, his observations are made more personal now that I live in the first district and teach in the second district. In making his observation that contradicts logical thinking, Gladwell used data from RSD#12 to illustrate how the smaller class sizes did not have the benefit of improving student performance. The data revealed that smaller class sizes had no impact on student performance.  He concluded that,

“We have become obsessed with what is good about small classrooms and oblivious about what also can be good about large classes. It’s a strange thing isn't it, to have an educational philosophy that thinks of the other students in the classroom with your child as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?”(60).

After conducting a series of interviews with teachers, Gladwell determined that the ideal class size is between 18-24, a number that allows for students to have “many more peers to interact with” (60), a contradiction to the “intimate, interactive, and inclusive” (61) classes of 12 offered by higher priced boarding schools. From the observation of class sizes with no impact on performance, Gladwell then uses the “inverted U” model to illustrate a familiar “shirt-sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations” argument that the children of successful parents do not have the same challenges that are necessary for success. Simply put, children of successful parents may be unmotivated and without the same appreciation for the hard work, effort and discipline that their parents used to achieve success in the first place. Gladwell’s  “inverted U” illustrates how often one generation’s rise was the motivation to meet challenges, but in successive generations, when all challenges are removed, the motivations are also removed.

Consider, then, the tony corner of Litchfield County as an apt illustration where many of our students have financial advantages and resources beyond many others in the state, country and the world. Many students do not experience the same challenges to motivate them and are willing to settle for an average score or “passing” the class.  There are a number of seniors who opt to have an “easy senior year” rather than choose to take academically challenging courses in school or through post-secondary options. Wamogo, like many other districts, has unmotivated students.

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The Smartest Kids in the Worls

manda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World reverberates with her statement, "Wealth had made rigor unnecessary in America" (119). Ripley’s international, first person research took her to three academic countries: Finland, Poland, and South Korea. In each country, she followed one highly motivated American student confronting that particular country’s educational system. That student acted as an “everyman” in order to allow Ripley to contrast on how well our collective students would do in that country’s educational system.  She triangulated the individual student’s stories with data from the PISA tests and the educational policies of each nation. In presenting her findings, and expanding on her observation of rigor, Ripley expressed her concerns the American educational system saying,

“In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; then need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor”(119).

Ripley followed three separate students as they studied abroad in three “educational powerhouses” by international standards.  In following Kim in Finland, Eric in South Korea, and Tom in Poland, Ripley noted striking differences on how other countries create “smarter kids.” For example, the educational model for Finland was based on a commitment to competitive teacher training programs with high standards and hands-on training with limited high stakes testing in the form of a final matriculation exam (3 weeks for 50 hours).  She researched the educational model for Poland, which also concentrated on the education of teachers and a limit to testing at the end of the elementary, middle, and high school. In Poland, an additional year of middle school was added and the striking observation that calculators were not allowed in math classes in order to have the "brains freed up to do the harder work"(71).  Finally, Ripley studied the educational model for South Korea, a system uses frequent high stakes testing and where "Work, including the unpleasant kind, was at the center of Korean school culture, and no one was exempt" (56).  Ripley presentation of the South Korean test culture of competition for top slots in prestigious universities drove her to comment that the test culture resulted into a “meritocracy that became a caste system for adults” (57).  Adding to the pressures of the test culture was a side industry of mind-numbing, "hagwan" test prep agencies. For all of their differences, however, Ripley noted that for Finland, Poland, and South Korea, there was a collective belief in rigor:

“People in these countries agreed on the purpose of school: School existed to help students master complex academic material. Other things mattered, too, but nothing mattered as much” (153).

In laying out her argument on how to develop smarter kids, Ripley noted how different the priorities are in American education with its school sponsored athletics, excessively dense textbooks, and technology in the form of SmartBoards available in every classroom. In her most damning passage, she stated,

“We had the schools we wanted, in a way. Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers. They did show up to complain about bad grades, however. And they came in droves, with video camera and lawn chairs and full hearts to watch their children play sports” (192).

That last line reverberated as an apt description of the idyllic setting of each school in RSD#6. Recent surveys given to parents indicate they are happy with the district; there has been no radical call to improve academic rigor. Yet, this sense of acceptance seen in communities across the United States is unacceptable to Ripley as she rejects the “moon bounce” of the American education system in favor of the “hamster wheel” (South Korea) because:

“…students in hamster countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder, and do better” (192).

What Ripley saw in the students of hamster wheel countries was the motivation of these students to pursue their academic education. The students in these countries spoke about education as an important for a better life. Their motivation reverberated back to Gladwell’s commentary of how parental success does not necessarily continue in an upward trajectory for their children; that an “inverted U” is created when challenges are removed for successive generations.  While not directly quoting Gladwell, Ripley provides the anecdotal evidence for how economic wealth in America may be contributing to a misplaced motivation in American schools where failing is almost impossible social graduation is routine.  In one incident, a visiting student from Finland (Elina) receives an A on a U.S. History test is asked, “How do you know this stuff?” by an American student.  Elina’s response, “How is it possible you don't know this stuff?" (98) is unsettling to read.  Failure to know “this stuff” should be a concern for our nation’s democracy. Moreover, Ripley suggests that students are leaving the American public school systems unprepared for meeting the expectations of an international 21st Century work force. She argues that failure, inevitable and regular failure, should be used as a factor for motivation in student achievement in schools rather than waiting for a rude revelation of unpreparedness in the American work force.

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The Genius in Us All

Schenk offers the most hopeful of all suggestions of all three texts here discussed by arguing that an individual’s intellectual ability cannot be identified by IQ, and that intelligence is not fixed by genetics. Schenk offers clear solutions to improving student motivation in developing intellectual ability by pointing that the means of measurement, namely standardized tests, do not provide fixed results, and there is always room for student improvement.

In The Genius in All of Us Schenk first provides the biological evidence that genetics is not the blueprint to life, but rather the means by which we can reach enormous potential. He states that even though most people’s relative intellectual ranking tends to remain the same as they grow older, “it’s not biology that establishes an individual’s rank…; no individual is truly stuck in his or her original ranking…; and every human being  can grow smarter if the environment demands it”(37).
With these conclusions, Schenk affirmed Ripley’s premise, that the environment of the American public schools has been producing exactly the intellectual product that it has demanded.

After explaining malleability in genetics, Schenk’s proposes that intellectual ability is a product of genetics times environment, a formula he terms “ GxE.” The positive environmental triggers that act on genetics to improve intellectual ability are:

  • Speaking to children early and often
  • Reading early and often
  • Nurturance and encouragement
  • Setting high expectations
  • Embracing failure
  • Encouraging a growth mindset (39-41)

These environmental triggers are part of a process of that develops intellectual ability, and more than one of these triggers echo Ripley’s observations in developing motivation. Both Schenk and Ripley see the importance of setting high expectations and embracing failure.  One specific area where the ideas of Ripley and Schenk reverberate is in the area of reading. Ripley noted that:

“If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said” (117).

In making his argument, Schenk also called attention to the importance immersion in a discipline at the earliest ages. For example, he notes the early saturation in the discipline of music resulted in prodigies of Mozart, Beethoven, and YoYo Ma. He connected this form of immersion in order to advocate the same for the acquisition of language and reading, another position made by Ripley. She had asked:

What if they [parents] knew that this one change [reading for pleasure]—which they might even vaguely enjoy—would help their children become better readers themselves? What if schools, instead of pleading with parents to donate time, muffins, or money, loaned books and magazines to parents and urged them to read on their own and talk about what they’d read in order to help their kids? The evidence suggested that every parent could do things that helped create strong readers and thinkers, once they knew what those things were. (117)