Dear Lydia

I’m entering my third year of teaching ELA in a public high school here in Maine. I’ve tried every strategy I learned in college, but there are always four or five kids who just aren’t motivated by grades. They’ve probably spent their whole school career discounting themselves, or they just don’t see how grades meaningfully impact their lives. 

Either way, they are content to just sit there, like bumps on a log, fully disengaged. I can’t handle it … I can’t just watch them fall through the cracks. I got into this to make a difference … what can I do?

Refusing to Settle

Dear Refusing,

Let’s start with one important note: You are not alone. You’re wading into one of the most challenging bits of our territory as teachers. We want all of our students to be engaged and your desire to make a difference? Well, that’s your Purpose knocking, and you, along with so many teachers, are seeking to answer the call. To help students rise to the occasion. To help them discover, develop, and apply those talents and gifts that you just KNOW they have, even if they don’t believe it themselves yet. 

So, your years of education classes aren’t quite cutting it, huh? Yeah, I think it was Mike Tyson who said, “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” This, unfortunately, is a right hook from reality. Good news, if you’re here, you’ve bounced off the ropes and you’re back in the fight. 

Now, don’t go running for the hills, but I want to share a quick economics lesson here that changed my life as a teacher. There’s a really powerful idea in economics called “subjective value,” and you can apply it conceptually to a lot of decisions in life (like your student’s decision not to participate). Essentially it says this (bare with me, promise it’ll make sense): A good or service doesn’t have an inherent value. That is, a car doesn’t derive its value from the cost incurred to build it. Instead, individuals determine the value of the good or service, depending on how useful it is to help them achieve their ends. Basically, people value different things, at different times, for different reasons, and it’s always changing. Carl Menger wrote a ton about it if you really want to nerd-out. 

But, what does that mean for the classroom? Simple. Every student values education differently. Grades don’t always serve as the best currency in this little micro-economy. They can be traded in for only a few things that only some of the students want (college acceptance, diploma, not getting in trouble at home, etc). Those five or so students you have that aren’t jazzed up to take part in class? Well, they likely aren’t seeing the value in the product, particularly if the thing you’re selling is a grade. 

So, let’s think about it totally different for a minute … What if you challenged yourself to discover what parts of education each of your students values most? This is step one of getting in touch with their subjective value. For some, it might be just keeping their parents off of their backs. For others, it might be that post-secondary education acceptance, whether college, trade school, or otherwise. For others still, it might be discovering some new talent or expanding their horizons. You’re probably thinking, “Get real, Lydia, that’d be impossible to manage throughout a semester.” You’re partially right. That’s why we need a simple intermediary. We call it currency. 

Try this. Print off some Empowered currency. Grab a few of the things that your students love the most (Takis and free smartphone time always work wonders). Keep everything else the same for now, but give out some of the bucks anytime students bring some value to the class. Be sure to target those students who don’t come alive when grades are on the line. At the end of a week, hold an auction (just like eBay) and let your students bid on the items. Can I share a word of advice? The key here is to consistency; consistency in awarding currency and consistency in hosting auctions. Doing so will build trust in your classroom and this new approach will begin to pay dividends. This simple idea (call it a Token Economy) brings a new currency into the classroom and can quickly change the entire culture of your class.

Can’t wait to hear how it goes!


After years of teaching in the classroom, Lydia Hampton recognized her true calling was empowering teachers through curriculum design and professional development.