Disconnect between schools and work life skills

The Disconnect Between School and the World of Work

WHAT’S THE ISSUE: In schools all over the world, you will find parents and school leaders who assume that it is the teacher’s responsibility to “motivate my child”, or to “motivate the students you teach”. However the reality a student faces is the exact opposite, once they enter the world of work. Most employers expect their employees to motivate themselves. 

In a nutshell, it’s a “Do your job; that’s what I’m paying you for” sort of mentality once you enter the world of work. Granted, there are businesses that give managers budgets to play with, which they can use to motivate their staff by giving them bonuses when certain targets are met…but this is far from the reality of most people’s experience of the workplace. Particularly if you’re graduating and entering the world of work in the middle of a crisis

Maybe it’s time we re-examine our our beliefs about teachers’  and students’ responsibilities in schools, so that our students can be better equipped with skills of how to motivate themselves. I believe that when students develop their self-motivation skills, they are more likely to successfully transition into the world of work. 

millennials and Gen Z students were told: "School should be fun!"

I get the impression that in the 1990s and 2000s, an expectation started to develop in schools (particularly international schools) that “school should be fun!” I was born in the 80s, so I may be wrong. Maybe this new view of education developed in the 80s. I don’t know. Please correct me if I’m wrong. But what I do know is that something changed in education, between my generation, and my parents generation. The word ‘fun’ didn’t exist in schools, for my parent’s generation. Now it does. You now see teachers all over the world doing everything they can to make their lessons ‘fun’ and entertaining, wherever possible, whether with the use of new technology, or otherwise.

Welcome to the era of edutainment (education + entertainment).

But the fact of the matter is, no matter how much fun a teacher tries to make a lesson, a lesson is still a lesson. It’s not (and can never be) a phantasmagorical, big budget Shakira concert with special effects and a huge supporting entourage!

Similarly, no matter how much you love your job, work is work. 

In the real world of work, no matter what your role or responsibility is in a company, or as a self-employed entrepreneur, there will always be tasks you have to do that are most certainly not fun. It’s not fun to have a difficult conversation with a client, an employee, or an employer. It’s not fun having to run around from ministry to ministry doing pointless paperwork, just so that the archaic state system can continue to use tax payers’ money to pay civil servants a salary for pointing people in the wrong direction…when the job could have been done far more efficiently online (if someone in a position of influence was brave enough to modernise and simplify the system). It’s not fun to have a concert hall filled with thousands of fans eagerly waiting to hear you sing, and you’re sick with a fever…but the show must go on.

Perhaps, instead of aiming for more of our lessons to be ‘fun’ for students, it would be more appropriate (and helpful, for their transition into the world of work) to aim for lessons that are ‘meaningful’, ‘interesting’, ‘challenging’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘heart-opening’ or ‘inspiring’

Which brings us to the next issue: the importance of understand the difference between motivation and inspiration. 


A power struggle emerges when a teacher, or a parent, tries to ‘push’ a student to try harder. I’ve tried. It’s draining for all involved. It sucks. It doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work? Because motivation is a push energy, whereas inspiration is a pull energy. A student can ‘push themselves’ (i.e. motivate themselves) to test their own limits through positive self-talk, and a teacher can ‘pull’ (i.e. inspire) a student into a lesson with a powerful story. But when a teacher tries to motivate (i.e. “push”) a student to try harder, it’s unsustainable and largely ineffective.  

The concept of “motivate yourself” is often foreign to secondary school students. I often find myself having to teach it to students, explicitly. Because whether you like it or not, you come face-to-face with the need to motivate yourself to learn in university, especially if you then go on to do a Masters or PhD which requires a bucket load of self-discipline and self-motivation. Yet in secondary schools, you can sometimes sense an atmosphere of students feeling entitled that the teacher be the one to motivating them. In the worst case scenarios of having a bad attitude, you see a “come on, impress me” kind of attitude in students. As if teaching is some kind of show. How is this mentality going to help students transitionally successfully to university? 

I once had a parent tell me their child, a Year 8 student, was struggling to focus because my History lessons weren’t “fun”. To which I politely (but firmly) replied: “We’re doing the Transatlantic Slave Trade…How is it ethical to make learning about the horrors these children, men and women endured on those slave ships…fun?” In that same week, my Year 9 History students were learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, and my Year 12 History were learning about the Spanish Civil War. These are all traumatic events. 

In my mind, school History is the study of collective trauma…and you want me to make these pain-infused topics of people’s trauma “fun”? Is it right to make a joke of learning about the suffering of human beings at the hands of cruel, emotionally disconnected leaders and traders…simply because a minority of students feel entitled to be “motivated” by the teacher, who they see as being responsible for “making the lesson fun” for them? 

Personally, I believe it’s immoral to aim for most History lessons to be “fun”, because of the nature and gravitas of the material. 

“Interesting”? Yes. “Meaningful”? Yes. “Important to know/be aware of”? Yes. 

But aiming to have “fun” in a History lesson? That’s like saying you want a trip to a Holocaust museum to be “fun”. It suggests an inability to connect with the tragedy of the material from both the head and (more importantly) the heart. 

It’s inappropriate. It’s wrong.  

Call me old-school, but I believe we need to learn in a way that is sensitive to the experience of human suffering, when we study History.  

I believe the role of a teacher is to try and inspire (not to motivate), and to create an environment where students can cultivate their curiosity to learn, beyond the textbook. It is the students’  responsibility to motivate themselves.

I remember reading something that has stayed with me to this day, which I read  a few years ago, in one of Simon Sinek’s books (it was either in Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, or in Start With Why). In one of these books, Simek said something along the lines of: It is a leader’s responsibility to inspire their workers, but it is the workers’ responsibility to motivate themselves. 

Being a classroom teacher is a leadership role. You are the one who is responsible for leading your students to make progress in your subject, during the academic year. But it is the students’ job to motivate themselves to achieve the goals they want to achieve in your subject. 

EXtrinsic Motivation vs Intrinsic motivation

I once had a conversation with a head of school on the issue of student motivation. What I learnt is that some educators have come to a conclusion that there’s no such thing as intrinsic motivation. They believe that students need to be regularly receive (certificates of participation, medals, academic achievement awards) in order to be motivated to do well in school and extra-curricular activities.

In the world of work, the equivalent would be the belief that giving workers bonuses for them to work hard and achieve targets is the most effective way to get the most out of your team. But in reality, not all industries operate with bonuses and extrinsic motivation ‘carrots’ to entice workers to be productive. And so it’s up to you to learn how to motivate ourselves to keep going and to keep growing as a professional, by developing your intrinsic motivation.

There is a disconnect between school environments, where extrinsic motivation is cultivated through regular teacher feedback, rewards and ceremonies, and the real world of work, where most workers hardly ever receive receive regular sources of extrinsic motivation, check ins, or constructive feedback as metaphorical ‘pats on the back’.

Unlike in schools, you can see sticks being used more than carrots in the workplace. And most workers are expected to show up, and work, simply because they are paid to do the job. End of story.

I totally understand that when an employer is exploiting staff, and the extrinsic sources of motivation (e.g. child care benefits, private health insurance benefits, pay) are low, if  at all existent, it is incredibly challenging for workers to motivate themselves.

But I disagree with the view that there is no such thing as intrinsic motivation.

Because you will find a lot of people who are working on minimum wages, or shockingly low wages for their qualifications and contribution to the job, largely out of intrinsic motivation. 

You see teachers who don’t have leadership titles, who are nonetheless highly motivated to lead. Not because they have the extrinsic reward of having increased pay or social status by being given some fancy title, but because they have so much passion and love for the work they do, and for the people they are working to serve, that they want to be part of the solution in a school community (as opposed to spending their lunches moaning, complaining, and deflecting responsibility…which only contributes to the problem).

Speaking of problems, this feels like a good time to raise the problem of being motivated to act by fear (like the fear of losing your job, or the fear of “not being seen to be doing the right thing” just to “cover your back”…rather than actually doing the right thing!), as opposed to being motivated to act from a place of love and respect.

In school, students are expected to do the right thing. To behave. To be kind. But in the world of work, “You have to do this to cover your back. Why can’t you just do as you’re told to be seen to be doing the right thing?” Again, another disconnect between school and the real world: the expectation that you do the right thing, as opposed to the expectation that you go along to get along, by striving to be seen to be doing the right thing. 

There is a disconnect between school environments and the world of work.

FEAR as motivation vs love as motivation

“We often mistakenly believe that we need fear in order to survive, to motivate ourselves…But…we don’t need fear to be intelligent. And it’s not about trying to deplete fear or superimpose it, but about understanding what it’s about, and transforming it.” [Karl Dawson, 2014, Transform Your Beliefs, Transform Your Life].

Relying on fear as motivation to learn is at the heart of the test-based system. In this system, which is still prevalent in most educational institutions around the world, big end of topic tests and exams are used to motivate students to study. It’s important that we recognize our current education system for what it is: a fear-based system of motivating students to learn.

Fear of failure drives many international school students to ask their parents for a private tutor. Fear of getting a beating motivates students who’re raised by a parent who is physically abusive if they come home from school with a bad report, to get good grades. Fear of not getting into the university you want motivates IB Diploma students who apply to universities in the UK to stay up until 3am in the morning finishing their school work, because of how demanding the UK university entry requirements often are for IB Diploma students. 

Yet it’s not uncommon for international schools to have “We aim to cultivate a love for learning” so that students can grow up to become “lifelong learners”, mentioned somewhere in their mission statement. But how can a student develop a love for learning in an education system that’s built on fear-based motivation? 

Now you might turn around and say: “Okay Eleni, I see your point. But the purpose of going to school is to educate the mind, and to exercise the body, not to educate the heart. That’s the parents’ responsibility.” 

And I hear you. As teachers, we’re already way too overloaded as it is. We’re expected to take on additional roles that in the past were delegated to secretaries (i.e. answering all emails within 24 hours), resource creation companies like textbook companies (i.e. we are expected to create our own virtual learning environment for each class), and create a virtual record of the homework students must do for the next lesson (It used to be that teaching a child how to write their homework down in an agenda was a life skill that they were responsible for…now that student responsibility is being added to the already over-burdened classroom teacher’s to-do list). All the while, we are systematically deskilling the next generation of students from learning how to organize themselves through the use of an agenda, a calendar, a diary. 

But unless we discuss the issue of how we can better cultivate a love for learning (with love as the primary motivating factor, or what some may call “intrinsic motivation”), then we leave it up to chance whether a child will develop a “love for learning” that will make them resilient and resourceful.

Maybe it’s time we re-evaluate our priorities. What’s more important: Responding to an e-mail within 24 hours, or spending quality time going back to the drawing board to do some deep work.  To have curriculum planning meetings with colleagues where we talk about how we can help more students learn how to motivate themselves from a place of love, as opposed to fear, within the inevitable constraints of a test and exam-based education system.


One of the things Baby Boomers don’t always have is a lived experience of is what it’s like to have your wages frozen, year after year, and your entry into the job market challenged, because you happened to come of age at a time when your country, or the world, was going through an economic crisis. The perks, benefits and job-for life stability that many educated Baby Boomers enjoyed in their 20s and/or 30s are often nowhere near those on offer in the current, ever-changing job market.

Millennials and young adults who have been called ‘Gen Z’, on average, receive lower wages than their parents did during the boom years. Some came of age and saw their wages cut in the 2008 economic crisis. Others here in Greece were hit hard by the 2015-6 austerity measures, and were expected to keep working hard, no matter what the working conditions (external motivation was not an option), because of how high the unemployment rate. Then you had those in their 20s who were unemployed, who struggles to get their confidence back, as after receiving rejection after rejection after rejection, in their efforts to get back into the job market.

Of course, the stress and strains of working life affects all generations in an economic crisis. I’ll never forget what a doctor said to me during the financial crisis that rocked the Greek economy, in 2015: “Eleni, you have no idea how bad it is for factory workers in some factories right now. Employers are taking advantage of the economic crisis and not letting their workers go to the toilet on 12 hour shifts…then they come to me with serious urinary tract infections…” 

How is “making lessons fun” for students in school going to prepare them for the emotional and psychological challenges of having to dig deep to motivate yourself to work in times of crisis? How many employers actually care to “make work fun” (let alone fair) for their workers?

Now, some may argue that we already know that life is hard, so we might as well let kids be kids, and enjoy their life before they get out into the real world.

But I think that there’s a time and place for fun and for enjoying your life, and there’s a time and place for being serious and fulfilling your school work responsibilities as a student.

I also think that students need to learn self-soothing techniques in preparation for the challenges of working life. By embedding wellbeing education into the the school timetable, culture and curriculum, we can help students leave school with a solid foundation of practical tools and principles. This will allow them to not only access a better quality of life in coping with the stress of the world of work as adults. It will  also increase the number of  students who become self-directed lifelong learners who’re motivated by a love for the process of learning.

How are the existing systems of extrinsic motivation for students in schools (award ceremonies, merit marks, stickers) going to prepare students for a working world where extrinsic motivation systems are either no where in sight, or of negligible significance?