Teen rides a horse in a stream

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Why do American students lack so much motivation?

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” reflects the teacher’s primary concern when motivating a student.

Consider this short video.

VIRAL VIDEO: This horse doesn’t really understand how water works, until he gives it a try.

Posted by Sunday World on Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The rider is trying to get the horse not to fear the water, and her teaching method is a huge success. The horse ends up motivated to the point of loving the water.

To analyze how she achieved this remarkable transformation:

Twice she tries to utilize her traditional authority without success, and then wisely realizes she needs a different approach. So she relinquishes her dominant position, gets off the horse, and stands at the same level with the horse, holding the reign.

She walks the horse to the water’s edge, loosening her hold of the reign once the horse follows her. She then enters the water herself and models splashing the water with her foot. The horse now finds the confidence to follow her, and, I suspect, part of his enthusiastic splashing is probably to impress his teacher as well as express his joy in the water and relief from his fear.

There are important lessons here for American education.

First, our teachers are stuck with that horseman-like authority over students. They have degrees that qualify them to teach what they teach; students are there to learn what their teachers’ know. I remember years ago an Atlanta Job Corps student expressing her resentment of what she considered to be her teachers’ attitudes: “We got it; you got to get it.”

Like the horse balking at the water, many American students, disadvantaged ones in particular, are not confident; they balk at academic competition, and keep their teachers at a distance. They feel teachers are on a higher level, basically judging them far more than supporting them.

To counter this teacher-student gap of trust, a Hyde teacher, after sharing both personal and professional struggles (as well as growth experiences) in sessions with colleagues, also shares them in student “Discovery Groups.”

In addition to the reality that character is taught by example, this sharing is essential in the development of one’s sense of self, for teacher as well as student.

Students see their teachers in a new light: imperfect like themselves, sharing their struggles and seeking further growth. Like the horse watching its rider personally test the water, students see their teachers as individuals capable of understanding them and their struggles.

Further, they hear in their teachers’ stories individuals truly worthy of respect and even more, mentors to guide them.

The immediate criticism of this student-teacher bond approach is its supposed lack of standards–no test scores, etc. to measure its overall effectiveness.

I consider this criticism simply “conventional wisdom.” We’ve only known an educational system built on test scores. But think back to the horse’s incredible change of attitude and imagine what might happen if students gained the same trust in teachers that the horse did in the rider.

Hyde is a very rigorous process that seeks the best in the student, academically, athletically, in performing arts, community service, jobs, character, leadership and family.

Many Hyde teachers say their most important professional development is taking the “hot seat” in front of the entire student body to hear students assess their teachers’ strengths, what they need to work on, and “the essence of your teaching.”

I mention this to give some indication of the deeper potential in American students yet to be developed.

The video provides the challenging metaphor: the rider is the American teacher, the horse is the American student and the body of water is knowledge.

If the teacher will come down off his high horse and instead lead the student into knowledge by example, then fear and uncertainty can be cast aside, enabling the student to be dynamically transformed with confidence and enthusiasm.

Isn’t that the kind of education American students deserve?