What Motivates Teachers? Education Reformers Have No Idea
What Motivates Teachers? Education Reformers Have No Idea
By Russ Walsh | From Russ on Reading | Russ Walsh is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century | Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble
By Russ Walsh
You gotta' admire those education reformers. Despite their almost total lack of experience in education and despite all the research and evidence that flies in the face of their bankrupt ideas, they cling to their ideology like a sloth to a low hanging vine. One area where I think they can come in for particular ridicule is teacher improvement. Basing their theories on the all encompassing business model, the education reformers have decided to motivate teachers through a system of threats and rewards.
Threats come in the form of threatening teacher's jobs by measuring teacher performance through student scores on standardized tests and weakening job protections through attacks on tenure rights. The apparent guiding principle is that teachers will be motivated to improve instruction if they are held accountable for the knowledge their students show on a standardized test and if their jobs depend on the students' performance on these tests. This is the "fire your way to excellence" approach promoted by economist Erik Hanushek and uber-reformer Michelle Rhee.
Rewards come in the form of merit pay. Again borrowing from that almighty business model that has stood the country in such good stead in the last decade (recession, housing crisis, "too big to fail") education reformers have determined that teachers will perform better if they get monetary rewards when their students do well - again as measured by standardized tests. Never mind that merit pay has never worked in schools. Never mind that study after study has shown that value added measuress (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness are fatally flawed. Never mind even that many forward looking businesses have recognized that collaboration, not competition, makes for an effective company. Never mind all of this. Education reformers cling to the idea of teacher improvement through merit pay.
Maybe, just maybe, if the education reformers could park their ideology for a while and roam the halls of schools and watch and listen to teachers, they might learn something about what motivates teachers. If they did this for a week, they would find they were on the wrong track.
Here is what I have discovered motivates teachers to excel in my 45 years of wandering those school hallways. If we really want to improve teaching and learning and if our real agenda is improving teacher motivation, here are some good places to start.
Teachers are motivated by students
Nothing can motivate a teacher to be well-prepared and perform at peak ability more than the simple fact their will be 25 or so faces looking at you in the morning, waiting for you to teach them. When students have a moment of insight, teachers feel empowered. When a student is struggling to understand, the teacher is motivated to find a way to get through.
I worked with struggling readers. Progress was often slow and laborious, but when a struggling student learned a new strategy or read a passage that would have been too difficult the week before, the feeling of empowerment and motivation was indescribable. I wanted to find more answers; I wanted to continue the teaching. At the end of the year, I always got enough thanks or smiles to keep me motivated for the next year. Here's a study that shows that the student is the number one motivator for teachers.
How can that motivation be measured by a VAM? How do you put a price on it?
Teachers are motivated by teaching
Teaching is intrinsically rewarding. For those of us who chose to go into the profession, teaching is fun. It is energizing. I have had many times in my life when I didn't feel particularly well or when I was tired and then I began to teach and I felt better, more energized. I can teach myself awake and I have seen many other teachers who do the same thing.
Teaching is a rewarding profession. Most teachers went into the profession to touch the lives of children. Teaching gives the socially conscious individual daily feedback that they are making a difference in the world and shaping the future.
Teachers are motivated by good working conditions
While a reasonable living wage is certainly important to every teacher, in my experience in hiring teachers, I have found them to be more interested in the working conditions they will find in the school where they will work. What working conditions matter? Reasonable class sizes. Adequate resources to do the job. Adequate planning time. A clean building in good repair. Supportive administrators. Suportive and engaged parents. Friendly and supportive colleagues.
When I interviewed candidates for a teaching position, I found the very best candidates were also interviewing me. What was their number one concern? Working conditions. Teachers are motivated to work hard and well in a school that provides them with a pleasant and productive working environment.
When I was president of my local teaching association, most of the concerns that came to me had to do with working conditions, not salary or disciplinary issues.
Education reformers would be better off spending their money to control class size and repair dilapidated buildings as a way to motivate teachers, rather than spending untold millions on standardized tests and discredited measures of teacher effectiveness.
Teachers are motivated by autonomy
Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive:The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, identifies autonomy as a major motivating factor. Teachers need the license to respond to the teaching situation in front of them. While good teaching is guided by good curriculum, and yes, even good standards, good teaching demands that a variety of instructional choices be made by the teacher, sometimes on the fly, often after reflection. Teaching and learning is a dynamic that cannot be driven by rigid curriculum demands.
Teachers will be motivated when they have the freedom to improvise within the confines of a curriculum in order to best meet the needs of the students sitting in front of them at that moment in time. It is the essence of professionalism to not just be allowed to use your professional judgement, but to be expected to use that judgement and to be valued because you can and do use that judgement.
Teachers are motivated by actionable feedback
Bill Gates loves to say that teachers want and need feedback. He is right about that. He is also very wrong about the kind of feedback that motivates teachers. Feedback from standardized tests will not motivate teachers. It is too distant from the actual learning situation; it is not timely (often this feedback comes after the school year is over) and it is not clear what actions a teacher could take that would improve student performance on this learning abstraction.
Teachers get actionable feedback everyday. They get this feedback by watching students in the act of learning. Teachers know who has understood the concept and who has failed to understand the concept by watching students. For more formal feedback, the teacher designs a criterion referenced test to see who has grasped the concepts and who has not and then adjusts instruction accordingly.
I have found teachers are also open to actionable feedback when it is offered by supervisors in an observation setting. It is important that their be a level of trust between teacher and supervisor for the feedback to be accepted. It is also important that the supervisor provides feedback that is useful and doable.
When the feedback is far removed from the learning environment, as is the case with standardized tests, their can be little motivation for the teacher to use the imformation. When the results of the standardized tests are also being used to hold the teacher accountable, we can expect either resistance from the teacher or narrowing of instruction to focus on what is rewarded on the test.
Teachers are motivated by their colleagues
Every school is, of course, a little society. If the school is a healthy society, teachers will work well together for the benefit of the children. Experienced teachers will help new teachers; teachers who share a struggling student will work together to find ways to help the child learn; teachers will borrow good instructional ideas from each other. In many schools this professional collegial interaction is formalized in professional learning communities, where teachers together tackle knotty instructional problems.
Interestingly, there is every reason to believe that reformy schemes like merit pay will undermine the collegial nature of schools. In merit pay there will be winners and losers. If teachers are competing for a pot of gold at the end of the standardized testing rainbow, they are not likely to be willing to share with colleagues. It is reasonable to project that merit pay will create a toxic school environment where teachers close their doors to their colleagues and hoard their good instructional ideas.
Teachers are motivated by relevant professional development
Like their students, good teachers are always learning. Professional development that is relevant and that teachers can see will have a positive impact on their students' learning is motivating for teachers. While teachers are often known to gripe about professional development that is not relevant, or time wasting, when teachers are involved in the design of the professional development, their buy in and motivation are increased.
So there you go education reformers. If you are serious about improving teaching, find a way to use your vast resources to improve teacher working conditions, collegiality and autonomy. Motivating teachers is complex, challenging and ultimately very doable. What you will get with accountability by test scores and merit pay is at best a compliance that works against your goals and at worst open rebellion against all that you stand for. Better yet, just get out of the way and let the professionals get to work. I assure you they are well-motivated to do so.