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Executive Pay and Teacher Bonuses: Where’s my Motivation?

By Anthony Cody — February 09, 2009 4 min read

I have to admit I have been a bit puzzled by the way our world seems to work, especially the latest news from Wall Street. Executives there apparently require bonuses that are several times their annual salaries – already in the millions of dollars – in order to motivate them to perform the duties for which they were hired.

It has made me wonder about the reason policy makers seem so fixated on attaching bonuses to teacher pay for the things they value, like student test scores. Frequently we hear teachers being accused of “opposing accountability,” because we are reluctant to have our pay linked to our results measured this way.

In my experience, most of the people who choose to teach in schools with the greatest need feel a high degree of social responsibility. For that reason it seems particularly unjust that the social indictment for poor test scores falls on them the hardest, because their students often lag behind their peers in schools of wealth and privilege.

Part of the problem is that our commitment to social justice is hard to quantify, and perhaps hard for people in business to even fathom. So I awoke this morning determined to record the ways in which I have felt accountable as a middle school teacher of math and science for 18 years in a high needs school.

I enter class each morning accountable to my students, knowing this is their chance to learn, especially those who have not learned so much in the past six years of school. I chose middle school because the students seem on the cusp, ready to go either way, and if I can catch them and help them choose learning, then I have made a big difference.

I know that if this sixth grader has not mastered his times tables and does not understand fractions, I can give him a chance in the next nine months to get over his fear of math so he can succeed in Algebra in a few years. If we fail, I know he is unlikely to make it to in college. My reward is hearing him say “This isn’t so hard,” as he finishes a quiz. My reward is hearing from him a year later that 7th grade math is easy, because we learned so much last year.

I know the ancestors of many of my students arrived to these shores in shackles, and the legacy of slavery and racism has cast a long shadow. Education is the best chance my students have to escape poverty, but many of them, at age 11, already feel like failures. I feel it is my responsibility to find ways to reach them, of allowing them to develop their skills and imaginations in ways they may not have done before. My reward is when I see them engaged in learning, when I see them working to produce a second draft better than their first, standing up and sharing what they learned to their peers, taking on the role of a learner.

I know the only science these students may have had was reading about somebody else’s experiments. If there is a future scientist in the room, that child will need his curiosity awakened and rewarded by the knowledge that his questions can be answered by investigation. That means I am accountable for creating an atmosphere of excitement and intrigue around science, because that is the most powerful motivator for learning. The reward for this is the excited buzz I hear among them when they are conducting their experiments, and the scientific presentations I see them give to their peers when their investigations and research is complete.

I know that I need the help and support of the parents of my students if we are going to succeed. That means I feel accountable for communicating with them through the year. There are phone calls in the fall to introduce myself and make them aware of my grading system and expectations, and the ways they can monitor their child’s work, and follow-ups when their child needs some guidance. My reward is that when I phone in the spring because their child has failed to do homework for a week or two, and is goofing off in class, I have a responsible parent helping that student complete his work, and have averted a possible failure.

I know many of my fellow science and math teachers are in their first year or two of teaching, and they are struggling. If they are to succeed, I will need to help develop a collaborative community so we can share curriculum ideas and management strategies. My rewards are the fresh ideas I get from my newer colleagues, more sharp minds to help me problem-solve my own dilemmas, and a team of teachers to create some school-wide initiatives to help our students. My biggest reward is seeing those teachers choose to stay in this tough profession, better yet stay at this school, rather than move on to an easier assignment elsewhere.

Pay for performance is the latest thing that is supposed to cure what ails public schools. If only teachers would allow ourselves to be held accountable for our results, then we would see us motivated to improve student learning. But for me, and I suspect many other teachers, our problem has never been lack of motivation. I strongly believe teachers should be paid more for the work we do, and teachers who do more should be paid more. So I support differentiated pay to reward greater effort and greater levels of expertise. But if policymakers believe the extra motivation from a year-end bonus is going to lift our students’ test scores, I think they are going to be disappointed. Unlike the Wall Street executives, the primary rewards we are seeking are not monetary ones, and test scores are only a small part of the way we measure our success.

What motivates YOU as a teacher? What do you think about performance pay for teachers?

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