Education Opinion

Money and Motivation--and Teachers

By Nancy Flanagan — December 12, 2011 3 min read
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Congratulations to the 6000-plus teachers who achieved National Board Certification recently. In this Era of Bad Feelings about teacher effectiveness, National Board-Certified teachers are the real deal. A significant slice of them will receive some kind of annual bonus, from a modest $1K to a percentage salary increase, for their recognition as exemplary practitioners--and I say bully for them. They deserve it for demonstrating, via the best available standards-based measure, their commitment to student learning and a willingness to critically examine and fine-tune their own practice.

Full disclosure: I am a National Board Certified Teacher. Several years ago, I was discussing teacher compensation with a colleague from North Carolina, also an NBCT. I paid my own registration fees and pursued National Board Certification even though neither my state nor district offered a salary incentive--but NC paid her fees and gave her a 12% raise for certifying.

I righteously declared that I was attracted to national certification because I was passionate about teacher professionalism, defining good practice through rigorous standards, yada yada. Really? she said. I just needed a new car. And then she pointed out that I was making more money, working in a collective-bargaining state, than she ever would, bonus or no bonus.

I think that anecdote sums up what there is to know about teacher compensation:
• Teachers don’t make very much money, in general.
• Teachers who are permitted to collectively bargain make a little more.
• Teachers are often pleased with relatively small boosts in compensation.
• Teachers want to improve their practice for the right reasons--but they are not averse to getting paid for adding genuine value to their personal skill set. Because they need the money and feel they deserve it.

Last summer, at a National Board conference, Arne Duncan said in a keynote that he thought “good” teachers--like the ones in the room--deserved to make $150,000. While his speechwriters doubtless thought the remark would be a big applause line, it landed like a leaden weight in front of the podium.

You can’t fool smart teachers. They knew that dangling big bucks--and $150K is huge, for teachers--in front of “recognized” educators was an attempt to divide them from their colleagues, to suggest that some teachers were worth three times what other teachers make. The Secretary was trying to motivate already-wonderful teachers using competition and rewards.

Daniel Pink, in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us could have diagnosed the problem with Duncan’s strategy. Pink’s book--which has deep implications for education policy--argues that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the core ingredients in motivating people to do their best work and to innovate.

Teachers don’t want to make $150K for successfully employing a curriculum scripted by an outside “expert,” ignoring their own hard-won mastery of content and pedagogy. Worse, they don’t want a salary increase for the questionable purpose of mentoring novice teachers in the fine art of preparing kids for ever longer and more “important” standardized tests.

Since mentioning Finland is now de rigueur in every blog, it’s worth noting that Finnish teachers are not paid more than American teachers, but enjoy considerable leeway in designing their own lessons--autonomy. They are also much admired by their fellow Finns for the important work they do. It isn’t about their impressive salaries. It’s about their contribution, their professional expertise.

American teachers have always been willing to take on complex and time-consuming extra duties, like sponsoring clubs or coaching volleyball. The teacher who gets $500 for directing the middle school play ends up earning about 99 cents an hour (and fronting his own money for sets and programs)--but also the knowledge that he’s created an indelibly positive memory, an experience in teamwork and imagination. You hear these teachers grouse, annually, about all the time they’re spending--but the next year, there they are again, holding auditions in the cafeteria.

In America, we’re stripping teachers of much of their classroom autonomy, and questioning their mastery. Once we remove teachers’ intrinsic purpose, no amount of money will pull promising candidates into long-term careers in the classroom.

Will raising salaries without changing conditions get us a better teacher workforce? What do you think?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.