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Teaching Profession Opinion

What Motivates Teachers: It’s More Than Money

By Shara Peters & Jody Passanisi — December 05, 2012 6 min read
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We hear it all over the news—our education system is broken. In an effort to improve teacher and student performance, school districts have been implementing plans that link teacher pay to student performance on standardized test scores. These intentions are understandable—they hold both students and teachers to higher standards and reward positive outcomes. But as teachers, we don’t believe this line of thinking will fix schools’ problems. In fact, it may even exacerbate them.

As a byproduct of the effort holding teachers and students to tougher standards, teachers’ ability to control what goes on in their classrooms has been whittled away. We hear the phrase “teacher-proof” education more and more, as if the reason our schools are not top-notch is due to incompetent teachers. Scripted reading programs provide lesson plans, activities, and assessments for teachers to simply implement. The class pacing is set, limiting teachers’ ability to modify the material to fit the needs of their individual students.

In their book Reframing the Path to School Leadership, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal clearly articulate this challenge: "[E]fforts to improve schools by imposing ‘teacher-proof’ methods have continually run aground in the face of the unpredictable and unique features of individual teachers, students, and classrooms.” Teachers and students are unique; one-size-fits-all instructional strategies go against the necessity for differentiation based on individual student needs that has been a recent priority in education.

Meanwhile, teachers across the nation, especially in schools dealing with budget cuts, are coping with increased classroom sizes, fewer prep periods, and greater responsibilities. The decline of teacher autonomy in the classroom, combined with near-impossible workloads, can lead to teacher burnout and a feeling of impotence in a career that requires purpose and drive.

Motivational Factors

In a 2010 lecture entitled “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” author Daniel Pink described the three important factors for motivation in the workplace: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. School leaders take note: These are precisely the factors that are being stripped away from teachers in the name of greater accountability.

In the same lecture, Pink describes an interesting experiment on the link between pay and motivation. Test subjects were asked to perform both mechanical and complex cognitive tasks. While a reward system provided the subjects with motivation to perform better on the mechanical tasks, it actually had an adverse effect on those trying to complete a complex cognitive task. The results indicate, according to Pink, that people aren’t necessarily motivated to do better at complex cognitive tasks by financial incentives; they are motivated by more substantive factors. Since teaching is, at root, both cognitive and complex, this raises questions about performance-pay initiatives.

Which is not to suggest that teacher pay isn’t important. Though teachers are often required to earn attainments in order to qualify to do their jobs, they are paid lower than other professions that require similar attainments, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. An overall increase in the base salaries of teachers would ensure that money would not be a deterrent for entrance into the profession or a primary cause of attrition. And it might improve teachers’ ability to master their craft. As Pink notes in the same lecture, “Pay people enough so that they are not thinking about money, they’re thinking about the work.”

Additionally, the question of how to hold teachers and students accountable is certainly a valid one. But reducing teacher autonomy and discretion isn’t the way to go about it. Instead, a supportive administration that engages teachers in reflective practice through observations and discussions of teaching and student assessment will go a long way to promoting student learning and giving teachers the respect and the space they need to improve their craft.

The Opportunity to Teach

What can administrators do to help ensure that teachers are working at their best? The two of us are incredibly lucky to work in a school that allows us to have relative autonomy over our teaching. Our working environment has proven that high teaching standards and autonomy of individual teachers do not have to be mutually exclusive. When teachers feel more control over their work, they will perform better; this can only help student outcomes.

So again, referring to Pink’s key motivational factors, here are some central steps, based on our experience, that we believe can improve teachers’ performance:

Autonomy: Teachers’ schedules need to allow for time to improve and reflect on their practice. Teachers who are overworked and are not given this time to reflect on their teaching are unable to review lessons taught, make necessary adjustments, and monitor and revise based on student needs. Teachers who aren’t given time to prepare for and review their classes are also at high risk of burnout. Curriculum standards should be clearly articulated for the teachers, so that the skills addressed remain consistent from classroom to classroom, but teachers should be given the freedom to work beyond those standards to best meet the needs of their students.

Mastery: Teachers also need to be provided ample, high-quality professional development opportunities to perfect their craft. Some teachers already attend professional development sessions each year, but many of these are one-size-fits-all presentations that don’t necessarily translate into a teacher’s particular classroom. Professional development needs to be differentiated as we differentiate for our students. Teachers should be able to dictate their needs and problems and work through them in small professional learning communities with master guides to help them. Key teaching concepts of assessment, differentiation, and core content should be worked through in these learning cohorts, with relevance as close to the individual classroom experience as possible. If teachers are given the opportunity in teacher-centered learning environments to master their craft, then they will be more able to transfer these skills into student-centered learning environments. Indeed, professional development that is on-going and directly relates to the classroom experience of the teacher would eradicate the issues that these “teacher-proof” curricula aim to address.

Purpose: When they enter the profession, most teachers do have a strong sense of purpose. However, it is only with the support of administration, parents, and society at large, that a teacher will be able to sustain this. By allowing teachers to put their true selves into their work, by supporting the individuality in style that each teacher can bring to their teaching, school communities can fuel teachers’ sense of purpose in the profession. Students connect to the person that is teaching, not simply the content being taught.

We believe that, along with a significant shift in the value of teachers and teaching as a craft, these steps could be made to help fix our education system better than rigid accountability systems. An opportunity to really teach will go a long way in giving students the opportunity to learn.

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