Teaching Opinion

Why Employers Care What Workers Want

By David B. Cohen — February 11, 2015 4 min read
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How many times have we heard that the problem with disappointing teacher performance is that we have no incentive to succeed? No competition driving us. Not enough pressure. We’re often told that if we were employed in “the real world” then we’d have to adapt to those kinds of conditions.

Newsflash: in the real world, the workplace sometimes adapts to the worker. Writing in the the Wall Street Journal (2/5/15), Lauren Weber reports that companies in search of salespeople are finding that new hires value stability and teamwork over competition and risk. And even in sales, they don’t like it when “success boils down to a number.” Sort of like teachers.

Businesses are mindful that they need to create working conditions that improve recruitment and retention, not just because it might help organizational culture but because it affects the bottom line: “The time spent bringing new reps up to speed means the company doesn’t see the full benefit of their productivity until 12 to 18 months into their tenure.” In American schools, poor working conditions are a leading cause of teacher turnover, a problem that costs billions of dollars per year. There are proposals for reducing turnover and improving teacher support, but they need to gain more traction.

Salespeople are often perceived as individualists; being paid on commission provides the incentive to compete, to work hard, do whatever it takes to make the sale and close the deal. But times are changing for certain types of companies, according to Weber: “Sales organizations today are more commonly structured as teams, with lower-ranking members identifying prospects and developing early interest, someone else running through the specs or demos on highly technical products, and field reps negotiating and closing deals, employers say.”

The article goes on to suggest that, as a result of those changes, business recruiters are downplaying competition and the chance to earn big commissions when they talk to potential hires. Weber quotes Sharon Prosser, group vice president of Oracle Direct, who says that recruiting efforts are more effective when they mention that sales jobs are suitable for “continuous learners and that there’s training and career progression built into the program.” I think teachers want the same opportunities, but those pushing “business” solutions for education are rarely focused on promoting continuous learning and career progression.

As I’m visiting schools around California this year, I’m finding most teachers are fairly resourceful and motivated, seeking their own learning opportunities through informal avenues, especially when schools and districts lack the resources to do what they should in this regard. Teachers are organizing online networks, creating their own professional learning networks and edcamps, training and mentoring each other when possible or necessary. In a sense, teachers are subsidizing public education, providing each other for free what private business would pay for. Most teachers I know are so used to this state of affairs that it wouldn’t occur to them to seek compensation for this extra work. But as it seems to have such value, in business or in education, policy makers at every level could better support teachers by recognizing what teachers already do to strengthen schools and districts, beyond providing instruction to students. The extent to which informal efforts ought to be formalized is a question for individual districts and teachers associations to take up; but filling every available contract minute with top-down mandates does not enhance the kind of learning and professional sharing that energizes teachers.

To be clear, the business named in Weber’s article certainly aren’t abandoning sales commissions or quantitative measures of performance. Nor am I suggesting that teachers and schools should ignore “outputs” and only focus on “inputs” like teacher collaboration and professional learning. We need to find the right balance, but recognize that in a workplace as dynamic and relationship-driven as a school or district, “if you don’t get the people part right, nothing else matters.

Business-minded school improvement proposals too often seem predicated on a model that sees teachers as a management problem, needing both incentives and threats to induce productivity. And yet, managing people through some combination of competition, performance reviews, objective metrics, and worker insecurity is not actually highly regarded among business management experts. Instead, I’ve found many writers, researchers, and business leaders suggest focusing on the same things that we value in schools: an organizational culture built around a sense of purpose, a shared vision, mutual accountability, and the dedication of time and resources to professional learning and growth that advance the organizational mission.

Photo: EdCamp SFBay, Aug. 2014, by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Road Trips in Education 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.