Teachers spend most of their careers motivating students.Really, when you get down to it, that’s the main job.We motivate them to
study, to improve, and to become self-sufficient.We spend considerable effort mastering efficient ways to motivate, and the hallmark of the best teachers is their ability to build a fire within their students. What we don’t spend much time doing is motivating teachers.This
strikes me as a particularly important problem because there is so much in teaching that is demotivating: large class size, public disparagement of education, reduced funding, loss of independence, reduced voice, and a host of others (listen to a gripe session in the teachers’ lounge if you’d like a longer list of demotivating conditions).
Unfortunately, many of the demotivators are intractable.We can’t do anything about them.What we need is to figure out what we can do that is helpful.
It turns out that researchers who are not in education have spent a lot of time exploring what motivates workers in industry.One of the
surprises from this research is that offering more money for increased performance does not motivate people in jobs that require any cognitive skills.For purely mechanical work, like ditch digging, a monetary award for more production works, but for people whose job involves making decisions and being creative, more money for better results doesn’t improve their performance.
Weird, huh?It makes the entire discussion of merit pay suspect.
As Dan Pink said in his RSA talk, Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, “Fact: money is a motivator at work but in a slightly strange way. If you don't pay people enough they won't be motivated. What's curious about this is there's another paradox here which is that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they're not thinking about money and they're thinking about the work.”
What he says motivates employees more than money in a job like teaching is “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”
I’m most interested in the “autonomy” component for this article, but the “mastery and purpose” arguments are compelling too.
As Pink points out, “Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives.”Certainly much of what we are doing now in education is a step back from autonomy.The unified curriculum, common core standards, common assessments, and standardized tests foster an environment where teachers have less control over what happens in their classrooms, not more.
Realistically, teachers can’t do much about the loss of autonomy.We live in a culture that has compelling reasons to limit
teacher autonomy (particularly for the people who believe that the system is being dragged down by teachers who aren’t doing a good job—a very debatable premise), so teachers losing some independence has become a part of our working environment.
What can we do?We are losing autonomy, but we know that autonomy motivates teachers.
Here’s my suggestion.It’s a part of my wish list of moves we could make to improve education.Pink related the practice of a
software company to give their employees one day a quarter to work on anything they want.They have no guidelines, no benchmarks, no limits.They can work on any project and take any approach.He said that the company discovered the one day where they
didn’t tell the employees what to do produced numerous fixes for problems they had with their software.
Unfettered employees, trusted by their company, given an opportunity, accomplished work on their undirected day that they couldn’t accomplish on ordinary days.That’s cool!
Autonomy in an educational setting would look different from a software company, of course.My idea for teachers to have a shot at this kind of motivating autonomy, that would be both good for them and good for kids, is to take one week of the semester where the teacher is let loose in their classroom to teach a passion project.During that week, the teacher can innovate, invent and teach what they think would best support the rest of the curriculum, but do it their own way.
The point of the week would to not be standardized.Every class in the district doing their own thing during that week, led by a trusted,
passionate professional who would bring personal enthusiasm, expertise and excitement to lessons that she/he created on his/her own.
Umm!Sounds yummy to me.And my guess is, that when alumni got together at reunions, years after, the lessons that stuck with them
would be the ones that were taught on that one week a semester that their teachers were let loose.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, don’t you think?
You can see his RSA talk or read the article.
by Jim Van Pelt