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Topic: [ncsm-members] What Motivates Teachers? Education Reformers Have No Idea
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] What Motivates Teachers? Education Reformers Have No Idea
Posted: Jul 5, 2014 1:35 PM
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From Russ on Reading - Discussing sound literacy instruction,
supporting teachers and defending public education. Friday, May 16,
2014. See
; See, also, Diane Ravitch, May 29, 2014 --
What Motivates Teachers? Education Reformers Have No Idea

You gotta' admire those education reformers. Despite their almost
total lack of experience in education and despite all the research
and evidence that flies in the face of their bankrupt ideas, they
cling to their ideology like a sloth to a low hanging vine. One area
where I think they can come in for particular ridicule is teacher
improvement. Basing their theories on the all encompassing business
model, the education reformers have decided to motivate teachers
through a system of threats and rewards.

Threats come in the form of threatening teacher's jobs by measuring
teacher performance through student scores on standardized tests and
weakening job protections through attacks on tenure rights. The
apparent guiding principle is that teachers will be motivated to
improve instruction if they are held accountable for the knowledge
their students show on a standardized test and if their jobs depend
on the students' performance on these tests. This is the "fire your
way to excellence" approach promoted by economist Erik Hanushek and
uber-reformer Michelle Rhee.

Rewards come in the form of merit pay. Again borrowing from that
almighty business model that has stood the country in such good stead
in the last decade (recession, housing crisis, "too big to fail")
education reformers have determined that teachers will perform better
if they get monetary rewards when their students do well - again as
measured by standardized tests. Never mind that merit pay has never
worked in schools. Never mind that study after study has shown that
value added measuress (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness are fatally
flawed. Never mind even that many forward looking businesses have
recognized that collaboration, not competition, makes for an
effective company. Never mind all of this. Education reformers cling
to the idea of teacher improvement through merit pay.

Maybe, just maybe, if the education reformers could park their
ideology for a while and roam the halls of schools and watch and
listen to teachers, they might learn something about what motivates
teachers. If they did this for a week, they would find they were on
the wrong track.

Here is what I have discovered motivates teachers to excel in my 45
years of wandering those school hallways. If we really want to
improve teaching and learning and if our real agenda is improving
teacher motivation, here are some good places to start.

Teachers are motivated by students

Nothing can motivate a teacher to be well-prepared and perform at
peak ability more than the simple fact their will be 25 or so faces
looking at you in the morning, waiting for you to teach them. When
students have a moment of insight, teachers feel empowered. When a
student is struggling to understand, the teacher is motivated to find
a way to get through.

I worked with struggling readers. Progress was often slow and
laborious, but when a struggling student learned a new strategy or
read a passage that would have been too difficult the week before,
the feeling of empowerment and motivation was indescribable. I wanted
to find more answers; I wanted to continue the teaching. At the end
of the year, I always got enough thanks or smiles to keep me
motivated for the next year. Here's a study that shows that the
student is the number one motivator for teachers.

How can that motivation be measured by a VAM? How do you put a price on it?

Teachers are motivated by teaching

Teaching is intrinsically rewarding. For those of us who chose to go
into the profession, teaching is fun. It is energizing. I have had
many times in my life when I didn't feel particularly well or when I
was tired and then I began to teach and I felt better, more
energized. I can teach myself awake and I have seen many other
teachers who do the same thing.

Teaching is a rewarding profession. Most teachers went into the
profession to touch the lives of children. Teaching gives the
socially conscious individual daily feedback that they are making a
difference in the world and shaping the future.

Teachers are motivated by good working conditions

While a reasonable living wage is certainly important to every
teacher, in my experience in hiring teachers, I have found them to be
more interested in the working conditions they will find in the
school where they will work. What working conditions matter?
Reasonable class sizes. Adequate resources to do the job. Adequate
planning time. A clean building in good repair. Supportive
administrators. Suportive and engaged parents. Friendly and
supportive colleagues.

When I interviewed candidates for a teaching position, I found the
very best candidates were also interviewing me. What was their number
one concern? Working conditions. Teachers are motivated to work hard
and well in a school that provides them with a pleasant and
productive working environment.

When I was president of my local teaching association, most of the
concerns that came to me had to do with working conditions, not
salary or disciplinary issues.

Education reformers would be better off spending their money to
control class size and repair dilapidated buildings as a way to
motivate teachers, rather than spending untold millions on
standardized tests and discredited measures of teacher effectiveness.

Teachers are motivated by autonomy

Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive:The Surprising Truth about What
Motivates Us, identifies autonomy as a major motivating factor.
Teachers need the license to respond to the teaching situation in
front of them. While good teaching is guided by good curriculum, and
yes, even good standards, good teaching demands that a variety of
instructional choices be made by the teacher, sometimes on the fly,
often after reflection. Teaching and learning is a dynamic that
cannot be driven by rigid curriculum demands.

Teachers will be motivated when they have the freedom to improvise
within the confines of a curriculum in order to best meet the needs
of the students sitting in front of them at that moment in time. It
is the essence of professionalism to not just be allowed to use your
professional judgement, but to be expected to use that judgement and
to be valued because you can and do use that judgement.

Teachers are motivated by actionable feedback

Bill Gates loves to say that teachers want and need feedback. He is
right about that. He is also very wrong about the kind of feedback
that motivates teachers. Feedback from standardized tests will not
motivate teachers. It is too distant from the actual learning
situation; it is not timely (often this feedback comes after the
school year is over) and it is not clear what actions a teacher could
take that would improve student performance on this learning

Teachers get actionable feedback everyday. They get this feedback by
watching students in the act of learning. Teachers know who has
understood the concept and who has failed to understand the concept
by watching students. For more formal feedback, the teacher designs a
criterion referenced test to see who has grasped the concepts and who
has not and then adjusts instruction accordingly.

I have found teachers are also open to actionable feedback when it is
offered by supervisors in an observation setting. It is important
that their be a level of trust between teacher and supervisor for the
feedback to be accepted. It is also important that the supervisor
provides feedback that is useful and doable.

When the feedback is far removed from the learning environment, as is
the case with standardized tests, their can be little motivation for
the teacher to use the information. When the results of the
standardized tests are also being used to hold the teacher
accountable, we can expect either resistance from the teacher or
narrowing of instruction to focus on what is rewarded on the test.

Teachers are motivated by their colleagues

Every school is, of course, a little society. If the school is a
healthy society, teachers will work well together for the benefit of
the children. Experienced teachers will help new teachers; teachers
who share a struggling student will work together to find ways to
help the child learn; teachers will borrow good instructional ideas
from each other. In many schools this professional collegial
interaction is formalized in professional learning communities, where
teachers together tackle knotty instructional problems.

Interestingly, there is every reason to believe that reform schemes
like merit pay will undermine the collegial nature of schools. In
merit pay there will be winners and losers. If teachers are competing
for a pot of gold at the end of the standardized testing rainbow,
they are not likely to be willing to share with colleagues. It is
reasonable to project that merit pay will create a toxic school
environment where teachers close their doors to their colleagues and
hoard their good instructional ideas.

Teachers are motivated by relevant professional development

Like their students, good teachers are always learning. Professional
development that is relevant and that teachers can see will have a
positive impact on their students' learning is motivating for
teachers. While teachers are often known to gripe about professional
development that is not relevant, or time wasting, when teachers are
involved in the design of the professional development, their buy in
and motivation are increased.

So there you go education reformers. If you are serious about
improving teaching, find a way to use your vast resources to improve
teacher working conditions, collegiality and autonomy. Motivating
teachers is complex, challenging and ultimately very doable. What you
will get with accountability by test scores and merit pay is at best
a compliance that works against your goals and at worst open
rebellion against all that you stand for. Better yet, just get out of
the way and let the professionals get to work. I assure you they are
well-motivated to do so.


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