Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Rewards of Teaching

Many reformsters have built their confused, misguided and just plain bad ideas on one very big misconception, a gap in their belief system that informs a hundred other flawed ideas.

Many reformsters do not believe that teaching is intrinsically rewarding.

This has always been there in the worst denigrations of teacher-haters. Teachers are just in it for the paycheck, for the summer vacation, for the cushy ease of the job. You can only believe this if you also believe that there is nothing rewarding about the job itself, if there is nothing to enjoy about working with students and helping them grow and understand and become more fully themselves, more fully human.

It's also there in so-called teacher supporters. We need raise pay. We need to offer financial incentives, merit pay, just higher pay levels across the board. Those are all lovely things, but don't think those have to be there because there's no other reason we'd be in the classroom.

Even Teach for America, a group that more than any other has mastered the rhetoric of teacher idealism about changing the world and touching children-- TFA may laud teaching in its ad copy, but their actions belie their pretty words. "Come be a teacher. Touch the future. Change a life. But for God's sake get the hell out of there and on to a real job." It's nice to touch lives for a year or two, but that couldn't possibly sustain you for an entire career.

Virtually every reformy program now comes with one form of incentivization or another, seemingly borrowed from the world of business cogs, grey flannel suits passing through a series of offices chasing ever-increasing stacks of cash.

If we want teachers to follow one program or another, we must incentivize it with money. Why else would teachers teach?

Mind you, I don't want to roll back to the more traditional argument for keeping teachers poor-- "If you were really doing it for the kids and the good warm feeling you get, then we shouldn't need to pay you more than minimum wage."

But the constant waving about of money is a sign that many reformsters have a fundamental misunderstanding of the work and the people who do it.

For example, lots of reformsters like the idea of setting up a system, because the way you get people to do work is you line them up in various coggy functions, allowing them to work their way up to higher levels of cogsmanship, which they'll do because each cog level offers new incentives (with lots of structure and direction). This is what you do with work that has no intrinsic motivation. Incentives, because why else would people pursue doing it right, and structure, because we don't believe that there's any natural feedback that tells the cog whether it's doing well or not.

This is dumb. It's like assuming that kissing does not have any natural feedback loop, so we need a system to let people know if they're kissing correctly or not. That same thinking says that a teacher can't tell whether a class is going well or poorly because there's no intrinsically rewarding feedback loop. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how a classroom works.

For another example, we return frequently to the problem of getting super-duper teachers to go work in America's most hard-to-staff schools, and we always return with a discussion of how we could create some financial incentives for teachers to go work there. But teachers do not go to work at Shiny New High School because the pay is great (often the cost of living in SNHS's neighborhood eats up the higher pay). Teachers go to work at SNHS because it's a great place to work.

I could try to lay out all the specifics of what makes a school or district a great place to work, but I think I can simplify it--

A great school to work in is one where there are the fewest possible obstacles between the teachers and the intrinsic rewards of teaching.And the intrinsic rewards of teaching are, most simply stated, using your skills, knowledge, judgment and efforts to help your students learn and grow, and getting to see the real life results of that growth.

The more obstacles stand between a teacher and the use of those personal skills, knowledge, judgment and effort, the less rewarding it is to work there.

So a plan like, say, "We'll give you a scripted program, and you are never to use your own judgment. We have no interest in what skills and knowledge you bring to the table as an individual-- just do as your told when you're told. But we'll give you a few thousand more dollars to do it"-- well, that's not a plan. And while you may find takers for it, they are not the teachers that you want.

Likewise a plan like, "Yes, take all your passion and care and dedication into that classroom, but we're not going to give you any tools such a books or paper, and we won't give you any support to help maintain discipline, and we'll never fix that broken window. but we will give you some extra pay"-- also not a plan.

Yes, teachers need money (we have families and we like to eat food and wear clothes), but if you don't understand that there is something exciting and joyful and rewarding for us in the work we do, you will never come up with a plan or program or system that motivates us. In fact, if you don't get that we're still in the classroom because we're already motivated, then you don't understand the work situation well enough to have a positive effect on it.

Teaching is intrinsically rewarding. You know when things are going well, and it feels good. You know when things are going poorly, and that feels lousy. You also know when people are trying to help you become your best teachery self so that you can have more good days, great moments. And you know when people are not trying to help, but are just trying to take away all the tools that allow you to create the good days.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely agree. Since this is my motivation, I feel annoyed, insulted and devalued when incentive pay is inflicted on us. Worse,, the incentive program I have been under for the last 3 years preaches inclusion but only rewards the number of kids passing Big Standardized tests. Hence the "professional development" usually skews toward test prep strategies, which I interpret as "another week of teaching me how to game the system." I do not find this supports my real motivation.