Thursday, April 2, 2020

Of Pandemics And Teacher Motivation

Remember that time that schools were shut down because of a pandemic, and all the teachers said, "Yippee! Extra vacation! I am out of here" and all jumped in their Porches and drove to their beach homes?

Yeah, neither do I.

Here's what I'll remember. Teacher after teacher, from the ones in my Twitter feeds to the ones in my email to the ones that I know personally, sharing how miserable and worried they are, how they can't sleep for worrying about their students. Teacher after teacher frustrated about a lack of clear direction and leadership-- can we work? how can we work? what resources are we going to be given, or do we just have to hunt down the right tech ourselves?

And the scrambling. I'll never forget that when our governor finally closed schools, he announced it after 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, leaving many teachers no time to say "see you soon" to students or to grab materials from their rooms (this morning, my wife was finally allowed back into her classroom for twenty minutes, to grab whatever she could). The scrambling mixed in with the waiting for communication from bosses, political leaders, or a chance to connect with colleagues.

The scrambling was everywhere, with some teachers expected to convert to some sort of crisis schooling model in twenty-four hours. The varied and bizarre obstacles (like these teachers who work where wi-fi and cellphones are illegal).

Plus the pitching in. A thousand little stories, like the teachers who helped out medical workers with 3D printers.Yesterday my wife went in to school to take her turn handing through car windows to families of students who depend on the school for that kind of support.

There are so many things many teachers still don't know. How will all this be counted? How will students be determined as passing or failing? Has anybody figured out how we're going to take care of those students with exceptionally special needs? Will school open again, and if so, for how long? Contractually, what is going to count as a day of work, and does anybody have the faintest idea of how we'll decide if teachers have fulfilled contractual obligations to the district?

These are not small questions, and yet I've not heard tales of teachers who have sat down stubbornly refusing to lift a finger until they get some answers.

Teachers have done what medical personnel and blue collar workers and a large number of people have done-- they've simply rushed forward to fill the needs they see as best they can.

Know what else I remember?

I remember when a bunch of non-educators started making noises about how we needed to remake the entire education system and drastically overhaul the accountability system because clearly the only way to motivate teachers to do the work was to threaten them with financial punishment or offer financial reward.

I don't want to hear from these people any more. I don't want to hear any more baloney about the already-disproven notion that human beings are motivated strictly by economic incentives. I don't want to hear any more about the only way to whip those damned teachers into shape is to find ways to hold their paychecks hostage. I don't want to hear any more about how the unions exist to protect millions of fat, lazy slackers who thought teaching would be an easy way to live high on the government hog.

Teachers do the work because they want to do the work, because they even feel born to do the work, and will keep trying to do the work even when unprecedented obstacles are thrown in their way. If you think the only reason anyone ever does anything is to get paid, then I am sad for you. But keep your sad hands off education policy. When this storm has passed, sit down, shut up, and let the teachers work.


  1. Thanks, Peter. I always appreciate your words. But especially today. It's been really hard lately.

  2. Thank you! We are hanging on tight to this ride whatever it turns out to be.

  3. I remember years ago reading a study (which I've always regretted not recording the source) about motivating factors in the workplace. They people who ran it assumed that money would be the prime motivator. They were surprised to find out that, though money was a motivator, it was seldom the most important factor. (that surprise was what got it printed in the newspaper) Other factors such as workplace atmosphere were more important.

    One class of people was an exception to this - money was indeed the prime motivator for managers.

    Again, because I was too stupid to record the source, I'll have to post this as rumor, but it certainly seems to ring true.

  4. That is so correct...the whole piece.

  5. Thanks for writing this. On top of all the stress of being thrown into the online teaching mode and scrambling with using our own outdated tech at home now - people tend to forget that teachers have personal lives to contend with too. My spouse is an ICU nurse in a high risk category himself and is presently quarantined at home due to possible exposure and escalating symptoms. We spent all 'spring break' getting our wills, advanced directives and taxes done in anticipation of dire consequences, in addition to trying to learn video conferencing software etc for my new lesson planning procedures. Plus keeping tabs on our 80-something parents. In between teacher staff zoom meetings and figuring out how to record phonics lessons with a smile for 1st graders, I'm texting my spouse in our basement isolation-zone to check on PulseOx and temp stats. What I wouldn't give for some 'boredom' right now.

  6. The absolute hardest part is the feeling that my district is upset with ME because a few of my students aren't doing anything. I've called. I've emailed. I've dojoed. I guess I need to send a registered letter next. You know, I'm upset enough that these kids won't even try. So WHY are they holding MY feet to fire over it???