One of the most unsettling things we are discovering about teaching in America is that it isn’t very good, and that unlike fine wine it doesn’t get better with age. The best research we have suggests that first year teachers are horribly unprepared, that they improve a little in years two and three, and that they don’t get much better after that. Even getting a master’s degree doesn’t make a difference. Ultimately, value-added research has shown that it is virtually impossible to expect even 10 percent of our teachers to significantly improve their skills over the course of their careers.
But we must also work with what we have. Creating positive teacher change, especially for in-service teachers, is the Sphinx-like riddle of our age. But it has also been my job for over a decade. And I really hate to not get better at my job. I am motivated by money and by all those simple capitalist goodies that are so easy to keep track of. So I’ve worked hard to get better over the years at helping teachers get better.
What I discovered is that the solution to motivating teachers is much simpler than I thought. I’ve gotten good gains with larger groups in a year or less by offering one simple highly motivating incentive: Helping teachers improve their instruction so that their lives are easier and their kids learn more. The KIPP-like round-the-clock intensity that seems to work so well for our high-flying charter schools has its virtues. But this isn’t going to work with longtime instructors. We have to show teachers how to work less, not more, while their kids get smarter at the same time.
Saving time, however, is not enough. The easiest way to save time is simply not to do your work. Give out textbook-based assignments and sit behind your desk all day. Become a packet queen. Show movies. It isn’t hard to do less at school. But teachers who do this turn into burnouts or just tend to fade out of their schools until there is nothing left. They also break a lot of rules which isn’t very affirming either.
Every teacher knows why they’re in the room: to help children learn. And even if you hate your job, or you’re terrible at it, or you’re having a bad time in your personal life, you have dozens of little reminders in the form of students looking to you every day for new learning. Truth is, many teachers may not be very responsible about making sure kids learn, but every teacher feels that responsibility, and I think it even carries a certain amount of ethical weight. So part of what motivates teachers is saving time. But the other part is seeing kids learn. And getting one without the other is simply not good enough.
If you’ve got 100 things that fulfill both of those goals—and my company does—teachers will gobble them right up and put them into practice. They’ll start to get happier, too. After all, they’ll have more time on their hands and, most importantly, they’ll see their kids learning more and more rapidly.
Our approach at our training is a simple trade: We’ll trade you one bad practice that has never worked for one equivalent practice that will work a lot better. And we’ll prove it by coming into your room and using it with your kids first. That way you know it works and we know it works.
We’ll also show you how to stop doing the myriad useless tasks you think they have to perform—even though you know they don’t help kids learn. Chief among these is grading papers. We show teachers how to give feedback to kids while they’re actually working and can really use the advice. When you just hand back grades, your students find it hard to integrate this poor form of feedback into their learning.
But beyond my work, we should use what we already know about motivation. We know this: External motivators such as performance pay can work. But internal motivation factors work better There are many choices. All are better than what we do now.
My personal favorite is Deci & Ryan’s “Self-Determination Theory”. Dan Pink does a splendid job of describing it in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” The Deci & Ryan model is based on three simple components which, when present to sufficient degrees, seem to help people learn to motivate themselves. This approach to internal motivation is much more effective in the long run. [My colleague, RiShawn Biddle, takes some issue with Pink’s studies on motivation, arguing as he did yesterday that Pink that doesn’t understand the role of compensation structure and economics in motivation.]
“Self-Determination Theory” says we do our best work when we these three key factors in place:
Autonomy: Never force teachers to use our stuff or even force them to use it the way we use it. As a teaching instructor, I do make recommendations and provide models and “Script the early moves” as the Heath brothers suggest in their new book on change. But teachers ultimately need the autonomy that Deci & Ryan define as choice over tools, technique, time, and task. This is opposed to the approach of many performance-based pay programs, which provide rules and adoptions and other constraints that make their work harder.
Competence: Who likes spending their whole day feeling like they’re screwing up? Because of poor training and the lack of meaningful on-the-job support, teachers rarely feel competent about what they do. To motivate them through our training, we attempt to create situations that guarantee they’ll feel competent with new practices by teaching those practices right along side of them. We call this co-teaching and it’s not only a lot of fun, it’s a real confidence builder. Most importantly, we don’t let people stay mired in failure. Anyone who has a bad lesson or a bad unit is encourage to write or call us right away for help—at no charge—so we can get them unstuck and feeling competent again.
Relatedness: Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to imagine how lonely the job is. You spend almost every minute of your day stuffed in a room full of kids. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only adult on the planet. We all have a need to feel like a part of something larger than ourselves. But schools are designed as sets of rectangular isolation wards. This is patently demotivating. In our approach, we try to open those rooms up with cross-class activities, co-teaching opportunities, modeled teaching sessions, teaching teams (not PLCs!), and just about any way we can get more than one teacher in a room at the same time.
The important thing in all of this is to focus on building internal motivation. This will last longer than any effects from external motivations provided by performance pay plan. Even when performance pay works, it isn’t sustaining for the long run. All of us, including teachers, need to feel motivated about our work over the course of a long and other challenging career.
Motivating teachers is a lot easier if you understand what motivates them. And it is reasonable to assume that they can be motivated to improve by helping them make their jobs easier and their practice more effective. In this sense, the motivational component is more direct. Being well paid and being judged meritorious have never been primary values for career classroom teachers. By contrast, time and learning have always been high on teachers’ list of priorities. And if we help them teach kids better, we have helped reform education for the better.