Vail Daily column: The heart of a teacher
October 21, 2014
Much attention is given to the subject of "motivating" teachers. Politically popular approaches include treating teachers like proverbial donkeys — using "carrots" and "sticks" to motivate them. Carrots include merit-pay approaches, which seek to offer a few hundred (or even a few thousand) dollars to "incent" teachers into somehow unleashing the great instruction they've been supposedly holding back from students. Sticks include evaluation procedures that seek to rank teachers into categories and use the threat of termination or employee discipline to get teachers to perform at higher levels.
Despite a lack of empirical evidence to support the effectiveness either of these schemes for actually improving performance, we see them repeatedly brought forward as major drivers for raising the quality of education in our state and nation.
To be clear, this is not to say that compensation approaches for teachers shouldn't be more strategic. Teachers are typically paid using what's called a "step and lane" system, where more years of experience and more higher education credits result in higher pay. Strategically thinking about how we might compensate teachers in raising beginning pay, teaching in shortage areas or for using their talents to complete key organizational priorities is just smart resource management. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that these approaches "motivate" teachers.
Similarly, while there is no evidence an evaluation system designed to threaten and pressure teachers actually results in higher performance, no one wants a system with no accountability for poor performers. An important concept for any company, nonprofit or school system is "organizational justice" — meaning people should get what they deserve. A chronic poor performer that no one addresses ultimately undermines the concept of justice and leads to an erosion of trust in the whole organization. It is important that employers take action to address poor performance. But, again, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that subjecting all employees to a system of measurement and punishment is going to result in higher productivity.
I come from a family of educators and am married to a teacher. I learned a long time ago that what motivates teachers are the personal fulfillments that come with helping a child succeed and learn. You see, overwhelmingly, you don't need to "incent" or "threaten" a teacher. Doing what's right for kids just comes naturally to them — it's what's already in their hearts. They come hard-wired this way.
So, if raising teacher performance is an important aspect of education policy (which it is), then turning away from bribes and punishments — and toward more effective approaches is a foundational shift.
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Instead of trying to incent teachers to do better and work harder, high performing systems are incredibly selective about who they allow to be teachers in the first place. They select perhaps one or two in 10 to enter the teaching profession, and they make sure that teacher training is rigorous. These systems make sure teachers have deep training and exposure to their content area, to the art and science of teaching, and to real field experience. All of this happens before a teacher is given their own class.
And instead of trying to evaluate and pressure teachers out of the profession, high performing systems are working to make sure their teachers are given time to collaborate and think, are provided quality instructional materials and are surrounded by a thoughtful system of supports. The best systems create an environment where teachers can do their best work; where they know they are respected and appreciated.
In the course of my career, I've had the chance to meet and interact with perhaps thousands of teachers. Overwhelmingly, they are dedicated, hard-working, genuine and talented people. By and large, these are not people in need of an "incentive" or a "punishment." Much more so, they are in need of a word of acknowledgment and appreciation … and for us to get out of their way.
Here in Eagle County Schools, we've stepped up our recruiting and outreach efforts to make sure that our new hires are some of the most talented educators anywhere on the planet. And for our veteran staff — we respect, support and revere them so that they know we've got their back and that we appreciate them.
It's not about glad-handing or pandering to employees; it's about doing what works for kids. Regardless of how politically unsatisfying it may be, the key to more effective educators is support, respect and empowerment. These are the things that unlock and unleash the heart of a teacher.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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