***Please read the disclaimer to the right. The following is the latest in several installments by former teacher and school board member for the Highland Community School District, Nick Smith. They are lessons to a future student, Cal-Em (Lesson 1 , Lesson #2 , Lesson #3, Part I, Lesson #3, Part II , LESSON 4 , Lesson 5: [part 1], Lesson 5[part 2], LESSON 5 [part 3], LESSON 6, LESSON SEVEN, Part I, Lesson 7, part II, LESSON 8, Lesson 9, Lesson 10 , Lesson #11 , Lesson #12)
LETTERS TO CAL-EM A PERSONAL HISTORY OF HIGHLAND
By Nick Smith
No, we do not want to change how we teach AGAIN because so and so came out with a new technique which looks familiarly like the one we used several years ago until a new technique came out and we used that. And for goodness sakes, please, please, we don’t need another laminated copy of Bloom’s taxonomy.
—[If Teachers Planned In-service Training…Published July 28, 2013 by wmcbryde21]
In the last three decades of education reform, teachers have been viewed as central to both the problem and the solution to education. Central to almost all reform movements is the concept that teachers need to be motivated to teach better. Somehow, the theory goes, teachers need to be elevated to higher levels of performance. Obviously, new teachers need help and veteran teachers need to keep up with all the new findings, techniques, methods, research and educational discoveries that they can. I agree that meaningful in-services that helped make me a better teacher were invaluable and much appreciated. Unfortunately, valuable in-services were not presented very often; they were generally boring, repetitive and merely resulted in more work for the individual.
According to most studies, the present school environment is a reward-scarce setting for professional teaching and seems to work against teachers’ efforts to grow and improve; thus, improving student learning (Peterson 1995). Most of a teacher’s work, I can say from experience, is carried out in a self-contained classroom totally isolated from any support from one’s colleagues, let alone any administrators or parents. Because of this long-standing organizational structure in public schools, teachers are difficult to supervise, never receive supportive feedback from others and usually find it hard to work with others. These circumstances result in many good teachers leaving the profession in the first three years of their employment (Frase 1992), a situation that is detrimental to education and the students it serves. The constant revolving door of new teachers, in my opinion, is one of the largest factors screwing kids out of an excellent education even today. Obviously, a way needs to be found to keep good teachers teaching and keep them motivated to excel. A motivated teacher feels satisfaction with their job and they feel empowered to pursue growth and excellence in teaching practice.
I know when I taught, I never received any feedback concerning my teaching. The only time I was observed was when another school district sent a team in to watch me for a possible employment opportunity. Yes, principals sat in my room for fifteen to twenty minutes and pretended as if they could evaluate me once or twice, but I never stayed long enough to see my true talents and abilities as a teacher. No, as a teacher, one learns to evaluate themselves, how to motivate themselves, how to congratulate themselves and how to recharge themselves. After a while, teachers don’t feel they really need anyone else because they become self-contained too. I never needed feedback to motivate me, and neither did most of the other teachers. It would have helped in the beginning of my career if someone would have given me some constructive criticism and help, but once you learn to swim, you keep right on swimming.
In the 1980s, state governments and local school districts enacted an array of incentive plans designed to recruit, reward, and retain the best teachers. Merit pay and career ladders sprang into existence to provide financial incentives, varied work, and advancement opportunities for seasoned teachers. These, along with across-the-board pay raises, work environment premiums for difficult assignments, and grants or sabbaticals for research and study, were expected to improve teacher performance and increase motivation. However, they did not. The reason of course was that the whole concept was based on false premises when it comes to teaching. By using a business mentality, reformers thought that teachers were more likely to strive in their work if there was a valued reward waiting for them somewhere. Next, they felt that teachers were dissatisfied because they were not being justly compensated for their efforts and accomplishments. Finally, reformers felt that teachers would be more productive if their work was more varied and challenging.
Cal-Em, let me repeat myself yet again, schools are not factories, teachers are not mindless robots, students are not products or commodities and public education isn’t producing toasters or blue berry ice cream. All of these initiatives ultimately failed because they were unworkable in the first place, underfunded and of little concern to the teachers. The third reasoning suggests differentiated staffing, organizational incentives and the ever-present reform-oriented staff development meeting, and was viewed as demeaning and insulting by most teachers. Promises were made, and then broken. Programs were started and then dismantled, awarded and then rescinded. One of my favorite incentive programs dealt with National Certification. The state of Iowa declared that if a teacher were to become nationally certified, they would be awarded a $10,000 bonus. I tried for one of the scholarships that were supposedly available, but couldn’t get one, nor did anyone else. I had a friend who went through the program at their own expense and obtained the certification, but the state reneged on their promise and only paid $2,500, which was less than it cost to obtain the certification in the first place.
The idea of merit pay has a straightforward appeal: it provides financial rewards for meeting established goals and standards. The problem with merit pay rests with its potential to destroy the relationships between teachers and other teachers, teachers and students and teachers and administrators. I’ve worked under a couple of merit pay systems (not in teaching) and, believe me, it is no panacea. Some people literally hated other employees because one got a larger raise than the other did. Some refused to help others because it might affect their standing with the boss and their pay raise. Merit winners are turned into “brown noses” and “butt kissers” by their fellow workers. Then there is the general distrust of any administrator having the ability justly and fairly to judge anyone on merit. Finally, test scores are the poorest of all merit indicators because they (the scores) are so volatile.
A merit system screws children out of an education. Let’s be practical. If, as a teacher, your merit pay increase depends on your students’ performance on a standardized test, what would you do? You have a family to feed, bills to pay, a mortgage and somehow you need to keep up with the cost of living. Poor students pose a threat to test scores, ratings and the reward. It would be best if you didn’t have any poor students or special needs students or disabled students. The most heinous result, however, is that teachers would surely adjust their teaching down to the test and the test only, setting their expectations no higher than the program goals or the proficiency level of the test. Do I think teachers would want to do this? No, but I think they would out of self-preservation and the well-being of their families. I’m telling you right now, Cal-Em, merit pay systems and incentive pay programs do not work and are, in fact, detrimental to the purpose of the public schools and the students who attend them. Merit pay schemes are not appropriate for schools, period! Schools require cooperation, collaboration and close relationships between teachers. Merit systems destroy all of that. It may work for Microsoft, but not for schools.
What do teachers want? What really motivates most teachers beyond a one to three year career? Let me tell you. It has almost nothing to do with money. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’ll spend every cent that I can get, but it’s not the real motivating factor. Merit pay and other incentive policies gained legislative popularity largely because of their seeming simplicity. They were meant to provide external incentives – financial rewards, advancement opportunities, workplace variety – but did not adequately resolve the problem of teacher satisfaction.
Frase (1992) offers one reason why measures relying on external rewards have been insufficient. There is overwhelming research evidence, he says, that teachers enter teaching to help young people learn, that their most gratifying reward is accomplishing this goal, and that the work-related factors most important to teachers are those that allow them to practice their craft successfully (see also Frase 1989; Lortie 1976; Mitchell, Ortiz, and Mitchell 1987). Bingo! I never went into teaching to get rich. I knew I’d never be paid what I was worth, but the money was never the point. The light bulbs were. You can’t imagine the satisfaction, the pride, the joy and the overall euphoria a teacher experiences when they see all the light bulbs going on in their students minds—the light bulbs of understanding. All the outstanding teachers I’ve ever known, including myself, often say, “You, know, I’d teach for nothing, if I didn’t have the bills to pay and the kids to feed.” They all mean it. They all love the satisfaction of helping students understand, helping them learn, seeing them grow and stretch and thrive and progress and learn, learn, learn.
Now don’t get me wrong, even the most dedicated, self-satisfied teacher will become discouraged and leave the profession if their salary doesn’t provide for their and their family’s needs, but if the basic pay is adequate, other factors become more important. For example, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that teacher compensation, including salary, benefits, and supplemental income, showed little relation to long-term satisfaction with teaching as a career (NCES, 1997). According to Frase (1992), content variables are the crucial factor in motivating teachers to high levels of performance. Duh, I could have told them that from the beginning and saved them all that research. Furthermore, work content factors are intrinsic to the work itself. They include opportunities for professional development, recognition, challenging and varied work, increased responsibility, achievement, empowerment, and authority. Some researchers argue that teachers who do not feel supported in these areas are less motivated to do their best work in the classroom (NCES. 1997).
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (1997) confirm that staff recognition, parental support, teacher participation in school decision making, influence over school policy, and control in the classroom are the factors most strongly associated with teacher satisfaction. Other research concurs that most teachers need to have a sense of accomplishment in these sectors if they are to persevere and excel in the difficult work of teaching. Three major areas that relate to teachers’ job satisfaction are as follows:
- Feedback is the factor most strongly related to job satisfaction, yet teachers typically receive very little accurate and helpful feedback regarding their teaching. I don’t mean a superficial pat on the back every day or teacher of the week certificates. I mean real professional, honest, direct, truthful feedback–both the good and the poor.
- Autonomy is strongly related to job satisfaction for many, but not all, teachers. Autonomy is not necessarily defined as freedom from interference in the classroom; rather, the majority of teachers view autonomy as freedom to develop collegial relationships to accomplish tasks. Autonomy means doing the job the right way, the way the teacher knows it needs to be done, not through some unlearned method imposed by the know-it-all non-teachers.
- Collegiality is also important for teachers. Collegiality can be expressed through experiencing challenging and stimulating work, creating school improvement plans, and leading curriculum development groups. The literature suggests that collegiality is directly linked to effective schools (Johnson 1986; Glatthorn and Fox 1996), where “teachers valued and participated in norms of collegiality and continuous improvement (experimentation)” (Little 1982, 1). Teachers, like most other professionals, have an experience factor. It is best to talk about teaching problems, situations, concerns and frustrations with other teachers because they and only they can really understand what you’re talking about because they’ve been there. Like police officers, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, etc., tend to talk in confidence with their own, teachers want collegial relationships with other teachers because other teachers have experienced the same things. They understand your problem and dilemma in ways no one else can.
I hope you noticed, Cal-Em, that the motivational things I’ve been discussing don’t actually cost any money at all. I will deal more with this subject later. Let me end right now by saying that the best teachers motivate themselves, and they let other teachers motivate them, also. The best in-services we ever had at Highland were those developed and presented by our fellow teachers—those in-house efforts for teacher improvement. The in-services where people came in from the outside to tell us poor feeble minded, no good, very bad teachers how to do a better job made no impact at all. In-services outside the school, even though they cost money, were equally worthless. No, I’m wrong on that. There was great worth in talking with other teachers from around the state or the country and developing ideas from their experiences to help with my personal growth as a teacher.
There is no reason continually to reinvent the machine when you can simply reprogram the one you’ve got.