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Energizing Exhausted Teachers

November 27, 2013

Allison Rimm has a recent post at the Harvard Business Review offering some interesting Tips for Energizing Your Exhausted Employees. Rimm speaks of work with IT staff in the medical industry, but see if this sounds like advice that would apply to education.

 It was clear from the rich literature on motivation and from my own experience that employees would need five things:

  • A solid understanding of the relevance of their work to the hospital’s mission.
  • A chance to use their skills and expertise to make a positive contribution.
  • More control over their work environment and their future.
  • Opportunities to develop new friendships and interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • New tools and the support necessary for their efforts to succeed.
School at the end of the rainbow (photo by the author)

School at the end of the rainbow (photo by the author)

Substitute “school” or “district” for “hospital” and we might have some interesting though imperfect parallels to education. You might think the easy part is seeing the relevance of our work to our mission. For teachers, it seems like it should be so direct. Our mission is to educate our students, and our work is… educating our students! The tricky part is that in today’s “reform” climate, understanding of our mission has actually become muddled, in schools and in the general public. The “reform” camp would say that until high stakes accountability era of NCLB, too many schools were neglecting their mission with regard to many underserved students, and they were able to mask those problems – and I don’t entirely disagree with that premise. However, the prescriptions for that weakness in the system brought along a focus on test scores that actually made schools focus on the wrong mission – raising test scores. When we engage in deeper conversations and assume good intentions, I think we find almost no one who actually believes high test scores are “the mission.” And yet, consider how many days, months, years students have lost being prepared specifically for various tests, taking benchmark tests to prep for the real tests, taking entire classes focused on test prep… how many hours wasted analyzing every little bit of testing data as if lives depended on percentile gains, how many days wasted organizing and holding school assemblies and rallies to raise test scores, doling out incentives to students and teachers to raise those test scores…

These practices represent a failure by every adult and organization involved in perpetuating them – but especially those at the top of the hierarchy. It is demotivating and exhausting to put so much time, energy, and even soul – into such a soulless enterprise. So, if we’re going to motivate and energize employees by ensuring they see the relevance of their work to a shared mission, we better make sure we agree on a mission worth pursuing, and means that are worthy of the end.

Do teachers have “a chance to use their skills and expertise to make a positive contribution” to the work of the school or district? Are teachers experiencing “more control over their work environment and their future” in your school or district? Not if curricular and instructional decisions are removed from the teachers’ control. I am absolutely not suggesting a do-whatever-you-want approach. Teachers must be trusted professionals who work collaboratively with trusted administrators at the site and district level to make decisions. We do need to coordinate our work, adhering to relevant standards in ways that provide a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” –while still allowing teachers to exercise individual judgment based on their students and their classroom. We do not honor the skills and expertise of teachers or principals when the important decisions about education are removed from the site, and when only the quantifiable contributions are valued. (But there is reason for hope. Keep an eye on the Teacher Leadership Initiative, a new project involving the coordinated efforts of NBPTS, NEA, and CTQ, rolling out in six states – not including California, unfortunately).

The next item in Allison Rimm’s list is “Opportunities to develop new friendships and interdisciplinary collaboration.” This type of pro-social engagement advice is common in educational and business literature, and yet it’s so routinely undermined in educational policy and “reform” ideas that we end up questioning the motives or intelligence of people who promote individualism and competitiveness in our field. We’ve seen too much advocacy of poorly conceived merit pay schemes that pit us against each other. Using test scores in teacher evaluation is a poor idea on its own, but some systems are so twisted to conform to that bad idea that they even evaluate teachers on test results in subjects they don’t teach, or students they don’t even know. Some reformers push the idea of using evaluations as a tool for dismissal rather than professional growth, ignoring the incentive such a system creates for teachers not to help each other if layoffs seem to be looming in the future.

Dan Pink

Daniel Pink (2011; photo by the author)

As for “new tools and the support necessary for their efforts to succeed,” I’d suggest reviewing that idea backwards. Start at success. If we recall Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, we know that certainly people are motivated in large part by the chance to be successful and effective. We crave mastery. (Not surprisingly, Rimm’s list touches on all three of the primary motivators Pink discusses: autonomy, mastery, purpose). So, yes, we can help exhausted teachers work up more motivation by increasing the opportunity to master meaningful work. But such mastery of complex professional work rarely happens in isolation, and without support. So hopefully, no one would overlook the importance of “support necessary” in this advice. That brings us to the end of the analysis, and the beginning of the item – “new tools.” Yes, novelty is appealing, and I can easily think of ways I could improve my teaching if I had the time and support needed to learn and apply new tools. But really, the new tools are the last piece of the puzzle, something to bring in to the mix once we’ve defined and committed to worthy goals, respectful and even friendly collaboration, and ongoing support to ensure everyone’s success.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris Miraglia permalink
    November 27, 2013 6:28 pm

    I appreciate the commentary especially in the light of a particularly exhausting teaching year. The consumate struggle for many of us, young and old in the profession, is what I am doing making a difference? Test scores are not a measuring stick for this question. Since many of us only see students for one year and then they move on, it hard to gauge any impact. However, if we do focus on our professional collaborative relationships I truly think we can then see that we do make a difference. The key is the time to develop these relationships.

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