Teacher Motivation: Context and Culture

Catherine Joynson and Ottoline Leyser’s The culture of scientific research identifies the motivation of scientists, which:

provide[s] additional insights into how they view research, and the majority of the survey respondents clearly chose a career in science in order to find out more about the world around them. When respondents were asked to rank phrases to describe what they believe motivates them in their work, the top three were:

  1. Improving my knowledge and understanding
  2. Making scientific discoveries for the benefit of society
  3. Satisfying my curiosity

And then, they confront the impact of competition:

High levels of competition in scientific research emerged as a strong theme running through all the project activities. Applying for funding is thought to be very competitive by the majority of the survey respondents (94 per cent), as is applying for jobs and promotions (77 per cent). Around nine in ten think making discoveries and gaining peer recognition is quite or very competitive.

High levels of competition for jobs and funding in scientific research are believed by survey respondents both to bring out the best in people and to create incentives for poor quality research practices, less collaboration, and headline chasing [emphasis added]. For example, behaviours such as rushing to finish and publish research, employing less rigorous research methods and increased corner-cutting in research were raised by 29 per cent of survey respondents who commented on the effects of competition on scientists.

Immediately this analysis reminded me of the increasing political calls for weeding out “bad” teachers and concurrently rewarding good teachers, notably from the right but also from the left, including support for value-added methods (VAM) for teacher evaluation and retention as well as merit pay.

While simplistic calls for rewarding good teachers are politically popular, they fail to confront the inherent negative consequences and to acknowledge the research base on what exactly motivates teachers.

Teaching and learning are highly sensitive to the same problems noted above about science: VAM and merit pay create competitive cultures in schools, discouraging collaboration and incentivizing teachers to view their students as tools of success (and thus, creating winners and loser when we claim a goal of everyone winning).

Research shows that merit pay for teachers is harmful:

Some researchers have warned, however, that merit pay may change the relationships between teachers and students: poor students may pose threats to the teacher’s rating and rewards [emphasis added] (Johnson 1986). Another concern is that merit pay plans may encourage teachers to adjust their teaching down to the program goals, setting their sights no higher than the standards (Coltham 1972).

Odden and Kelley reviewed recent research and experience and concluded that individual merit and incentive pay programs do not work and, in fact, are often detrimental (1997). A number of studies have suggested that merit pay plans often divide faculties, set teachers against their administrators, are plagued by inadequate evaluation methods, and may be inappropriate for organizations such as schools that require cooperative, collaborative work [emphasis added] (Lawler 1983).

Evidence on VAM reveals similar warnings:

High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (p. 24)

So what does motivate teachers?:

Frase identified two sets of factors that affect teachers’ ability to perform effectively: work context factors (the teaching environment, and work content factors (teaching)….

Work context factors are those that meet baseline needs. They include working conditions such as class size, discipline conditions, and availability of teaching materials; the quality of the principal’s supervision; and basic psychological needs such as money, status, and security.

In general, context factors clear the road of the debris that block effective teaching. In adequate supply, these factors prevent dissatisfaction. Even the most intrinsically motivated teacher will become discouraged if the salary doesn’t pay the mortgage….

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 states 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 [emphasis added]. 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.

VAM, merit pay, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing, “no excuses” ideologies, zero tolerance policies—these remain essential elements of education reform although they are likely to creates the worst possible contexts and cultures necessary for teaching and learning.

Top-down and technocratic approaches to school policy, which de-professionalize teaching and teachers, are creating harmful cultures in public schools, proving further that the partisan political control of education remains tone-deaf to evidence and educators.

Teachers, like scientists above, are already quite likely to have chosen the profession in order to serve others. VAM and merit pay destroy those initial reasons for teaching.

Political commitments to harmful policies suggest the real problem in education is the motivation of those political leaders, not teachers.

One comment

  1. J Richards

    I completely agree with your argument, but I don’t understand why you could not use more current research to support it. I would love to send this off to my principal, but the research is so old I wouldn’t even except it as evidence in my 8th graders’ research papers.

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