Milty Goes to Connecticut

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 15 2012

In Praise of Praise

One problem with young, talented teachers: Retention. It’s hard to get good teachers to stay in the classroom. (Part of this may be generational. Company loyalty is kind of an unknown concept to people my age.) Teach For America gets frequent harassment over the two-year commitment. I would point out, though, that the ability to “try out” teaching for two years probably results in more career-teachers from a pool of really smart people than would happen otherwise. Some folks bent on being bankers and business people discover in the course of their two years that they really love teaching, and they stay. But that’s not really what this post is about.

Teacher incentive programs seem to focus largely on financial incentives. Get your kids to score higher on tests; get more money, and other policies like this. I think it’s missing the point a little bit. Money is good, and I like it. But if money were my primary motivator, I would have become an investment banker or an entrepreneur. I am pretty smart, and if I were so inclined, I could probably make a go of it. (I am also demonstrably arrogant.) I want to make enough money not to worry about it constantly, but I value other things more.

During a recent class on special education transitions, we as a class did a career preference activity. It involved a questionnaire that assessed which aspects of a job were most important to me. (If you’re interested, the website is If you’re not interested, that is still the website.) Out of achievement, independence, recognition, relationships and work conditions, I highly preferred independence and achievement. Because of those preferences, I strongly prefer occupations that allow me to be creative, autonomous and responsible for myself and my work. Examples of jobs with these traits include judge, anthropologist, dentist, public relations specialist, statistician, civil engineer, game warden,  and oddly, ship’s captain. (Sidenote: EVERY time I do one of these career/personality inventories, coroner comes up as a potential profession. Noticeably absent is teacher.) While in my case, it has meant that I am seeking a career change – I desire too much autonomy to be happy as a teacher –  I don’t think it has to for everyone. If a school was able to offer a person like me opportunities to be creative and autonomous, that would be worth more than $1000 for CAPT scores at goal level. Possibly, the students would get CAPT scores at goal because they would have a happy, motivated teacher.

Why, though, do people continue to assume that money is the best motivator? Are the people who design incentive programs only motivated by monetary recognition? Using monetary incentives for teachers doesn’t even fit the conventional thought that women (intentional use) teach because they are nurturing, and they love children. What motivates everyone is praise. But what praise means differs widely from person to person. My school offered me an opportunity for some additional training as a means of praise and an incentive. I took it as an additional requirement instead of a reward, and I only later realized that the intention was to show me that I was doing a great job. I have felt neglected and unappreciated, but my school and I just weren’t speaking the same language. What I view as praise doesn’t cost a thing: asking my advice. Soliciting my opinion or consulting me on an important issue makes me feel valued. I like to be able to design or overhaul systems in order to make them more efficient. It wouldn’t cost my employer much to allow me to remake my role; in fact, it might benefit them. But in order for them to know that, they would need to ask.

People want to feel valued and respected by their employers. Teachers are people; ergo, teachers want to feel valued and respected by their employers. Potentially, if school leadership and districts (and those clowns designing incentives systems) would just ask what constitutes praise and recognition to their teachers, they might be in a better position to retain talented people.

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Charmingly (maybe) Existential (possible) Musings (read: rants) on My TFA Tenure

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