Why Teachers Teach

I’ve just come away from the annual conference of the Institute for Emerging Issues, a “think-and-do tank” founded by former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt to explore the intersection of education, the economy, and other sectors.  This year’s conference was entitled “Teachers and the Great Economic Debate,” and the stated goal of the conference was to explore the feasibility and challenges of placing a world-class teacher in every classroom in North Carolina.  Although I am mostly focused on placing world-class teachers in every classroom at 4011 Pickett Road, I am also intensely interested in this larger question of the common good.

I learned a lot.  I heard from Amanda Ripley about the smartest kids in the world; from Raj Cheety of Harvard about what Big Data tells us about the difference effective teachers make in students’ earning power; from Dan Pink about motivation; from a panel of teachers who have left the public school teaching profession; and from Diane Ravitch, who was not happy with what has happened in Raleigh this year.

Trinity Upper School science teacher Marilyn Link was selected as one of the Teacher Ambassadors for this event.  In this role, she participated in preconference work and facilitated table discussions and attendee participation.  She will also follow up with work that builds ideas into action.  Marilyn embodies the world-class stature that the conference was aiming for, and I am proud that one of Trinity’s teachers was so honored.

Here is one idea I took away with me:  Like all of us, teachers are motivated by money, but generally speaking money is not the primary driver in a teacher’s working world. If it were, they probably would have chosen another career in the first place. Teachers need to make enough money so that they don’t have to think a lot about money (unless they are teaching economics).   But if they don’t make a livable wage, they will have to defect from their passion and find another way to pay the bills.

For simple tasks, monetary rewards can improve performance; but for complex tasks such rewards can actually decrease performance.  Teaching is surely a complex task—think of the cognitive challenges, the social complexity, the demand for global thinking, the stress, the need to think on one’s feet.  If we want to support excellent teaching, then, we should pay attention to the kind of motivation that attends complex work.  Intrinsic rewards are very powerful in this type of work, and certainly that is true for teachers.  As Dan Pink said, “Teachers are some of the most insanely motivated people on the planet.”  Amen.  They went into this profession because they love to learn and love to teach.  So what motivates them?  Three things, according to Pink: first, to have autonomy to be able to practice their craft freely; second, to know the joy of mastery (to get better and better at what they do); and thirdly, to have a sense of purpose.

I have good news and I have bad news for the Trinity community.  First the bad news: Trinity teachers are not paid enough that money is not a major concern for them.  There is no easy way to solve this problem, but it would disingenuous here to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  If we really want to sustain excellent and even world-class teaching at Trinity, then we will need to find a solution for this intractable problem.  Just to give some perspective, the average teacher pay in the U.S. is $56,000; in N.C., just under $46,000—a fact that was lamented at the conference.  Trinity’s average is not close to even the N.C. average.  I have long thought that a sizable and robust faculty endowment is one of the best ways we could address this problem without putting even greater burdens on our parents.  Of course, this is a long-term and not a near-term solution.

Now for the good news: What I hear from Trinity teachers is that they come to our school and stay at our school because of the intrinsic rewards Pink talked about.  They come because they want to teach.  They can be involved in decisions about their work.  They can use their own creativity and innovation to design and measure meaningful learning experiences for students.  They work in a culture where teachers share knowledge and expertise with one another, where they get better every year, where they experience  the reward of a job well done.  They are respected by our school leaders and by our parents.  And, most importantly, they know that whatever they do is for the glory of God—non nobis.  They are in the business of shaping minds, hearts, and souls for Christ and his Kingdom.  Now that is teaching on purpose.

So here’s to the great teachers of Trinity School.  Thank you for your sacrifice, and may you feel God’s pleasure every day as you teach our students.  


Popular Posts