Lightbulb #4 – Why are we even doing this anyway?

As this Forbes article notes, teachers are not the most highly paid individuals, but nor are they the worst paid. In fact, it’s apparently just right. But I don’t think I know a single teacher who entered the profession for the money, or even the holidays. Clichéd though this might sound, I love my job, not because of the time I spend not doing it (how perverse would that be?) or the money I earn, but because of goals much less quantifiable. I love teaching because of the people I have the privilege to spend time with – pupils and staff alike. I love teaching because of the sheer joy of being able to spend time with a group of young people and discuss my favourite novels and plays and poems. And I get to call that work. I love teaching because I have to think, all the time. Sometimes the thinking is exhausting, the students don’t feel the same way as I do about Andrew Marvell, and sometimes the students are downright irritating. But these frustrations do not diminish the rewards. The rewards of teaching are far less tangible than money or holidays, but, according to some, they are of far less value.

In January 2013, Michael Gove announced the introduction of performance-related pay for teachers, claiming that it would be the key to improving results. While I do not question the value of raising standards in UK schools, I do question the value of using financial rewards as the way to achieve this. At best, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what attracts people into the teaching profession; at worst, it’s a devaluation of those intangible qualities which make teaching such a wonderful career. Performance-related pay implies that other rewards are not important.

I do not dispute that in other industries, performance-related pay may be effective in ensuring motivation. Certainly, if you don’t have the same sort of love for your job that I do (and I do appreciate that I am very blessed to feel this way), money will help. And I don’t wish to speak for everyone: no one would say no to a pay rise! However, using financial rewards to boost employee input does nothing to actually promote passion for a task or project, the sort of passion that will reap the rewards which CEOs want to harvest. All it does is promote extrinsic motivation. It’s crude, temporary, and, worst of all, focuses the mind on the reward rather than the action. Stop giving the reward, and the behaviour will stop. Intrinsic motivation, however, is much more lasting and self-sustaining. It’s the motivation behind hobbies, and the motivation I have towards running: I run because I enjoy it and feel better when I do. The same goes for teaching: I want to teach outstanding lessons because I feel good about myself as a teacher when I do. Simply put, performance-related pay will not raise standards – certainly not long-term.

Another question is: how do you measure it? While the government has put forward suggestions about this, they are either arbitrary (‘wider contribution to the work of the school’), difficult to measure (‘contributions to improvements in other areas eg pupils’ behaviour’) or simply too unreliable (‘impact on pupil progress’). Despite our best intentions, regardless of how much hard work we do, pupil progress will always come down to the performance of one hormonal teenager in one hour-long session on one day in June. I can’t think of many things which are as unreliable as that. In other industries, you will have distinct, numerical-based outcomes. These can be measured. 16-year-olds? I’m less convinced.

Of course, school heads will know who their most effective teachers are. Most of the staff body, I’m sure, will recognise who the exceptionally talented teachers are, and will strive to be like them. If senior management in schools are going to award bonuses, they will know who to award them to. But to make performance-related pay fair, the criteria need to be set in advance so that all people know that it can be attained, and how they can reach that level. But what makes an outstanding teacher is still open to debate: Ofsted’s criteria are far from perfect, and can ‘outstanding’ really be a distinct set of criteria which can be ticked off? Surely the word ‘outstanding’ itself refers to something which is beyond definition, something which is distinct from criteria. I’ve been taught by, and trained by, outstanding teachers, but that experience has not given me any clearer a sense of what ‘outstanding’ looks like. Not to mention what it might look like in other subjects, but I won’t go there.

Performance-related pay has its place, but it’s definitely not in the classroom. By all means pay teachers more, but if improving standards is the goal, the key is effective training, research-based teaching, promoting teachers’ autonomy, and recognising the things that teachers do value. These aren’t money and holidays, regardless of what the clichés say.


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