Home > Uncategorized > Why Teach Here? Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Why Teach Here? Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

July 19, 2015

A few weeks ago, I answered the blogger challenge, Why Teach, and ended with a promise to write a sequel, Why Teach Here? Well, since then, I’ve been a little distracted. I’ve started and stopped several times.

One distraction in particular has been the adjunct class I teach for Southern Nazarene University. This past week, I showed my grad students this 10 minute clip discussing motivation.

It’s been on the Internet for years. Rob Miller even wrote about it (and the book Drive by Daniel Pink that inspired it) back in 2013. In the first few minutes of the video, the speaker talks about the research on incentives and how poorly they serve as motivators. Our take in class this Wednesday night was that money is important, but that people who have a job they love would need significant sums of money to leave what they’re doing. In other words, if you are a teacher and love your job, you’re not going to a neighboring district for a $500 or even $1,000 pay raise. The amount of money that it would take to disrupt their lives was varied, but in all cases, much more significant than that.

After we finished the video, we went back to the five minute mark and listened to what I consider to be the key takeaway.

Drive - Motivation

The screenshot shows three factors that Pink says lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But what does that have to do with this post?

Using this framework, I’m going to try to answer the question Why Teach Here? in a general sense – rather than trying to sell you on a specific district or school.

Autonomy

As a teacher, you want to know that you work for a district and for people who value the unique qualities you bring to the classroom. The more decisions that are taken out of your hands, the less comfortable you become. Yes, there will be mandates – local, state, federal. No teacher has absolute autonomy. Districts and schools do, however, have some discretion over how to implement those requirements – or how many more to add.

The key to achieving this balance is to get teachers involved in agreeing to common expectations in a school. What are all teachers expected to do? What decisions to teachers get to make for themselves? A high-performing school with many veteran teachers can slide that continuum pretty far to the high-autonomy side. Too often, though, leaders will take over a school and want to make a huge imprint right away – in the process, damaging many of the conditions that make veteran teachers want to stay where they are.

Additionally, we need to realize that just as no two students are exactly the same, neither are any two teachers. We all have gifts and skills that make us who we are. No student ever wants to hear, I wish you were more like so and so. Teachers don’t either. I can’t teach English the exact same way as the people I admire the most in my discipline. My work is informed by their example, and I have appropriated many of their ideas – always with my own spin, though.

In class, I like to say that our goal for Curriculum & Instruction should be to get people on the same page without literally getting them on the same page. (If you know me and how much I detest the overuse of the word literally, then you understand how serious I am right now.) We need a common set of goals across the state for subjects such as fourth grade math. These are the standards. We may exceed them, if our students are ready and willing. We may improvise in how we reach them. We just shouldn’t be carbon copies of the next classroom, school, or district.

Mastery

Pink says that mastery manifests as the desire to get better at stuff – or words to that effect. Think about that for a minute. If you are an exceptional teacher, you were either born that way or you worked really hard to get there. For most of us, it was the latter. We had principals who supported high-quality professional development and allowed us to take risks. We had colleagues who were experts in the state or nation in our disciplines. We were young and teamed with veterans who never lost their idealism.

Even if we were rock stars as young teachers, with shining moments that set us apart in our buildings, how many great days did we have in a year? I can still remember my first year teaching. Before school started in August, we had a week-long training from the Oklahoma Writing Project in writing across the curriculum. I had activities that I could use for weeks and ideas that I could modify for other purposes. I had that principal who supported me. I had that eighth grade team that collaborated for the best interest of our students. Still I believe I had more days that year in which I struggled than days in which I didn’t. The struggle fueled my desire to learn – to get better at stuff.

Think of the best teacher you ever had growing up. Was he/she better with content or better with people? One of my all-time favorites, Bill Fix from Norman High School, was my Physics teacher in 12th grade. His class was the first time I ever enjoyed math. Yes, I know Physics is a science course, but there’s a ton of math in there too. I had always done well in math, but never enjoyed it. Mr. Fix was good at teaching the content, but he was also good with people. It was, for me, the perfect mixture of lecture (probably about 15%), deskwork (maybe another 15%), labs (65%) and tests/quizzes (at most 5%). We did stuff. We launched things across the room and then worked with our groups to determine how the different variables worked together. We didn’t look up formulas and then take off to the lab. We did the labs and then worked to create the formulas. When it was frustrating, he made it less so. When we got it right, even though he’d seen it before a hundred times, he was thrilled for us.

I think Bill Fix enjoyed teaching because he was good at it. Or maybe he was good at it because he enjoyed it. Either way, it worked for me. What also probably worked for him was that he had the autonomy to develop the mastery he needed to be successful in the classroom.

No one can hand you a packaged curriculum and tell you to master it as a teacher. That’s not how it works. You have to find your own way, and for each of us, the path to mastery is different.

Purpose

The last quality ties back nicely to Mindy’s original challenge and some of the responses to it:

“no personal reward in my career is as meaningful as when one of my students takes what he or she has learned and uses it to impact their world.” – David Burton

“I teach because I believe in children and families.  I believe that community and relationships can have a positive effect on education and vice versa.“ – Room 20 Awesome

“I want to make a positive impact on the next generation.  I did this for years in public high schools, teaching math and coaching soccer.  Each year was fun and different, the students were new (most of them) to me and we would start our year long journey.  I enjoyed coaching soccer as well.  I have had the opportunity to coach both boys and girls and they were fun young people to be around.  I did not get into teaching to coach soccer, far from it.  I knew nothing about soccer when I first started.  Soccer coaching wasn’t who I was, it was another place that I was able to teach.” – Scott Haselwood

All of these are great examples of how we as educators find and restore our sense of purpose. In spite of the mandates, the interlopers who want to bless our profession with a corporate style of management, and the salaries that lead many teachers to take second jobs, we do what we do because we know it matters. That’s our purpose. That’s our drive.

Why Teach Here?

All three qualities work together. When one expands, the other two seem to expand with it. When one contracts, so fall the other two. If you love your job you likely have at least an abundance of two of these things. If it’s only two, please tell me that purpose is one of them. On the other hand, if you don’t love your job, or if you’re an administrator whose teachers don’t love their jobs, think about ways to increase at least one of these three traits.

One more thing: if autonomy, mastery, and purpose matter to you, imagine how much they matter to your students.  Keep that in mind as summer winds down over the next few weeks.

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  1. July 20, 2015 at 8:34 am

    I was very interested to read this post, as I’ve had those three words on the whiteboard in my home office for the past year or more: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. They were there so long, I’d forgotten where I got them. (Thanks for the reminder that they came from Daniel Pink’s Drive.) For me, these terms drove my classroom instruction as much as possible. It wasn’t always possible, given the standards and other expectations placed on me, however. I hadn’t considered that they apply to developing teachers as well, but I see now that they do. Administrators would do well to understand and apply them. If mine had, I would not have resigned my teaching position in May.

    Motivation must be internal to achieve the desired goal. Tempting students with awards, badges, or other rewards may work in the short term, but they don’t create life-long learners. Threatening with consequences don’t work either. I suppose I was doomed to frustration as a classroom teacher from the start: I LOVE learning and truly believe that learning is the reward of all life’s experiences (hence, the subject of my blog).

    I tried for 8 years to demonstrate how worthwhile learning is and how to go about it. I tried to motivate students externally, all as I was expected to do. What I discovered was that too many families and students no longer value learning for learning’s sake; I can’t teach that in a year, and I can’t change a family’s internal dynamics. If all students, parents, and administrators value is “graduation,” that’s all that will be accomplished. Learning is a forgotten art. It really makes me sad.

    Liked by 2 people

  1. July 27, 2015 at 10:07 pm
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