This originally appeared as a CTQ guest blog post that highlights the key findings of my doctoral dissertation. It was even highlighted by Sir Ken Robinson!
This is What I Am
Despite the many changes taking places in education and their attendant stresses and challenges on teachers and schools, teachers are poised to uplift and transform the profession. To do so, a deeper appreciation for the multifarious dynamics of teachers’ lived experiences is vital. In the summer of 2013, I had the opportunity to interview many of my fellow Teachers of the Year from the 2012 cohort for my doctoral dissertation. The work concentrated on teacher morale, motivation, and professional identity in the context of education reform. I asked questions such as, “Why did you become a teacher?” “What motivates you as a teacher?” “When you retire, how do you want to be remembered?” The answers were insightful and inspiring on many levels, and a thorough analysis of the 24 interviews reveals several compelling and common themes. These themes, reflective of teachers’ views of themselves, their interactions with students, the status of the teaching profession, and the state of education, offer an intriguing glance into the perspectives and experiences of teachers:
- Teaching is emotional work that is rooted in the moral purpose of education. Ask teachers why they pursued a career in teaching, and you’ll usually hear a story about a moment of epiphany or a philosophical explanation that in some shape or form is a manifestation of the maxim of wanting to make a difference in the lives of their students. It is not uncommon for teachers to refer to their work as a calling or a mission.
- The passion that teachers bring to their work is largely due to their sense of obligation toward their students. There’s a reason why teachers often refer to their students as “my kids,” why they spend their own money on classroom supplies and bake sales, why they seek professional development opportunities during vacation time and summers, and why they are so proud of their students’ successes. As one teacher said, “my job, bottom line, is to authentically empower kids.”
- Teachers’ professional selves are intricately intertwined with their personal identities. Teachers often talk about their love for their work and their students, and they find personal and professional fulfillment through the acts of teaching and learning. One teacher, contemplating retirement, conveyed her reservations about the end of her career: “This is what I am. I cannot imagine putting myself in a situation where I can’t say to people, ‘I’m a teacher.’”
- External perceptions of teachers and schools, often perpetuated by policymakers and the media, undermine the credibility of the profession. Teachers generally feel misunderstood and maligned by many outside of the profession. Although the teachers I interviewed, by and large, feel respected by their students, they sense less respect at the state and federal levels.
- Effective and authentic school leadership is crucial to school cultures and teachers’ work lives. Education leaders, particularly at the district and school levels, can be a source of empowerment or disillusionment for teachers. A school environment emanating from authentic school leadership is, first and foremost, founded upon trust. A positive, welcoming, and productive school environment naturally follow.
- Teachers’ morale is enhanced by genuine involvement in decision-making. Teachers feel an elevated sense of morale and motivation when their views are solicited and their input is valued. Conversely, teachers become disengaged when they feel the “illusion of input,” as one teacher described it, when their imprimatur or acquiescence are sought after a decision already has been made, or when traditional hierarchies undervalue and neglect teachers’ expertise, perspectives, and experience.
- The most meaningful professional growth endeavors are often self-initiated and in collaboration with others. Most teachers find standard professional development activities to be poorly designed and irrelevant to classroom practice. Rather, teachers take it upon themselves to seek bona fide professional growth opportunities to further their own learning for the benefit of their students. This is enhanced by meaningful self-reflection and school structures that allow for, and cultivate, collegial interactions.
- Professional validation and support contribute strongly to perceptions of self-efficacy. Although the State Teachers of the Year involved in the study each experienced praise, recognition, and validation for their work, it is clear that support, feedback, and gratitude from their students, peers, administrators, community members, and others, discrete or publicly acknowledged, foster greater levels of self-efficacy, morale, and motivation.
- Resilience and determination are key personality traits for teachers. With increasing demands on their time and energies, teacher resilience is critical for professional growth. Moreover, because teachers feel responsible for the social, emotional, and academic well-being and growth of their students, they tend to have high expectations and are rather tenacious in this regard. As one teacher stated, “it can be consuming and it may even feel overwhelming, but you always have to reach back into that core.”
- Teacher voice needs to be at the forefront of policymaking. Most of the participants in the study expressed an increasing sense of obligation to advocate for the teaching profession even as the status quo often hinders them from actively and meaningfully participating in such activities. Importantly, teachers also believe that an appropriate career continuum would elevate the status of the teaching profession and provide opportunities that take advantage of teachers’ expertise and build the capacity of the teaching corps. Professional growth structures augment expanding teacher leadership and situate teacher voice to not merely inform policy, but indeed, to drive it.
The potency of these findings points to a strong need for a better understanding of our teachers and schools. If anyone outside of the teaching profession deigns to comprehend how teachers feel and think, particularly during this era of rapid and taxing education reform, and if we truly desire to enrich teacher effectiveness and quality, then the factors that impact teacher morale, motivation, and professional identity must be given genuine consideration and primacy.
I hope this study is a positive step in that direction. I’m also assuming that the responses of my fellow 2012 Teachers of the Year are similar to most teachers. Why did you become a teacher? What motivates you as a teacher? How would you describe your level of morale? How do you want to be remembered when your career comes to a close?