Because We Want To

Years ago, I put together some professional development workshops for teachers centered around using “web 2.0” technologies in the classroom. At the time, the idea of the World Wide Web as an interactive, participatory tool was pretty new. The classes addressed things like blogs and wikis and video conferencing and personal learning networks. They were offered in June, right after school let out for the summer. Teachers could sign up and come for free, or they could pay a fee and receive graduate workshop credit for participating.

We had some grant money to cover the costs of running the workshops, and I enlisted some teachers to help plan and facilitate the sessions. They suggested that teachers would be more likely to attend if we offered a stipend to them. While there was money in the budget that could have covered this, I refused.

“I don’t want them to come because we’re paying them to come,” I remember saying. “I don’t want teachers showing up and asking what they have to do to get the money. That’s not the right audience. I want them to be here because they see value in these ideas, or because they’re curious about how these new tools could enhance their teaching.” This later solidified into one of my non-negotiable policies: I don’t pay people to learn. If they’re not genuinely interested in playing with these ideas, I don’t really want them there. And if they’re not genuinely interested in any new ideas, they’re in the wrong profession. In a school, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. Not because we want that kind of environment, but because we can’t help it.

When I was in high school, I was a member of a future teachers’ group that occasionally met after school. One day, we had a guest speaker: an English teacher from a neighboring high school. One of the things she reminded us was the fact that the teacher is the only person in the classroom voluntarily. “The students have to be there. They don’t have a choice. Every day, you’re taking 50 minutes of their lives away from them. That’s 50 minutes they’ll never get back. You have a sacred obligation to use that time wisely. Don’t ever waste their time.”

Photo credit: Kinkate, Pixabay

We’re really good at doing what is expected of us. In elementary school, we treasure our relationships with our teachers. A first grader will do anything her teacher asks, because she adores that teacher. As the student gets older, that adoration shifts from the teacher to the grade. The ninth grader isn’t doing what the teacher asks because he loves the teacher. He’s doing what she wants because he is motivated by the high marks that the teacher can give him. Tell me what I need to do to get the grade I want in this class.

That approach can apply to the adults, too. We’re focusing on critical thinking this year? Great! Tell me what you expect me to do. Do you want me to highlight the points in my lesson plans where my students are engaged in critical thinking? I can do that. Oh, the theme of the year is project based learning? I can come up with some projects. How many do you want? I can squeeze in one per quarter, if that’s good enough. I’ll invite you in to visit my classes on the days the students are presenting their projects. Then, we can check it off the list and move on to next year’s priority.

Or, depending on who you’re trying to please, maybe it goes the other way. My department chair thinks PLCs are a waste of time. So how do I comply with the wishes of the principal (who is trying to implement the superintendent’s PLC expectations) while ensuring that we don’t actually reap any benefit from the experience, so the department chair can be right, too? It’s an exhausting game, trying to meet everyone’s expecations all the time.

I get excited by passion. I get excited by people doing new things because they want to try them, or they’re looking for a better way to reach their kids, or because they want their students to want to be engaged in their learning. I get excited when people try to do things they don’t have to do. How do we foster intrinsic motivation?

I don’t know that I have any answers, beyond always going back to the big picture. Why do students come to school? If they didn’t have to be there, would they still attend? How do we make school relevant? How do we make grades reflective of what students have learned, rather than what they have done? How do we create value in school?

And how do we do that for the adults, too?