Why are you a demotivated teacher?

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This post focuses on decisions that are made outside of the classroom that can make us unhappy little bunnies.

Motivation: if they’ve got it, you’re laughing; if they don’t, forget it. An enjoyable part of my job at present is the research that some colleagues and I are conducting into student motivation and, more importantly, how to maintain it. I’ve mentioned this before on the blog and I’ll no doubt return to it again: you’ve been warned! Anyhows, on to the point of today’s rant discussion.

Another thing I’ve commented on before is the bizarre nature of ELT career progression. Our profession works in contrast to many others: this can be made obvious by comparing it to just about any other job. Here’s an extract from something I wrote for IATEFL voices last year.

‘I think back to a friend of mine who started working part-time at the local supermarket when he was sixteen. After several years, he had worked his way up from lowly shelf stacker to assistant manager, and to a position in Eastern Europe overseeing the acquisition of a Hungarian supermarket. Along the way, he developed a wide range of skills and steadily progressed, having a satisfying career full of upward mobility. What he didn’t do was spend many years looking at every aspect of shelf stacking to become as good and accomplished a shelf stacker as he could be. So, along with an overseas position only coming after serving many years in his profession [many of us start overseas], there was always a sense of upward movement in his career. As teachers, we do the opposite; we spend a large part of our career progression trying to get better at the same job that we had when we first entered. Whichever way we look at it, this lack of tangible progression has some effect on the teacher’s ability to show ambition. We work very hard in a lot of cases to stay at what could be considered the bottom rung of the ladder.’

Now, of course there are rungs to the ELT career ladder, but in most cases they take us away from the place we love: the classroom (I hope I’m not making a bloody great big assumption there). Climbing these rungs can cause great problems for your average Joe Tefler. Firstly, if you move into a different position you’ll be spending less time teaching and more time doing paperwork and attending meetings. Secondly, you’re likely to be a bit rubbish at it. That’s fine, it really is. You’re a teacher and you’ve been trained to be a teacher. When you start taking on admin duties, for example, you might not have the first clue about what you’re doing. As I said, that’s OK, unless you continue to be rubbish at it for any prolonged stretch of time. If you do – stay rubbish, that is – you’re going to be doing so at the expense of teachers. This is rarely a good thing.

Just as learners are likely to be demotivated by factors they perceive to be working against them, teachers also like to be kept happy. Surprisingly, this isn’t actually that difficult. David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer spell this out brilliantly in their 2006 article, ‘Stop Demotivating Your Employees!’ To maintain the enthusiasm teachers bring to their jobs, those in management have to understand the three goals that we seek from our work, and then satisfy these goals:

  1. Equity: Being respected and treated fairly in areas such as pay, benefits, and job security.
  2. Achievement: Being proud of your job, accomplishments, and employer.
  3. Camaraderie: Having excellent, productive relationships with fellow teachers (and admin staff).

ELT management must meet all three goals to maintain teacher motivation. Indeed, Sirota et al point out that people who work for institutions where just one of these factors is missing are three times less enthusiastic than those at workplaces where all three elements are present. They’ve measured it, you know. Moreover, one goal can’t be substituted for another. For example, improved recognition cannot replace better pay, money can’t take the place of taking pride in a job well done, and pride, of course, won’t pay the bills.

What I’d like to focus on now is the issue of equity, because this is the one area of motivation that is often overlooked and one that can easily be avoided. One of the most counterproductive rules to apply in a workplace is to distribute information on a “need to know” basis. Doing this only ever results in severely, unnecessarily, and destructively restricting the flow of information in an organisation. This has happened to some degree in every single job I’ve had and it is basically a way for people in certain jobs to make themselves feel more important than those who aren’t privy to the particular information. This may well be a part of the human condition, but it doesn’t make it any less cretinous a way to behave.

Let’s consider a few examples that will help you see how decisions in your school that were made without consulting the teachers that they affected have had demotivating effects. If you’ve ever found yourself in a position of responsibility in an educational institution, the chances are you’ve done something similar to one or more of these demotivation debacles.

1) Horror at the Photocopy Machine

‘The photocopy budget is reaching ridiculous proportions. Your school has had a liberal policy regarding photocopies, which have been seen as essential in enabling the teacher to do their job effectively. A policy change means that photocopies are no longer free and teachers have to pay for use of the machine. This decision is communicated to teachers via a piece of paper placed on the wall above the photocopy machine.’

I’ve lived through this situation. Can you guess what the consequences were? Here are a couple of things that happened.

  • The printer ribbon consumption rate skyrocketed as people printed multiple copies for their classes.
  • Huge chunks of classroom time were spent by students copying out handouts that had been projected on to the wall because the teacher didn’t want to photocopy it.
  • Teachers constantly bitched about the decision and concurred that the worst thing about it was that they had had no input into the process and that they could have come up with several workable solutions.

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2) Horror at the Bus Stop

‘The transport allowance budget is reaching ridiculous proportions. Your school has had a liberal policy regarding funding teachers transport costs, which have been seen as essential in enabling getting the teacher to and from their job effectively. A policy change means that the buses are no longer free and teachers have to pay for use of the transportation. This decision is communicated to teachers via an email stating that this decision had been made and that’s that.’

I’ve heard of something similar to this situation happening at an educational institution in Istanbul. Can you guess what the consequences were? Here are a few things that happened.

  • Teachers complained about the ‘outlandish’ costs of the buses and were extremely reluctant to pay.
  • Teachers refused to attend meetings and teacher development workshops that took place on days when they weren’t teaching.
  • Teachers constantly bitched about the decision and concurred that the worst thing about it was that they had had no input into the process and that they could have come up with several workable solutions.

Both of these situations are not that uncommon in educational settings. Both are fairly minor in the scheme of things and yet both can have extremely demotivating effects on teachers if such policies are communicated poorly. When dealing with runaway photocopy costs, there are loads of things you can do. What would you have done in this situation, either as a teacher or the person making the decision? Teachers actually came up with loads of good ideas that didn’t make their way to the decision maker(s). Suggestions included having workshops on how to avoid using handouts, Others shared ideas on how to put multiple pages of A4 on to one page. Someone even suggested looking into the ideas of that Scott Thornbury chap who’s so keen on this teaching paperless phenomenon. None of these made it to the decision maker. The second scenario also saw any number of creative solutions from those who were affected by the decision, none of which made it to the decision maker.

Did you notice the one consistent factor in both of these scenarios? What teachers need to do their jobs and what makes them feel respected and a valued part of an educational institution necessitate that very few restrictions be placed by managers on the flow of information. Basically, Sirota et al suggest that, ‘nothing of interest to teachers should be held back except those very few items that are absolutely confidential.’

So, how? The solution is quite simple: listen and involve.

We teachers are a fabulous source of information about how to do our job and how to do it better. My University handled this extremely well recently. We live and work in Istanbul, which is a megalopolis with the traffic to go with it. A problem with the commute times to and from work was identified and solutions were asked for from those that it affected most. A forum was set up for us to share our ideas and concerns. All suggestions were collated and then put up for further discussion. This led to several ideas being considered and the process shared with everyone that it affected. This process hasn’t yet finished after a period of several months. The problem was identified, input was sought from concerned parties and the results shared for further discussion. The one big benefit of this process was, and I’m speaking about myself as much as anyone else here, that we felt as though we were an important part of the decision making process over an issue that directly affected us.

Think about what I’ve talked about here, whether you’re a teacher or a decision maker. Are you a ‘participative’ manager who continually announces your interest in employees’ ideas? Do you find opportunities to have direct conversations with individuals and groups about what can be done to improve teacher effectiveness? Are you a teacher with a manager who is unaware of the effects of poorly communicated decision making?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on what I’ve discussed today.

References

  • Adam Simpson In search of the A word IATEFL Voices, July/August, 2010, issue 214
  • David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer ‘Stop Demotivating Your Employees!’ Harvard Management Update, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2006


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35 thoughts on “Why are you a demotivated teacher?

  1. As ever, your perspective is much appreciated Adam, at least by this blogger. Sadly, I currently work in an institution where the principal can have a new door and patio, but we can’t afford proper replacement blinds for classrooms and the computers in our language ‘lab’ are woefully out of date.

    Not to mention appointment of several chiefs while they’re making Indians redundant (that’s not literal of course, rather idiomatic expression)

    1. Thanks, Mike. I genuinely appreciate it when anyone finds the time to comment here. That reminds me: I need to make sure it’s reciprocated!

      There are, of course, occasions when those in charge are merely taking the piss and indulging in comforts that aren’t needed or using resources that could be best allocated elsewhere. Just because resentment or dissatisfaction isn’t voiced doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or isn’t welling up.

      One thing that I didn’t mention in the post is related to your examples here. We are not only great resources for creative and innovative solutions to the problems of running an educational business, we’re also more than capable of seeing through ‘spin’. We’ve lived through the Bush and Blair administrations and we know what a bad decision trying to be covered up looks and smells like.

  2. I used to work in a Further Education establishment like Mike and the principal there got to have a balcony built as I heard. Also, before I left, there was talk of getting rid of admin staff, though the union got involved and so enough people volunteered for voluntary redundancy to cancel out the need for imposed redundancy. The funny thing is that admin staff earn a pittance, and several admin staff can be employed for the cost of a manager who is surplass to requirement.

    I mentioned on Twitter that in ELT, although lovely people get promoted to director positions, they have not undertaken any qualification in how to manage people. I met a lady who is in first year of teaching. She had been a manager before in her previous job and what annoyed her was being managed by ineffectual, inexperienced bosses who she knew she was better than at managing.

    Where I am now, the simplest thing like not having a proper staffroom and having to grab my cuppa while I’m changing classes is a pain. I pass my colleagues like ships in the night, stealing a little chat where I can. We never really share ideas unless I’m bold enough to demand a spare copy of that great looking worksheet they are copying. (Have to beg, borrow and steal where possible!) It’s not the staff’s fault, it’s just we’ve got no place or time to share ideas. I feel this is the one area of the three that is lacking. The other two haven’t really come up to much as problems, but I do feel tired and demotivated, physically and mentally.

    1. I understand what you’re going through, Lingliziya, I really do. As I tried to say in the post and you’ve so beautifully reiterated in your comment, teaching and managing are drastically different jobs that require different skill sets. If someone gets promoted, good luck to them. If they start of slowly but pick it up over time then they can be forgiven for early cock ups. What a lot of us encounter, however, is the ‘I’ve got the key to the executive toilet’ syndrome.

      So much disgruntlement can be resolved so easily. It requires, however, acknowledging that there are people ‘below’ who have good ideas and that it might be worth asking us now and again.

      BTW, how annoying is it not having a staff room?

    1. I’ve experienced that and it sucks.

      I’ve also had an office that people had to walk through to get to the toilet. I was kicked out of said office for not being as important as people who wanted to move into said office. I was subsequently told to move back into said office when said kicker-outers got fed up of the ‘toilet smell’. That wasn’t a good time.

      I really love my current job.

  3. I should point out there is a cupboardy thing to put your books and coat in with a kettle, but that hardly counts as a room! Rooms have chairs in them and are not next to the loos.

  4. That really sucks! I don’t need an office, but would love a desk!!! Doubt I’ll get one. I’m not important enough for desk luxuries. What is your current job? Does it say on your blog? I should check it before asking.

  5. Adam,

    Enjoyed reading this and appreciate how it is directed to the teacher on the ground and with some ideas on how change might happen.

    Especially agree with the points about “unrestricted flow of info.” and also supporting teachers more through “the small things” – which make a big difference for teacher motivation.

    You reminded me of a post I made listing quick ways to know if a teacher/school is good/bad. An overheated photocopier was high on the list!

    One thing I’m convinced of is that a lot of “demotivation” comes from teachers being in the wrong teaching environment for their particular set up of teacher qualities/beliefs. If we can cut down on this and create ways to better match teachers – jobs, this would help. I’ve seen teachers labeled “crappy” excel in turn into roses when planted in the right school.

    1. Thanks, David. I completely agree with what you say about teachers being in the wrong jobs. As you can see, I approached this from a particular angle, but that would make for a good follow up post: ‘Are you in the wrong job?’

      I haven’t read your post about good/bad schools. Feel free to leave the link here, as I’d like to.

  6. Adam,
    What a through and clearly outlined post on how some institutions can devalue teachers’ opinions and it effect may have. I have also experienced a similar policy regarding photocopying, and I can tell you it was so bad that some teachers even resisted planning their lessons, but just went into the class with their books and did the lesson following the activities step by step from the book: some has Ss photocopy the material, which wasn’t good as well. Thank God, it did last only for one term, or so. But, I think this policy helped in reducing the multiple photocopying making teacher more considerate about the issue. This is actually a business strategy employed by many organizations these days. Sometimes, telling people that the institution has to cut down on things doesn’t really outline the problem; thus, members may not take it that seriously. I remember we had been told about reducing the photocopy traffic; nonetheless, the number of pages wastes was still high, which in turn resulted in management taking strict decisions. The result was not good of course, teachers felt disrespected and not valued as teachers, more importantly, as members of the institution.

    The policy in Sabanci is very humanistic and is exactly how it should be. If the human element is considered, members of the organization feel more respected and valued; subsequently, leading to satisfied, productive individuals.

    Loved your post Adam!
    Thank you,
    @ErenNesrin

    1. Thanks, Nesrin. Actually, I think ‘Horror at the Photocopy Machine’ was something we both experienced while working at the same particular place in Istanbul. Those years have passed by quickly. I remember a figure of something like TL 100,000 in three months being mentioned, which is crazy money. Nevertheless, the resultant ‘ban’ on photocopying was even crazier. Getting people to monitor and control their photocopies is a good thing for the budget and for teaching, but this situation would have been handled much better if the people it was going to affect had been given the opportunity to come up with viable solutions.

      Actually, I mention the current actions at Sabancı because it’s – sadly – such a shock to me that such a situation has been handled so well.

  7. Hi Adam,
    What a thorough and clearly outlined post on how some institutions can devalue teachers’ opinions and the negative effect it may have on teachers.

    I have also experienced a similar policy regarding photocopying, and I can tell you it was so bad that some teachers even resisted planning their lessons, but just went into their classes with their books and did the lesson following the activities step by step from the book: some had Ss photocopy the material, which wasn’t good as well. Thank God, it did last only for one term, or so. But, I think this policy helped in reducing the trend of multiple photocopying making teachers more considerate about the issue. This is actually a business strategy employed by many organizations these days. Sometimes, telling people that the institution has to cut down on things doesn’t really outline the problem; thus, members may not take it that seriously. I remember we had been told about reducing the photocopy traffic; nonetheless, the number of pages wasted was still high, which in turn resulted in management taking strict decisions. The result was not good of course, teachers felt disrespected and not valued as teachers, more importantly, as members of the institution.

  8. While I’m here… if I’d known people were actually going to read this post I wouldn’t have included that random royalty-free picture of the beardy weirdy, no matter how cheerful he is.

  9. Great post. I agree with what you and everyone else say, especially about using activities that don’t require photocopying. As you infer, asking teachers if they’d like to learn a particular teaching skill, e.g. dogme is inclusive, enabling and ultimately cost-cutting. It’s got me daydreaming…

  10. Adam, one of the best posts I have read recently. I think you explained the process well. I have been facing similar problems at my institution. In whole faculty, there are three computer labs and only one of them has internet connection and there is no time to schedule a class there as colleagues with computer teaching classes have principal rights to use them. I want to conduct a ‘twitter’ research on my students but have to overcome such problems first. I have talked to the authorities and one of them told they have already asked the other two labs to be with internet connection as well. I am really sad and angry same time when I see some people do not do their works well. What I actually mean is that I totally understand your points and agree with them. Teachers’ opinions should always be a matter of interest especially when a problem related to teachers’ problems is being solved. Thanks for the great post again and congrats to Sabanci for doing a good job on this.

    As you pointed out in my blog as well, I would like to share my latest post link here as well. It may be good whether someone is motivated or demotivated :)

    http://ozsolmaz.edublogs.org/2011/04/10/what-is-your-motivationtoday

    1. Thanks, Osman. I really enjoyed your latest post because it reminded me of the lighter side of things: great antidote!

      Situations like the one you describe are so easily solved. It’s such a shame that so many institutions don’t offer a forum for people to highlight problems they encounter and/or provide workable solutions. This is holding you back when you’re trying to do something innovative. What a shame.

  11. Hi Adam,

    An interesting post and subsequent discussion. I have had varying experiences, but ultimately the thing that demotivates teachers the most is resources. I work for a private language school that operates out of a local secondary school which means that teachers can’t get into their classrooms to set up for their lesson until 5 mins before the class is due to start. Our ‘teachers room’ is a cupboard at the end of a long dark corridor that is roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter. The laptops haven’t had internet connection since before Christmas, we haven’t been able to print since January and we have virtually no resources other than the core text books we’ve been assigned, and the boss wonders why we don’t have more dynamic and imaginative lessons!? One of our sister schools has no facilities at all and all resources for the week must be ordered through the DoS for him to copy/print at HQ. Ridiculous!

    As for managers – In my experience managers ask you what you think, ignore it and then do what they want anyway. And in many cases you’re lucky if they ask you! Managers fall into two categories – former teachers with no idea how to manager people, or managers who have no idea what it is like to be a teacher. Neither of which are terribly helpful.

    The amount of faffing about with paperwork (that no-one seems to look at anyway) is another bone of contention among teachers. All the paperwork is done in our unpaid time, another issue, and many of the systems are designed to make things better for the manager not the teacher.

    If companies spent a little more time training managers and finding out what teachers need to be able to do their job well and effectively, especially the things mentioned here on this forum, then the world of TEFL would be a better place and maybe staff turnover would be lower, students would be happier and managers better prepared for their job. Just a thought.

    1. Quoting Helen: ‘As for managers – In my experience managers ask you what you think, ignore it and then do what they want anyway.’

      Having lived in a number of different countries and experienced many cultures, I find that there are culturally-based differences in the way people manage and the way they interact with management. I do, however, find that this behavior exists wherever you go in the world. The difficulty in finding the line between not looking like you have a clue what you’re doing and cleverly utilizing input from others is a fine one. Many err on the side of a caution and feel that ignoring those ‘below’ is a sign of knowing best. Aaagghh!

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