Daniel Pink’s engaging and relevant book, Drive, identifies three factors that impact motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This concept has obvious implications for how I run my classroom. My students will be highly motivated if I can satisfy their need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work. But I find myself focusing on my own need for these three things, and their implications in the field of teaching. For me, mastery and purpose are both motivating factors in my job. Teaching is challenging without feeling impossible. And it is always clear to me that teaching affects the greater good.
If you ask, “Can I turn around this whole organization?” the answer, unfortunately, is no. You can’t. No single person can. But maybe that’s not the right question. Instead, ask yourself, “Is there on thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things a littler better?” The answer to that is almost always yes. Start small. Pile up small wins. And worry less about changing everything than about doing something. (Drive, page 176)
Autonomy is the hard one. Autonomy is where I need to identify something in my domain that I can make better. It’s hard, at first glance, to identify much autonomy in the job of a classroom teacher. Pink says we desire autonomy over task, time, technique, and team.
I currently teach 1st grade. The task is what it is, to some extent. I initiate my priorities, such as teaching conflict resolution rather than having a reward and punishment economy, and my focus, as a model literacy teacher for my district. And I am always aware that I chose this field of work, and this specific assignment, and every time I sign another contract, I am choosing it again. When reframed this way, it’s all the task autonomy I need.
I feel autonomous over technique — how I accomplish my goals — because I perceive my principal and coaches are teaching new techniques to be helpful, and not mandating how we use those techniques. I own my learning in that area. I also constantly find myself trying techniques and methods not initiated by my bosses. I feel free to do that in my job. There is no status quo to follow or defy when it comes to technique.
Team is a more pliable issue than it seems. No, we do not get to choose our fellow grade-level teachers. For the record, I happen to adore my team. But there are other ways to define “team.” Since I am a model literacy teacher, my coach and principal and I are a team. Other model teachers become my team. Like-minded teachers become my team. My students and I are a team. I have the autonomy to access whichever team I need in each situation.
A side note on teams: Having relationships with people who think and work differently from us is part of life. It is also valuable. I try to consider every difficult interaction an opportunity to practice kindness and compassion and an others-centered focus. I’m not great at any of those things, but practicing them is more important — and ultimately more satisfying — than choosing my favorite people to work with.
Time is a tricky issue, for everyone. Someday, I will crack the code of mastering time management for classroom teachers. For now, I’m renaming some things. I have “contract time” when I am required to be at school. The problem with that is this: When contract time is over for the day, any other time I spend on work feels like unpaid overtime. The truth is, teaching is a salaried job, not an hourly job. Instead of “contract time,” think of those specific hours as the “performance.” Delivering instruction is only half my job. The other half is responding to that performance and preparing for the next performance. And absolutely nobody cares or checks to see when or where I am doing that half of my job. Whether I choose to spend 12 hours a day in my classroom, or whether I rush out at the end of contract time and spend 8:00 pm to midnight every night on my couch working, or whether I work exactly 7 1/2 hours a day during the week and spend 20 hours on the weekend…the only thing anyone is watching is the effectiveness of my instruction, not how or when I do the things that make it happen. My job is 50% autonomous, regarding time, when renamed in this way.
I think the “one thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things better” is to be conscious of how I talk about that other 50% of my time. Those planning and responding hours have great value. Done well, they make the performance hours more fun and less stressful. The planning and responding are what drives instruction, what allows us to be intentional and strategic, what makes us effective at all. And what I say affects what I think, which affects how I feel. I crave the feeling of being completely prepared and able to focus entirely on the moment while the students are there. It is engaging to look at student work and consider next steps. It is satisfying to see progress. All of those moments happen during that other 50% of my job, the part that I can do whenever and wherever I want. It’s not a bad way to look at things. 🙂