I sputter through a lesson, watching students painfully trying to grasp the concept of cultural relativity and its limits and virtues. They wrestle with the concepts in groups and slowly move forward into questions surrounding genocide. Minutes earlier the class had analyzed the character development based upon the plot and setting, but now we are moving into the philosophical implications of a humanity shaped by geography.
It is both incredibly abstract and yet deeply personal and earthy and tangible, yet my students struggle to grasp the question in its bold, broad and confusing complexity. Despite the difficulty of critical thinking, my students move forward free of coercian. Each child understands that I don’t care about grades and I will not hold them in for detention if they fail to learn. Yet, despite the somewhat awkward, clunky lesson, the general atmosphere is positive. True, students get frustrated (a few quite visibly) but they also seem excited.
I ask them afterward why they enjoyed the lesson and they mentioned:
- It was uncomfortable and often school is too focussed on student comfort
- It is personal
- It is relevant to them
- It connects to the deeper questions of life
- It includes conflict
- Every student had the freedom to express their own beliefs – in other words, there was autonomy
- It is meaningful
- It is challenging
- Every student has something to offer (unlike certain math problems or worksheets that are “leveled” for students)
- It connects to multiple subjects and to life experiences
I stop and stare at the list. It seems to me that the students found the work to be motivating, because it was meaningful, personal and challenging and in the process, they were able to work both independently and interdependently with a high degree of autonomy.
Nothing new here. It’s the same thing Daniel Pink argues in Drive.
It has me thinking about teacher burnout. I work in a district with high turnover. Many people would say, “It must be those low-income kids. They can be challenging.” And it’s true. The culture clash and the difference in age can be challenging. However, I have rarely met people who quit a job simply because it is challenging.
It’s not that teachers simply “couldn’t cut it.” Nor is it as simple as, “They worked too hard and they wore themselves out.” Instead, when I asked teachers why they quit, they mentioned micromanaging administrators, a lack of autonomy on curriculum, a sense of loneliness in the profession, the stress of unreasonable expectations and the general atmosphere created by standardized education. Like my students, these teachers understood that teaching might not feel comfortable. However, the challenge did not wear them down. It was something else . . . something deeper that was beat out of them.
Drill and kill.
Perhaps attrition is the best term for it.
They were victims in the war on learning and the weapons were worksheets and stickers and awards assemblies and free pizza coupons, where a child could trade in a love of literature for a hunk of greasy dough. The very thing designed to motivate teachers were the toxic poison that killed the love of learning and ultimately the love of teaching.
While the national media focusses time and attention on recruiting teachers to urban settings, the bigger issue remains one of retention. However, bribing us with merit pay will ultimately fail, because the real issue of burnout cannot be solved with money. Give us freedom. Let us be creative. Allow teachers to do something that is challenging and meaningful.
When teachers say “I need more support,” they were not asking for more meetings or more binders or more programs or more teacher-proof resources. They were asking for freedom.