PESPD'S Myth #9: Teachers lack incentive to do a good job because they are not accountable
A favorite theme of conservatives these days, when talking about public education, is the need for accountability, especially for teachers. There are two assumptions in this. The first is that teachers won’t work hard unless they see more money in it or their jobs depend upon it. The second is that teachers today are not accountable for what they do. Both of these assumptions are wrong.
There are some teachers who are incredibly selfless people. They care deeply about their students, and that would be motivation enough for them. After reading several posts by Anonymous Teacher and Ms. Cornelius, I doubt that either of them would work significantly harder for monetary rewards. Maybe they're faking me out (I doubt it!), but they seem to be motivated almost entirely by what they see as their mission to serve their students, especially the least fortunate. I'm not going to say that all teachers, or even that most teachers, are as selfless as they seem to be, but the field of education has more than its fair share of them. Teachers like them probably should get paid more, and they should certainly be secure in their jobs, but those are not the incentives that make them do the work that they do.
The field of education also has its share of people who work hard because of the simple satisfaction of doing a job well. This is a factor in other professions, but it is a more important factor for teachers, especially in small towns, because they are so well known in their communities. If you are a teacher, your reputation depends on the job you do.
A teacher isn't going to get a pay raise for running a great class session, and he's not going to have to worry about losing his job for a bad one, but he knows that he will be held accountable by his students. For those teachers who are not spurred on by more noble aspirations, there is one incentive that is very practical: they don’t want to be humiliated. Teaching is enjoyable when you come to school prepared and are on top of things, but I can't think of too many worse jobs if a person tries to do it unprepared. Being in charge of a classfull adolescents for forty-nine minutes when you're disorganized and have nothing constructive for them to do is a nightmare. The kids see through you in about two minutes, it becomes impossible to maintain any discipline, and you end up feeling like an incompetent fool. I found myself in that type of situation a few times early in my career, and it didn't take me long to figure out that it I'd be a lot happier person if I took the time to prepare. Every teacher knows that there are going to be 25 to 30 students holding him accountable for every class session that he conducts.
For a teacher, having one bad class in which you are poorly prepared and the kids are out of control is a humiliating experience, and it ruins your day no matter how well the other classes go. To go through that class after class, day after day would be a living nightmare. I'm sure that being incompetent at any job is unpleasant, but I can't think of too many jobs that could be worse to be bad at than teaching -- maybe professional boxing.
The only reason I can understand for a teacher not wanting to be well prepared is if it doesn't make any difference, and maybe that's the case in some schools. Things that a teacher designs are much more likely to work when there are motivated kids who will give learning a chance, and there have always been plenty of those in the schools in which I’ve taught. I know that if I were teaching in a situation where there were a lot of disruptions, or the students acted bored no matter what I did, it would be hard to keep doing what I do. I think any teacher who has gotten to that point should get out, but that's easy for me to say since I'm not in that situation.
All of this is not to say that other incentives would be a bad thing. I have said in previous posts that principals should have the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, and they should be able to get rid of their worst ones. If a school district is able to set up a viable merit pay system, that might be a good thing, too, as long as it isn't based on some test prepared by someone far away who knows nothing about that school or its students. But many critics of public education make it sound as if teachers who do a lousy job pay no price for it, and that there are no rewards for doing a good job. They paint a picture of an education system in which schools are filled with lazy teachers who feel like they've got it made and couldn't care less about doing a good job. When they do that, they are unfair, and they couldn't be more wrong.