Teaching is not easy. Most of us do not go into teaching because we want to reach tenure and then simply show up to receive a paycheck. We certainly don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money either.

Watching Matt Damon’s interview after the Save Our Schools event in DC, I understand why teachers are championing his comments. The reporter’s assumption that Damon did his best acting on projects because he wanted to keep making more money underscores how little the reporter and others understand what motives teachers and other professionals. Many actors like Damon are motivated by wanting to improve their craft, wanting to reach for an unattainable perfect portrayal of a character.

As teachers we often refer to our profession as a craft. We are constantly striving to find effective ways to reach more of our children. Watching a master teacher is similar to watching a well-choreographed dance number: what appears effortless belies all of the planning involved and the constant micro-decisions made to adjust for each nuanced interaction.

The satisfaction I feel after a lesson has gone well is what keeps me motivated; it’s watching students have those “aha” moments. It’s not the fear of losing my job or the desire to make more money. Teachers don’t need external motivation to want their students to achieve.

People whose careers are driven by the bottom line find it difficult to understand intrinsic motivation—they see the world through their own financial lenses so they want to offer carrots and sticks as motivators. Offering a teacher a little more money isn’t going to help her when she’s teaching 5 classes of 40+ students in a poverty-stricken area. What she needs is more collaborative planning time, fewer students, and sustained professional development so she can meet the specific needs of the student population.

In Drive, Daniel Pink highlights the research that illustrates how we’re hard wired to want to be truly good at something. Part of the current debate about education is a misunderstanding of what a teacher truly does. Carrots and sticks work as motivators for mundane repetitive tasks, but not creative endeavors. A teacher’s intrinsically motivated to want to improve his or her craft which looks much more like a creative endeavor than a set of mundane and repetitive tasks. Teachers need the autonomy and tools to become more effective, not the fear of being fired.

What do teachers want?

  • To be valued
  • Time to collaborate with colleagues
  • Time for professional development
  • Public respect and recognition
  • Parent and community support
  • Adequate facilities and supplies
  • Reasonable compensation

When teachers are provided these reasonable supports, then it is truly amazing what they can do to improve student achievement and to help develop the whole child.