Teachers: Pressing The Right Buttons

The majority of social science research does not explicitly dwell on how we go from situation A to situation B. Instead, most social scientists focus on associations between different outcomes. This “static” approach has advantages but also limitations. Looking at associations might reveal that teachers who experience condition A are twice as likely to leave their schools than teachers who experience condition B. But what does this knowledge tell us about how to move from condition A to condition B? In many cases, very little.

Many social science findings are not easily “actionable” for policy purposes precisely because they say nothing about processes or sequences of events and activities unfolding over time, and in context. While conventional quantitative research provides indications of what works — on average — across large samples, a look at processes reveals how factors or events (situated in time and space) are associated with each other. This kind of research provides the detail that we need, not just to understand the world, but to do so in a way that is useful and enables us to act on it constructively.

Although this kind of work is rare, every now then a quantitative study showing “process sensitivity” sees the light of day. This is the case of a recent paper by Morgan and colleagues (2010) examining how the events that teachers experience routinely affect their commitment to remain in the profession.

The research design seems to be motivated largely by the observation that most studies neglect the daily experiences of teachers, and focus instead on critical turning points in teachers’ careers — e.g., entering the profession, transferring schools, etc. While the authors do not deny the significance of these turning point experiences, they see their research as “fill(ing) in the blanks between these highs and lows so that some indication of the relative importance of various kinds of events can be understood."

An innovative aspect to their approach is that they asked teachers how they feel about specific situations or episodes. Most instruments gather participants’ affect or emotion in a sort of “vacuum” — i.e., dissociated from concrete experiences. But evidence suggests that making research participants focus on concrete experiences yields data that have greater validity and are less subject to bias.

Interestingly, Morgan and colleagues concluded that teachers’ positive experiences had a much stronger impact on their commitment to the job than did their negative experiences. They also found that the frequency of experiences was more important than their intensity. This suggests that “removing negative experiences is not enough to promote the commitment of teachers since frequent positive experiences (such as positive relationships with students) are far more influential." In sum, “teachers were able to cope with negative experiences, as long as they had regular, local positive experiences in their schools and with their students."

Why do seemingly unimportant but frequent positive experiences matter so much? The researchers believe that positive events act as a basis for resilience, thus mitigating the lasting effects of the negative experiences. In fact, argue the authors, “a substantial body of literature on chronic stress suggests that positive affect replenishes resources depleted by stress."

What are the implications of this work? Morgan and colleagues say that it is the positive experiences “emanating from the intrinsic rewards of teaching that help maintain teachers’ motivation." The irony is that today’s most popular education reforms tend to focus on extrinsic rewards, leading to a decline intrinsic motivation. Thus, a seemingly reasonable initiative such as performance pay does not “press the right buttons in terms of professional cultures and identities of teachers."

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that emphasis on performance and accountability “have effects that are substantially greater than overwork and stress." That is, when teachers feel that they are operating “under a disciplinary regime," negative emotions such as fear, anger and disaffection begin to take hold — and fester.

Most importantly, the researchers conclude that reforms which are designed to focus on teachers’ intrinsic motivations should help to boost teachers’ commitment to the job: “The most significant finding (…) that the study demonstrated is that what makes teachers tick above all else are those motivations that brought them into teaching in the first place." Thus, a more sensible approach to reform would be, as the authors say, to support and reward “teachers’ efforts to care about their students."

- Esther Quintero