Ninety nine problems but motivation ain’t one

According to the behavioural science author, Dan Pink, the three levers for influencing motivation at work are autonomy, mastery and purpose. While I listened to Dan Pink’s TED talk at my desk in a cushy office four years ago, employed as an engineer and feeling disillusioned by boredom, these three words replayed in my head: autonomy, mastery, purpose.

I struggled to identify any trace of them in my work. Seemingly, the place in my brain where there was supposed to be a flourishing forest of wild ambition and untamed enthusiasm had been replaced by a windswept desert and the occasional tumbleweed. I had reached the point where I realised that drinking lots of tea was a great excuse to make lots of trips to the bathroom to pass the time. I also realised that’s a good clue that I wasn’t getting out of bed each day for the love of my job. I could make a mean tea though.

I based my decision to enter teaching via the Teach For Australia program on the expectation that it would deliver the highest levels of autonomy, mastery and purpose compared to the other options under consideration (and I had cast the net far and wide from air force pilot to barista – if only there was a greater demand for professionally brewed tea).

To this end, teaching has not let me down and, in many respects, I’ve got more than I bargained for. The abundance of these three elements in teaching has been the source of so much satisfaction for me but the inherent and unrelenting time consumption and mental exhaustion that they smuggle into my life has also been the source of the greatest stresses and deepest lows in both my working and personal life over the last three years.

Autonomy

Perhaps I have been fortunate to be the only physics teacher at my school for the first three years of my teaching career. I have had the autonomy to develop entire curricula from Years 9 to 12 so that students build conceptual knowledge in a logical order with a clear direction. Not all teachers have such independence.

However, I have also taught Year 9 general science for which I collaborated on curriculum development with other teachers. In addition, all classes need to conform to an instructional model which is common to the entire school. Despite these ostensible restrictions, I can say that when you are teaching any class you are afforded a high degree of autonomy to engage students, simplify concepts, build and leverage relationships, and create a culture of urgency in the classroom to learn.

You can decide to have students act out an electric circuit with M&Ms. You can decide to model radioactive decay with M&Ms. You can decide to analogise the concept of how electric charge is measured using… M&Ms. I’ve used M&Ms quite a bit.

On the other hand, developing curriculum, creating meaningful assessments, analysing the data from these assessments, addressing individual students’ needs, planning interesting and relevant practical tasks to complement theory, fixing faulty practical equipment…all these things take hours and hours of out-of-class preparation.

Like it or not, the school timetable charges forward like a wounded bull so, along with the motivation of autonomy, comes an acute sense of pressure. The days when a decision to spend an hour at night doing something leisurely was within my control, let alone to be able to leave work behind at the office, now seems like a silly fantasy.

There is no respite. It is all-consuming and exhausting, and something that I, naively, did not anticipate. But this seems like a necessary evil that is coupled to a job that delivers motivation and satisfaction.

Mastery

Subject matter expert, presenter, leader, data collector and analyst, innovator, psychologist, negotiator and mediator, counsellor, consultant and occasional adolescent mind-reader. These are all roles that a teacher must assume in the course of a day when interacting with students, parents and other staff. Along with each of these roles comes an opportunity – or requirement, for self-preservation – to improve.

I derive satisfaction from developing analogies to simplify complex ideas and relating it to students’ lives. I can become more creative at this and I feel unfulfilled when I miss the mark.

There is an intrinsic reward for using assessment data to locate a student’s knowledge gaps, addressing these gaps and seeing subsequent concepts fall into place. I can become more strategic at this and I feel inadequate if I turn a blind eye.

There is melancholic sense of gratitude when you recognise a destructive home-life for a student and can provide safe reprieve. I can become more attuned to this and feel a deep sadness for the situations that are going unnoticed.

To be a teacher is to be a multi-skilled professional practitioner. I did not expect teaching to require a repertoire of tools akin to Batman’s utility belt. The scope for mastery in this vast array of skill sets is highly motivating, but each one is consuming and competes with the others so it can be easy to always feel inadequate at each task. The persistent sense of giving everything you’ve got but still feeling behind is exhausting and sometimes despairing.


Purpose

I believe that good education, delivered in a positive and relevant way, is a cornerstone for a functioning society and a prosperous future for individuals. But sometimes you need a closer sense of purpose within the minutia of the task. The fact that education has such great importance on a macro scale is perhaps not enough to feel motivated on a day-to-day basis.

Dan Pink measures purpose in a job by the extent to which one can recognise who their work serves and to see the impact of that work on those people. In other words, it is the proximity to the people you serve that is important. In this sense, there would be few jobs that can match teaching. Teachers serve, first and foremost, the students in the classroom with them.

I get a sense of purpose when I immediately see whether students are receptive to a lesson or demonstrate improvement. I get a renewed sense of resolve when students choose to spend an hour of their own time after school to learn more and when they keep in contact after leaving school because they have developed an interest which you helped inspire.

It is this purpose that has driven me to do things I would never have expected from creating YouTube video lessons to rapping about physics to the tune of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (note more use of M&Ms). But these things, too, are exhausting and all consuming. An hour of a student’s time is also an hour of my time. An email about their post-school life is so heart-warming but is also another email needing reading and responding. A class that doesn’t go so well is another few hours of preparation to improve for the next class.

The autonomy, mastery and purpose that this profession offers is seemingly unlimited. It is absolutely what gets me out of bed each morning even when my sleep debt is accruing faster than Sean Spicer’s alternative facts. I regularly don’t have time for the bathroom all day and I’ve lost the knack of making world-class tea, but if I’ve got 99 problems at least I know that motivation ain’t one.

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