Money, Motivation and Teachers! Oh my!

Image used under a creative commons licence.

Since teacher compensation seems to be in the news this week, with every man and their dog assuming that performance-based pay is the way to go for teachers I thought I would chip in with my $20.

Well I would but actually I can’t afford $20 because even though I’ve been working for two months, I’m still not getting paid correctly. While I wait for the Ministry of Education to assess my academic record, I’m being paid at the untrained teacher salary rate which is 3/5 what I should be getting paid. This would be the same Ministry of Education who holds enrollment details for all of my tertiary qualifications that I have now spent two months having backwards and forwards correspondence VIA POST about my salary assessment. I’m at a loss as to why something that would be completely unacceptable in the private sector, not paying someone their agreed salary for months on end, would be ok for teaching. Yet it is relatively commonplace in teaching.

But enough about my grumbling let’s get back to the lazy teachers who get paid the same as the hard-working teachers.

There’s been repeated assertions made that the way to improve the performance of all teachers and thus their students is by rewarding some teachers with financial rewards. Because the bonuses would not be given to all teachers, we’d have to compete against each other for bonuses. But really only the bad teachers are going to worry because the good teachers will be rewarded. Since New Zealand teachers punch well above their weight internationally most of us should be ecstatic right ?

But here’s the thing, you can’t fool good teachers.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us author Daniel Pink diagnoses the problem with waving bonuses in front of teachers. Pink’s book, which has deep implications for education policy, argues that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the core ingredients in motivating people to do their best work and to innovate. There are also some real risks that policymakers are taking when they advocate performance-based pay as being the panacea of student achievement that are at present not being talked about.

One of the strengths of the New Zealand teaching workforce is the collegial relationships. In my experience teachers are hugely generous with their time and knowledge helping me as a junior teacher even if they aren’t the person officially assigned as my mentor. At present there is extra money available in the form of management units for teachers who take on extra responsibilities in school which could be things like overseeing a department, student assessment or leading the teaching of maths in a school. My hunch is that schools don’t give such responsibilities to staff members who struggle in the classroom. Yes not all good teachers want to be leaders . But from my limited experience you don’t want school leaders who aren’t also exemplary teachers because one of the primary duties of a leader is to nurture the people below them.

One of the key arguments around performance-based pay is that it is fairer. Good teachers currently get paid the same as bad teachers since salary progressions are done on the basis of academic qualifications and length of service. One of the flip side of notions of classroom excellence is that unless performance-related bonuses are divided up fairly among the 50,000 or so teaching workforce, you’ll end up de-motivating vast swathes of teachers to reward a few excellent teachers. Especially if it’s the Ministry of Education dolling out payments.

Based on my dealings with extracting money out of the Ministry of Education it can be a time-consuming and incredibly frustrating and that’s just for getting money that I’m guaranteed via the collective employment agreement. Subjective rewards, and identifying ‘excellent teachers’ will have a measure of subjectivity even if measured NCEA or National Standards (which are based on teacher judgements), will mean time and money that could spent on resourcing and supporting teachers to develop innovative teaching methods will get squandered on paperwork that has little to do with improving teaching. Because performance-based pay doesn’t actually improve teaching it just measures student test scores and assumes that there is a relationship between good teaching and assessment results. This isn’t necessarily the case.

More problematically when a student assessment becomes corrupted for purposes outside of measuring learning outcomes, i.e paying teachers and funding schools, then there is a risk of the assessments getting corrupted as was seen in Atlanta in the United States where wide-scale cheating infiltrated their schools. For the most part the New Zealand school system is free of these problems. But overseas experience tells us if teacher salaries are low and financial incentives are high, you provide an environment for corruption in schools. Is this something we want to risk here by instituting a system of carrots and sticks when the government is embarking in a period of cost-cutting?

At a broader level, it is inevitable that the focus of these rewards will inevitably be on ‘raising levels of academic achievement’ on a narrow range of indicators which sounds fantastic until you see less teacher time being spent on activities that keep kids engaged and interested in school.

New Zealand teachers routinely take on complex and time-consuming extra duties, like organizing clubs or coaching sports teams. Let’s throw the teacher say $500 for managing the school’s production which over the course of year means they get around $2 an hour in time actual involved planning the event, holding auditions, rehearsals and attending the performances. Most would agree how nuts teachers are to routinely put themselves forward to do all the extra-curricula events but they do so in the knowledge that they have created a positive memory, an experience in teamwork and imagination for their students.

And it is this more than anything that gets teachers up in the morning. A sense that we are working towards a greater purpose. Because if you stop to consider the level of university education required (usually 3-4 years of university education) and the responsibilities undertaken, the top salary of a classroom teacher isn’t all that grand. But it’s enough to keep the issue of money of the table so that we can concentrate on doing our jobs well.

And that’s what most classroom teachers want, to do their job and do it well.

The ‘quality teacher’ meme that is being repeated by various people in the popular media, many of whom have often never taught a day in the lives, is the unstated assertion that our current teaching workforce just isn’t up to snuff and that there are legions of bad teachers failing our kids. However given the government’s intention is to find ways to cut costs in education, I agree with Brian Fallow that the quality teacher talk is a way for the government to cut the education budget rather than improve educational outcomes for students. I wish the teacher unions and opposition parties would loudly call the government on this. Instead we have the leader of the opposition repeating the same tired mantra being heard from the government.

Moreover I find it curious that a government that talks about quality teachers seems to be intent on giving less freedom to teachers to do their jobs effectively. Because the National Standards debate isn’t really about assessment or reporting to parents it is actually about professional autonomy. If the government required doctors to read out a statement of a patient’s BMI every time they wrote out a prescription, the medical profession would quite rightly wave their collective middle fingers at the mere mention of the move. Yet reading between the lines of what the Minister of Education said about judging teacher remuneration against ‘student outcomes,’ she is talking about judging pay on a set of measures that aren’t all that accurate or reliable.

I know that people outside of teaching find it hypocritical of teachers that we spend so much time assessing kids and not want to have our own performance measured. Firstly it isn’t true that teachers aren’t regularly assessed. My teaching is frequently observed and I have a performance agreement in place. But it is because teachers do so much assessment that we know that no measure of student achievement is 100% accurate. What makes some teachers jittery is when the government talks about dolling large sums of cash out on the basis of value-added measurements because test scores aren’t a reliable indicator of our effectiveness in the classroom. More importantly it’s this sort of stuff that sucks the very essence of teaching, doing paperwork to satisfy the whims of the government of the day, when we could be doing far more interesting things like coming up innovative ideas to try out in the classroom.

Surely I’m not the only one who feels like our entire conversation around education has become warped. We are so obsessed with arguments over how to achieve and measure outcomes that we’re losing sight of why we educate kids. I know I don’t speak for the rest of the profession, but I didn’t get into teaching to just help students pass assessments. I see assessments as a way to inform my teaching but really my purpose is to help students discover and discipline their passions so that they can lead happy lives. That might sound airy fairy but I make no apology for wanting my students to leave school with more than just a set of basic literacy and numeracy skills.

I want them to be able to understand others thoughts through reading and viewing and be understood when they speak or write.

I want them to have a knowledge of science and use the social sciences to help inform their decisions at a personal and societal level.

I want to be able to understand the implications of any financial contract they enter into.

I want them to have an appreciation of the world around them through learning another language and develop teamwork skills, self-discipline and pride in themselves through participating in sports and the performing arts.

I want them to be able to relate to others so that they can have life-long friendships, relationships, career success and be a good neighbour.

I want them to develop strategies to help them pull through the times when life deals them a bad hand.

I want them to be forever curious about the world around them.

Yes being literate and numerate is important but they are in essence a language that humans use to communicate what they see in the world. When we stop giving kids reasons to communicate by not giving them rich learning experiences outside of the narrow focus of reading, writing and mathematics for the purposes of passing assessments we deprive them not only of a childhood but the quality teachers and teaching that people keep talking about.

New Zealand is going down a road of gradually stripping teachers of their classroom autonomy, and loudly questioning their mastery. Once we remove teachers’ intrinsic purpose, no amount of money will pull promising candidates into long-term careers in the classroom.

9 thoughts on “Money, Motivation and Teachers! Oh my!

Add yours

  1. MoE processes for determining teachers salaries defy description…. I only had to endure 2 months of postal mail, others I know 6 months or more. How can they get away with not communicating via email or phone only snail mail!

    One would think that their job was to make it as hard as possible and therefore potentially save the government money. NOTE As I recall MoE actually contracts the service out….



    1. Hi Edwin
      Don’t tell me 6 months! I’m still hopeful of getting something in the mail next week to say that this is all over. But yes I agree the MoE is basically there to save money I had some teaching experience ignored which put me down a step and a half. Grrr!



  2. If as a teacher you are asked ‘what do you make?’ – the answer is not $65,000 per annum, the answer is “I make a difference”. To be able to do this for the rising generation is priceless.


  3. Thanks Stephanie once again for a really enjoyable article. While I certainly sit on the on the other end of the debate (as I often do with other teachers) I enjoy the articles that you write.

    Personally I believe the PRP debate is similar to the National Standards debate. The theory is great but the outworking is not so crash hot.

    I agree that developing a system for performance Related Pay in Education is almost impossible. It would be easier in a secondary environment as NCEA is more developed than NS but even then issues such as decile rating, class composition etc mean that in any situation it is almost impossible.

    I disagree about the current assessment of teachers. While in theory teacher are observed and signed off each year I dont believe the outworking of this is as good as it should. The reality is that it is so much work for a Principal to go down the line of not signing off a teaching I believe that many dont bother. In my wife’s profession she is edited about once every 2-3 years by an outside agency. I think a system like this would be far better.

    Your statement below is bang on correct.
    “Surely I’m not the only one who feels like our entire conversation around education has become warped. We are so obsessed with arguments over how to achieve and measure outcomes that we’re losing sight of why we educate kids. ”

    Finally as a side issue I will be interested to see how this plays out between the unions and the government. Teachers complained about NS but when push came to shove they couldn’t stand united and buckled. If teachers are so passionate about the issue of PRP then I hope that you will fight against it.
    My hunch is most people will hope for a change in government rather than stand up for what they believe.

    By the way good luck with the battle for your pay….


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