The satisfied chemist(ry teacher)
In last week's Education in Chemistry I read Rowan's piece about 'What satisfies science teachers?'and it got me thinking. I agreed with the elements on the OECD's list: collaboration, professional development, and student behaviour, as key aspects of my job satisfaction. But I felt there were a couple of elements missing, and also that the original three are really all aspects of the same element: an explicit focus on teaching and learning.
So here's my own list:
I need to feel like I have a purpose, like there's a reason why I got up at 6am to explain covalent bonding to a group of tired teenagers who'd prefer to be watching Netflix, like I can give them something that scrolling through Instagram, or smoking behind the theatre can't.
For me, my purpose is to get students to think for themselves and become problem-solvers, in all walks of life. I just happen to think that Chemistry has all the best problem-solving in it (both theoretical and practical). This overrides my goals of getting students the best grades they can, or getting them in to university to study the sciences, etc.
These goals shift and transform as we develop as teachers, as we read the educational research, listen to talks about university entry, or hear back from alumni. But woe betide the day when our dreams disappear.
We all have goals in teaching. Reasons why we get up in the morning. They might be personal, or they might be shared with the department, or school leaders. Because if we don't, then we might as well go home.
The freedom to reach for your goals.
Although I think goals are necessary for being a satisfied chemistry teacher, I don't think they are sufficient. We also need to have the freedom to actually reach for the things that we value. So for me, that might be the freedom to switch around the teaching to maximise problem solving tasks, and to put more emphasis on unstructured activities.
In Clever Lands, Lucy Crehan discusses teacher autonomy as being an essential aspect of teachers' intrinsic motivation to carry out their work, and shows that high performing education systems, such as Finland and Singapore, recognise this and place high levels of trust in teachers. They give them autonomy and freedom.
Extrinsic motivation strategies (the carrot and stick approach) on the other hand, can work in the short term, but can lead to lower overall levels of motivation in the long term. This is particularly true if the teacher does not identify with the goals they are forced to pursue. I'm pretty sure I would lose motivation rapidly if I were forced to throw all my energies into teaching students chemistry via rote learning. This is hardly likely to lead to job satisfaction.
The tools to reach for your goals.
There is no point being trusted to follow your heart (and hopefully your head), if you haven't got the skills (or the means of developing the skills) required to be successful. So, this is where I align with the OECD research: those tools come from collaboration and a focus on professional development.
Opportunities for professional development, from expensive courses, conferences, MOOCs and TeachMeets, to department meetings, reading magazines and journals, and informal chats over coffee, build up the teacher's toolkit, their means, for pursuing their goals.
Collaboration belongs here and at the start. It is both an aspect of the means, and of the end. What I mean is, is provides the means by affording teachers the informal professional development discussions which are so influential on their practice. But it also influences their ends; their goals and purposes are influenced, and ultimately transformed, by positive relationships with their colleagues.
So schools need to trust teachers to pursue their own ends (chemistry teachers in particular, because we are problem solvers, we have solutions), and help them build up the conceptual and material apparatus required to achieve them.
And one of the best ways to do this is to celebrate collaboration.
Make time for it.
(Say no to performance related pay.)