Recently, I attended the 2011 NCB Education Nation, and had the chance to sit in on several different sessions. Conversation during a session on Detroit school reform drifted to a dialogue on teacher incentives and whether or not they were beneficial. The panel’s school leader explained that she provided her teachers with small merit bonuses based on achievement. A member of the Union responded vehemently that “dangling a carrot of a couple thousand dollars” in front of a teachers face isn’t going to make them work harder, and that teachers were in general insulted by merit pay. She went on to say that what teachers needed most was a decent salary.

Are teachers insulted by merit pay?

Obviously, teachers want to earn a “decent salary.” Teachers have one of the hardest jobs in the country and deserve compensation. The often heard comment, “teachers don’t do it for the money, they do it out of love” is infuriating to me, as I believe it belittles my professional craft, developed over years of effort, into something more akin to a hobby.

I don’t know any good teacher who doesn’t passionately love their job and their students. But doctors also love their jobs and their patients, however no one is shocked when the bill comes due. Teachers have a lot of love; they also have car and house payments, weddings, insurance, taxes, children, credit cards, and college debt.

All Professionals are compensated for the work they do – when we say “teachers don’t do it for the money” we imply that teachers should feel ashamed or traitorous when they ask for compensation – and a bonus – for a job well done.

As one of the few teachers in the crowd during this panel, I was given the opportunity to respond. “There are many ways that humans say thank you,” I said. “We give gifts and write cards, and we give money. My school provides a small bonus to me for doing the small things – consistently – that I do every day, such as making parent phone calls and tracking data. I don’t work harder because of it – I am a really good teacher, and I work hard anyway. The small bonus says ‘thank you’ to me for doing the work that I would do anyway. It makes me feel appreciated and makes me want to continue doing an excellent job.”

Should teachers make more money? Absolutely! And because everyone, regardless of political stance, agrees that teachers should make more, I will not be made to feel ashamed or guilty about the fact that I do a great job and deserve merit recognition above my salary.

Just as other professionals receive bonuses for excellent work, I believe teachers should be held to the same standard. I’m just like any other business owner, my business happens to be my classroom and I deal in the achievement of my scholars. I already work hard – to be mediocre is to damage children, and it is love that drives me to give them everything I have every day. I am not ashamed to say that I want someone to say thank you. I am fortunate that my school feels the same way.

The only teacher who should be offended by merit pay or bonuses is the teacher who already realizes that she could do more. A teacher who knows she won’t meet the standards of merit pay also has to know that she is not meeting the needs of children in all the ways she can. This is the teacher who doesn’t want her mediocrity to be noticed – or someone else to show her up.

How might teacher bonuses and merit support teacher evaluation?

In the same way that a company is benefited by the best employees, our country has much to benefit from a strong teaching staff committed to raising student achievement and motivated by value-added gains, with the knowledge that their hard work and excellence will be noticed and rewarded. Many states are already implementing teacher evaluations, and adding bonuses for excellence would incentivize the adoption of the process as well as create momentum around increasing student and teacher excellence. This is something that teachers are interested in, and want!

Incentivizing excellence isn’t insulting – it is a sign of appreciation for a job well done – something excellent teachers have long deserved. Building merit bonuses into teacher evaluation plans incentivizes the entire system to operate more effectively – from assessors to those evaluated, everyone has one more reason to do things well. And when your product is better-educated, more world-ready children, should be we doing anything less than excellent?

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