Exhilarated…on Monday Mornings…In Today’s Academia????!!
A young bride who can’t wait for her wedding. An apprentice who can’t wait to make partner. A child who can’t wait for ice cream. But a teacher who can’t wait for Monday!!?? Well, that’s an atypical and near incredulous state of affairs in this age of COVID-19. Yet, in a recently revisited article, “Can’t Wait for Monday,” Author Rafe Esquith posits that the manifestation of this issue, morale, is a very important aspect of school leadership because people do better work when they feel good — a tall order in this current age of education characterized by pervasive criticism, unreasonable demands, and utter confusion. Nevertheless, Esquith feels that it isn’t impossible and identifies two things that enable staff to “swim strongly against the current” (p. 20): leadership support and teachers who believe.
With a myriad of descriptive examples, Esquith paints a picture of what constitutes leadership support and why he says that school morale begins at the top when leaders respect and believe in their teachers (p. 21). At his own school, his principal swallows his blood pressure medication with a glass of incorrigible students, disagreeable parents, and tough decisions to make, including banning parents for unreasonable demands and threatening dispositions, knowing that the emotional health of the entire school depends on it. And once when an emotionally-disturbed student accused a teacher of inappropriately grabbing him, the principal joined the investigations, quietly gathering evidence from current students — witnesses of the event — and even from past students in order to prove the employee’s innocence. This leader’s tireless defense of the teacher’s integrity was the greatest balm to heal the wound” (p. 21) and a catalyst for staff morale and motivation.
Esquith also speaks on the issue of teachers appreciating one another. “Teaching,” he says, “can be a thankless job” (p. 22) when looking through teacher lenses at those naysayers glaring back: politicians, administrators, parents, news media. He asserts that educators never get their just due, yet they are fully in the know about what it takes to do that job and why they do it and that is precisely the reason they need to appreciate and bolster each other. Teachers know that in this secular world, it is not uncommon for people to select careers on the basis of the financial rewards. It is, unfortunately, part of the cultural fabric of this society they live in for obvious reasons. The most popular career selections then, will almost always include medical doctors, lawyers, scientists, and such. Rarely, if ever, will teaching fall into that lot because those who teach never select this profession for the financial benefits it brings. Neither do they choose it for the quality of life it affords them.
Teachers teach because they love what they do. It’s that simple. The hours are long, the pay is insulting, and the work conditions are by no means enviable. Still they embrace the adverse conditions with purpose and press on for the sheer joy at the thought of what could happen: change! In the hearts and minds of their students. In the society in which they live. In the world at large. Challenges do not deter them. Rewards do not entice them. Their cause is pure, their purpose sure. And nothing else compares.
Although an interesting concept seemingly grounded solely in pathos, the statement has backing in the scientific community. In their study of creativity, White (1959) and Harter (1978) discovered that “intrinsic motivation is based on the innate human need for competence in meeting optimal challenges and…that intrinsically motivated behaviors stem from a desire to experience personal causation (also referred to as self-determination)” (Hennessey & Amabile, p. 13). This is the reason neither challenges nor the opportunity for external rewards — an indication of extrinsic motivation — has any real significance to teachers. Their cause is personal and intrinsic simultaneously, and it is larger than life. It is one that money can’t buy, circumstances can’t control, and time can’t constrain. For in that forum, the task itself is the goal! They need not wait for the reward as is the case with extrinsic motivation. The reward is ever present.
Perhaps this is the reason why Hennessey and Amabile (1989) say that “these differences in motivation (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) lead to significant differences in creative performance” (p. 13) and commitment level. In fact, they further state that extrinsic factors in the social environment can actually have a consistently negative impact on the intrinsic motivation and the creativity of most people (p. 34), no doubt because the reason for doing the task is not pure. But teachers know purity. From the one-room, multi-age schoolhouse of yesteryear to the overcrowded graded classrooms of today, they embody it. For this reason, I disagree with Esquith when he says, “Optimism in the face of daunting reality is downright heroic — and that, in fact, is what good teachers practice all day long while others denigrate their contributions to society” (p. 22). “Optimism,” he continues, “is the foundation of all good teaching.”
But based on my own experience as an educator, and in light of what has been presented in research, I accept his contributions as only partially correct.
Optimism is a very necessary thing for teaching, yes, but I would not characterize it as foundational for good teaching or anything else. Why? Because optimism is an outlook; it can and does fade. And when it does, some educators, even great educators, will fade alongside it. We are all optimistic when we abdicate life with reckless abandon in our quest for the enviable doctorate, for example. But that optimism is unsustainable due to the stark realities within academia, particularly higher education. We endure microaggressions, macroaggressions, micropolitics, bullying, fear, career sabotage, poverty, exploitation, emotional abuse, mental breakdowns, and the list stretches on and on. It is virtually impossible to withstand these day after day, week after week, year after year and remain optimistic in the face of a dream obviously deferred. So optimism will die. And when it does, it is replaced by acute disappointment and a litany of professionals once excited about making a difference now severely traumatized and abandoning ship. And who can blame them?
Purpose, however, is a very different thing and a better indication of what should be at the foundation of all teaching. Purpose speaks to a reason, a conviction, and what Author Simon Sinek calls the why. This in turn leads to a variety of battleground essentials: commitment, bravery, resilience, persistence, risk-taking, and discipline that are very characteristic of leaders (educators included) on the basis of the fact that intrinsic motivation, the why, is in place. Interestingly, purpose is organic by nature; thus, based on standard definition, it has the potential to die too. Yet, ironically, when negatively impacted by external forces, it does not. At best, it becomes strengthened; at worst, it changes focus or lies dormant for a period.
But it does not die.
And it is in this immortality that leaders emerge, change comes, and dreams survive. This is the reason Esquith admonishes teachers to appreciate each other and for principals (leaders) to support their staff. After all, they share a common why and a common goal. And as Sinek says, “When people believe what you believe, trust develops” (TEDx, 2009) and when people trust each other, there is no firing squad they won’t face together.
As I scope the professional landscape for opportunities, it is clear to me that my optimism with respect to a fulfilling life in academia died while still a fetus as a doctoral fellow though I clung to the optimism of others and their visions of a vibrant outcome for a “star pupil.” My mentor said he bet his colleagues three times his annual salary that I would be the first to land something “and in the six figures too,” he continued. He remains flabbergasted, awed…. Though the drought continues, the mirage has evaporated into introspection and has forced me to revisit this thing called purpose and to be about that. So having thought about my professional journey — what I love about it, what makes me extraordinary at it, and what energizes, motivates, satisfies, and sets me apart, my objective is clear: meaningful work in an interpersonal space that encourages rhetorical mastery and promotes self-actualization and social progress.
This concept of meaning, of purpose can be understood in any language, incorporated into any industry, appreciated by any culture. It is, for sure, a greater calling, inexorable and invincible. Nothing can contain it. It transitions, transforms, transcends, creating a community of individuals who understand the magnitude of their calling and will shapeshift, whenever necessary, to fulfill their destiny. For us it is a choice to make a life and not a living, to take the road less traveled though forever diverging, to embrace the dream in spite of the dregs. Analyzed from every vantage point, purpose is a gift and if we cherish that gift, hone that gift, share that gift, we may actually fulfill that popular belief that our gifts will bring us into the presence of kings…whoever they are and wherever their kingdoms may reside.
I say may for nothing is guaranteed. But I’d rather be a Queen Esther and intrude upon a king unexpectedly, at the risk of death, and harboring a potential for phenomenal change than remain a work of art - a Mona Lisa, quietly watching, maybe smiling, from the basement of the ivory tower - its true value underestimated, misunderstood, and even ignored by the untrained, perhaps even the trained, eye.