Teachers are in the motivation business. At their best, they take a subject we might not have thought would interest us and they weave a kind of magic that makes us wonder how we lived quite so long without knowing this stuff.
Great teachers believe in us. Whatever our background, they help us to realise that we can do things and learn things that previously seemed beyond us. They make the impossible feel unexpectedly possible.
In the process – just occasionally – great teachers get to sense that they are changing young lives, opening doors on new experiences, seeing a pupil suddenly gripped by new knowledge and skills.
It’s the most rewarding part of being a teacher and a reason that we currently see so many people leaving more well-paid jobs to try and join the teaching profession.
I mention this because at schools across Suffolk, and indeed across England, governing bodies are all having to write new pay policies ready for September. The Government is insisting that teachers’ pay should be more directly linked to performance, so that the best teachers get paid more than the others.
This, to many readers, will seem like commonsense. Of course the best teachers should earn more, they will say.
But in practice it proves more complicated because education isn’t a neat production line.
I, for example, still teach English. Like all teachers, I have good days and bad days, successful lessons and dull ones. So how would we judge whether I’m someone who deserves more pay than my colleague next door? Is it by looking at my students’ results? What if – as I do – I share classes with another teacher? How would we decide whether my teaching has contributed more to students’ success than the other teacher? And what if I teach students who may not sit exams in that subject (for example, Citizenship, or PE)? Does that mean I can’t get a pay rise?
You could, of course, watch me teach and – like the X-Factor judges – rate my quality on that. Ofsted inspectors expect to see students make progress in a twenty-minute observation, otherwise they will deem the lesson not good enough.
But what if I teach a lesson based on ‘real’ learning rather than twenty-minute chunks, so that students spend time struggling to understand a concept, puzzling for an hour over a problem?
I would call this real learning – it’s challenging, messy and frustrating. It requires persistence and grit. An Ofsted inspector would probably judge it as poor teaching because he couldn’t see the students’ obvious progress.
And if my pay is being based on judgements like this, then it could lead to some safe and lifeless teaching.
Perhaps the most striking contradiction is that there is no evidence that performance-related pay actually gets teachers teaching better. Governing bodies will spend many hours drafting policies and frameworks for something which may, in the end, make very little difference.
Most teachers, after all, are motivated by the love of doing a job as well as they can, of seeing the spark of learning lit, or seeing children excited, enthused and motivated.
It might be that our effort really would be best deployed in addressing teaching which isn’t good enough, in constantly seeking ways of helping all teachers to become better, and in recognising that in our society financial reward doesn’t and shouldn’t count for everything.
Sometimes the real reward can’t be quantified in a monthly pay cheque. Instead it’s in the satisfaction of a job well done, a lesson well taught, and a child transformed by the intoxicating magic of great teaching.