“All teachers can improve; most should.” Did someone tell me this or did I make it up? I’ll put it in quotes because I’m not sure, but it’s a one-liner I like. To improve means to get better. It’s about ongoing efforts to teach in ways that guide, facilitate, and support student efforts to learn. All of us can do that better in that regard.
And most teachers want to improve (especially those of you reading this), but we can be motivated to do so for different reasons. Those reasons have implications for how we feel about improvement, what we chose to change, how we change, and how the outcome affects subsequent motivation. I’m thinking a review of those motivations might be in order.
Somebody told you that you needed to:
Usually the “somebody” is an academic leader, often a department head, although sometimes students deliver the punch. It can provide strong motivation but it’s not the best kind of motivation. It generally rests on premises of remediation and deficiency. If it’s beliefs about a lack of ability that are motivating the change, that doesn’t make improving a very positive process, nor one to which collaborators are eagerly invited. If the motivation is externally sourced, are you doing it because you have to, or because you want to? Do you need to improve? Everyone can
improve but that’s different than saying you need
to because you’re teaching poorly. What others say about your teaching merits thoughtful analysis—careful review supported with input from students and colleagues who care—not rationalization.
You need to get your ratings up:
That gets faculty thinking about making changes, but it’s also problematic. It’s basically improving for a side reason as opposed to the main reason. The motivation should rest on a desire to teach in ways that help students master the content and develop the skills provided by the course. If you’re only interested in getting your ratings up, you can do that with donuts.
There’s a problem you need to fix:
This is a better source of motivation provided there aren’t 101 problems you think need to be fixed. There can be more than one problem, but you should tackle them one at a time. It’s also good to remember that most instructional problems are more complex than they appear. Easy answers often provide short-term solutions without addressing underlying issues. Furthermore, they can fix one problem and create a couple of new ones.
You’re tired and you need to do something different:
The problem is, even though you know that making changes would help, you too tired to try anything new. But there’s an important insight here: change is the spark that tired teaching needs. The trick is implementing changes before the inertia settles in. Sometimes you can jumpstart a battery that’s barely cranking with just a small bit of juice: something easy to implement or a particularly intriguing new idea.
It’s fun to fuss:
We can fuss with our teaching from start to finish in a course and across a career. This motivation rests on ongoing improvement; that nothing is as good as it can be and figuring out how to make it better is a challenge. The process can become addictive. Something works better, the teacher feels good, and there’s motivation to tackle something else. Even when a fix doesn’t work, there’s motivation to keep making improvements. Defeat sometimes spurs further action; there’s even more desire to get it figured out. The challenge is sustaining the motivation to keep fussing, to keep finding fun in the fixing, when doing so bumps up against our busy academic lives.
I want students to learn more:
This is pristine motivation. Teaching is (or should be) all about the students. What can I do to make their learning experiences richer? But like anything pristine, it’s hard to keep it pure. There are lots of contaminating influences in higher education and at our institutions. And then there are those students who are totally uninterested in learning anything that ends up in a course. A commitment to helping them learn more rests on the assumption that they are already learning something.
The motivation to improve is rarely just one of these. It’s almost always a combination. The reasons circle around each other, connecting in unique ways. Part of what makes our efforts to improve significant and lasting is an examination of what’s motivating us to make changes.