What it takes to be a great employer

Harvard business review has a superb article by Tony Schwartz on how any company can be a great employer. Education officials, school leaders and teachers can all learn from these four principles which he talks about.

1. Sustainability (physical)

The most basic need he talks about is that our physical needs our met. Are we getting good food, is the working environment safe, and are we comfortable? How many schools ask teachers and students to work in unpleasant buildings, on uncomfortable seats, and eating sub-standard food? The article’s author, Tony Schwartz says this:

How crazy is it that companies are willing to invest in preventative maintenance on fixed assets such as their machinery, but typically won’t make a comparable investment to enhance and sustain the health and well-being of their employees?

2. Security (emotional)

The second need is that employees are valued, recognised, and appreciated. If your schools are appreciated only for their test scores, employee’s perform less well. If you never give any recognition for achievements of your teachers, they will feel less motivated to achieve. If you concentrate your efforts on students’ mistakes and under-performance then they won’t feel intrinsically motivated to push themselves. As Schwartz says:

The vast majority of employers fail to recognize a simple and immutable truth: how people feel at any given moment profoundly influences how they perform.

Everyone knows the sure-fire way for a teacher to demotivate a class is to spend your time shouting at them and criticising them, and yet government and media seem remarkably enthusiastic to concentrate solely on the negatives of schools and teaching.

3. Self-expression (mental)

The third need is to innovate, be independent, and set your own path. Think about the time you enjoyed learning something most. Perhaps it was a game where you found your own way through a puzzle. Perhaps it was a book where you chose when and where to start reading. Perhaps it was a mathematics problem where you struggled and found your own way through.

This is a widely recognised truth, with such eminent psychologists such as Ryan and Deci, and Carol Dweck, who have conclusively shown that being cajoled and forced into work is less successful and sustainable than being inspired to do it. We enthuse our students with great literature, fascinating experiments, with trips and visits, and we know that extra curricular activities chosen by the student will be some of their most inspirational learning experiences.

Somehow legislators feel that the way to improve teachers and schools, on the other hand, is to hand down dictats about “three part lessons“, effective grading, and so on. Just as bad, sometimes, our own enthusiastic colleagues’ blind insistence that their solution is the only way. (e.g. “data is king! fire the bottom 10% of teachers on this basis” or “all data, all tests are terrible, remove them all completely”). Give people choice! As Schwartz says:

Treated like children, many employees unconsciously adopt the role to which they’ve been consigned. Feeling disempowered, they lose the confidence and the will to take real initiative or to think independently.

4. Significance (spiritual)

The final need is for significance of purpose. Schwartz again:

Once our survival needs are met, most of us long to feel that what we’re doing truly matters.

We are incredibly lucky that nobody in education ever really needs a “mission statement”. Any teacher who has ever guided their students to “A-ha!” moments knows forever more what their mission is. It isn’t for them to get some test scores, it is to inspire them, to enable them to lead fuller lives, and to enthuse them for lifelong learning.

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