Guest Column

Counting Last Days or Making Last Days Count?

by Duane Lockhart

How should administrators go about rejuvenating an unmotivated teacher? As I start my administrative career, this is the biggest challenge I face.

As we enter into the competitive era of schools of choice, we cannot have teachers on board who are counting their days to retirement or their next job. I am a positive person and I like to associate with other positive people. As a teacher, I would avoid or ignore those who had a negative outlook. As an administrator, though, I must deal with them. If I want my entire faculty to be functioning at a high level, I need to ensure that underperformers and those with poor work attitudes are addressed promptly and effectively.

I am realistic enough to know it usually isn't just one unmotivated teacher. Just as I thrive on positive people, unmotivated teachers thrive on people who support their behavior. From what I have seen, a group of teachers feed off of each other's negative sentiments. They convince each other their traditional classroom methods are still effective but that changing times have brought kids who are less inclined to learn and parents who are less supportive of what goes on in school. So what use is it for trying something new?

An unmotivated teacher is like a driver in a stock car race. The racecar driver would much rather run out of gas as he crosses the finish line than make a pit stop to refuel with five laps to go. Refueling, to a teacher, means trying a new teaching method or introducing new subject matter relevant to the times. But to the unmotivated teacher, this effort seems useless because by the time he or she masters it, it would be time for retirement. The status quo reigns.

I see the driver's reasoning. I don't see this argument holding up for a teacher. A racecar driver can coast to victory. A teacher cannot. A school district needs teachers, well equipped with new strategies and ideas, running on all cylinders. In this competitive age, we cannot afford to have teachers coasting to their retirement. Status quo is not an option. Status quo means defeat for the district, its teachers and ultimately the students.

Multiple Possibilities

To find an answer to this challenging situation, I have asked many administrators how they approach underperforming staff. At first, this did not prove especially helpful. Every administrator gave me a different answer. However, I came to realize that in itself was the answer. Every teacher has a unique reason or set of reasons for downshifting or becoming less productive and effective, so each situation demands a unique approach. In the same vein, every principal has his own way of motivating staff, so it makes sense that the answers would differ.

As a teacher, I put a lot of thought into my decisions about motivating students. As a building administrator, I need a personal, effective and well-considered way to deal with each poorly motivated teacher.

Since teachers can be thought of as students who have matured, I considered the tactics I used to rejuvenate unmotivated students. I quickly eliminated the Jolly Rancher trick as unlikely to evoke much of a response among those beyond their teen-age years. Instead, I turned to some brain-based learning principles described in the book MindShifts: A Brain-Compatible Process for Professional Development and the Renewal of Education by Geoffrey Caine, Renate Nummela Caine and Sam Crowell to address our challenge.

I stressed our challenge because I don't want this situation to become a "me against you" battle. If both parties are willing to hear each other's side and work toward a common goal, the answer cannot be far away.

Caine, Caine and Crowell believe one way to change the way education is practiced is to change the ideas we hold about it. Once we no longer are bound by entrenched assumptions that permeate much of what happens in schools, we are free to develop new ideas. As we realize that teaching can be an art of its own and that learning involves an array of complex experiences, a whole new excitement takes place. We have the freedom to be educators.

I always believed students learn the best when they are teaching themselves. I would set up parameters and then allow students to work on their own or in small groups. It always amazed me when a student would come up with something completely new and different. This rarely would have happened unless he or she was given the opportunity to experiment and experience new things. Often, the same old fundamentals would surface. This was good because now students would apply the fundamentals with conviction instead of doing them just because I said to do them.

Common Ideals

Caine, Caine and Crowell stress the importance of this inner aspect of challenge. One quality of inner challenge is personal engagement, which begins with the person's search for meaning and generally is referred to as intrinsic motivation. A second, indispensable quality is a sense of self-efficacy, which is the belief that success is possible as a result of one's own efforts. The goal for educators must be to create the conditions that elicit this personal aspect of high challenge in learners.

Unfortunately, creating these conditions cannot be accomplished by a teacher who has downshifted. One reason why is that when a teacher downshifts, he reverts to primitive instinctual behaviors having to do with preservation of personal safety. The result is that the teacher bonds with people who are like-minded and becomes territorial and adversarial, treating others as the enemy.

Before I try to remove the wall of defense built by the unmotivated teacher, I would discuss with him why he got into education and what he expects to accomplish. I would hope this would involve discussion about affecting the lives of children. I would want to know the shortcomings and rewards. I would look for the common features of our philosophies and ideals and try to build a mutual trust to reach these goals again. I am hopeful I could rekindle the passion to educate.

I don't think any teacher wants to leave a career in education by counting down the days. If a platform is presented correctly, the school has a win-win situation. The school district has an educator who holds on to some old methods that work and pledges to try some new things to affect the life of at least one more child. The school has an effective administrator because he has everyone striving to obtain excellence.

Duane Lockhart is an assistant principal at Fox Elementary and Mohawk Elementary schools. He can be reached at 48101 Romeo Plank, Macomb, Mich. 48044. E-mail: