Why We Work

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz remains one of my favorite TED talks.

The insight and wisdom from Schwartz come through in his latest book Why We Work. Of course, we all seek work that is satisfying and fulfilling but Schwartz provides an interesting historical background that in my mind parallel the way in which public schools were created. The default perception of school tends to be something students have to endure. Much of this was borne out of its history. Schools were designed to address the needs of the industrial revolution and were developed from a factory model.  Educating the masses required a system built on efficiency. The needs of the child were not considered nearly as much as the needs of society. And while this is changing, its impact and structures remain.

Schwartz points out the industrial revolution and mass production of goods created a need to convince people to do menial tasks. Previously, most people earned a living by doing things they were good at and were self-sufficient. Getting someone to do repetitive tasks was difficult and thus the way to convince people to do these tasks was through monetary incentives. Before this, working was as much about a satisfying way to spend a life as it was about making money. Today, the default assumption is that primary reason people work is for money. Schwartz attempts to debunk this idea by suggesting creating work environments where other elements supersede just working for money.  Essentially, he argues that:

If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work. 

Schwartz provides much greater detail about what this might look like and I urge you to read the book.

IMG_0769I shared this book with my boss Lance Rouguex who decided to everyone on our team a copy.  Lance does many things to design the kind of workplace that Schwartz suggests. I could write a great deal about the many things he does, but something he did at a recent meeting made me think about its application to schools and classrooms. He asked each of us to share what we love about our work and one highlight from the past year. It was inspiring to hear from everyone and reaffirmed the great privilege we have at Discovery Education to do meaningful work. Lance does so many things to create the kind of work environment anyone would want to be part of. In previous meetings, he would take the time to do positive affirmations. While these were often tongue and cheek, and we giggled through them, it was sincere and full of detail that would remind us all how great it was to work where we did.

What a great lesson for leaders and teachers. What if, at your next staff meeting, you asked teachers to share what they loved about teaching and have them share a highlight from the week? What if, as a leader, you send out a weekly or monthly note highlighting something you valued from your staff? 

As teachers,  we know that we’re supposed to love our job because we’re shaping minds and all those other flowery and pithy phrases. But until you have people think, reflect and share out loud the many little moments, it’s a very easy to forget. I would suggest that in many of our staff rooms, negativity often emerges as the dominant culture. Not because people are bad but because teaching is a draining profession that too often focuses on things we aren’t doing well. I love that George Couros recently asked people to change their perspectives on data.  Schools are notorious on focusing on deficits. Continually focusing on what we still have to do or what we’ve been doing wrong is a recipe for burnout and job dissatisfaction.

I think we’re at a crisis in education with teacher shortages continuing to garner headlines.  The easy answer is “pay teachers more”. To me, that’s a bandaid solution. The real answer lies in making the job better. This isn’t done with cash but with creating environments where teachers feel valued and see the value in what they do. For too long this has been a solitary pursuit with only a select number of leaders working to support teachers in this. Read Why We Work and consider what it means for our schools.