I do wonder what input readers would offer to the topic. What motivates you – in the most general terms? What distinctions do you make between internal and external rewards? How actively do you pursue rewards for their own sake? How does pay figure into your calculations? And how does flow?

In a recent post at Stories from School Arizona, I used Carol Dweck’s language from Mindset: The New Psychology of Success to speculate that institutions, as well has individuals, develop growth or fixed mindsets. Growth mindsets, according to Dweck, seek the development of intelligence, which leads one to look for challenges, persevere through obstacles, and learn from criticism. Fixed mindsets tend to avoid challenges, give up, reject criticism, and are insecure.

I wrote:

Say you start your career in a school with a teacher-oriented principal who rewards risk taking and penalizes opacity. You’re more likely to assume that that’s the state of the profession and pursue new challenges within education. But if you work in a school with an insecure principal who blocks teacher led initiatives and punishes setbacks, you could well conclude that that’s the profession-wide status quo and pursue achievement in a different field.

My friend Enrique Lasansky, Director of Orchestras at the Denver School of the Arts, made this comment:

Teachers are (or should be, in my opinion) nothing but outstanding learners and people who very much wish to pass on the love of learning to others. To be a great learner you need a few things, among them, those qualities described by Carol Dweck. So to your point, great teachers cannot thrive in a culture of non-risk taking, where immediate results are the measure of success and where creativity is stifled. In addition, no amount of extrinsic rewards will be valuable to those who are primarily fueled by the desire to evolve in their understanding of the world and in their own being. Creativity and its companion, failure, must be permitted and actually encouraged. If the school climate doesn’t support these values the “awakened ones” will leave. (Emphasis added)


I am curious about one point, though: Is pay an intrinsic or extrinsic reward? On first thought it seems that pay is extrinsic. But I’m not so sure and I’m going on some digressions. I’m thinking about why I teach and what motivates me. I’m also going to check in with Enrique after I’ve got my own thoughts down.

Intrinsic rewards, insofar as I understand the term, develop naturally as an inherent part of the work: Doing the job is its own reward. Extrinsic rewards come from without and are not essential to the work itself.

But what about when the work itself is meaningless outside of its impact on others? The pleasure I feel in creating a lesson evaporates if it fails with students. In contrast, I won’t forget the undeserved reward I received once after I had thrown together a lesson at the last minute and a student left class, saying, “Mr. Merz, that was really interesting.”

Thinking about this from an entirely different context: If you paint a sunset at the beach, you may not care if anyone likes it because the pleasure comes from the act of creating. But what if you hang it on your wall at work and some colleagues compliment it? You may decide to give the painting to someone, and he or she is obviously touched. Is that person’s gratitude an intrinsic or extrinsic reward?

Now, having discovered that bringing pleasure to others is as rewarding as the act of creation, you create lots of paintings and decide to set up a show in the park. You may discover people will offer a nice price to take one home. Is learning that your work brings others enough pleasure that they are willing to part with their own resources to own some of it – and accepting the remuneration – an intrinsic or extrinsic part of the work?

Who among teachers has never had experiences, like a former student dropping by to say thanks for inspiring them to go to college, that touch us in our core in a way no paycheck ever could? In a way that makes us say, “That’s why I teach!”

But I’ve also been recruited, because of my expertise and particular skill set, to participate in a half day event for which I was compensated with twice my daily take home pay. I was surprised at the organization’s willingness to use its limited resources to get me and my skill into the room. And frankly, it touched me to the core in a way that no student’s gratitude ever had.

So what makes up one’s core? For me, it includes planting and nurturing the seeds of human bonds that I form on my path through life. But it’s just as much the knowledge that my life’s work is well done and matters. And each of these can only be objectively affirmed by an external source – a heartfelt expression of feelings in one case and recruitment, compensation, and promotion in another.

In spite of research, made popular by Daniel Pink in Drive, that suggests that intrinsic rewards motivate us more than extrinsic rewards, a kind word from a formal student or a nice pay day from an organization doing work I care about, inspires me to do my best, whether it’s considered intrinsic or extrinsic.

Yet, I think I’d be selling out if I did the work in search of gratitude or pay.

Years ago an engineer did a project with one of our science teachers and me. He was great with kids and could easily have become a teacher. He was tempted, too, but told me he didn’t want to give up the life-style that his high-paying job (that he loved) afforded.

Much of this reward talk feels egocentric– like it’s all about me – but I hear just as much self-centeredness, and self-righteousness too, in the tone of many who say things like, “You shouldn’t do this if you’re in it for the money!”

A phrase I like much better is Renee Moore’s, “Don’t be afraid to get paid!”

(Renee looked at a draft of this post and asked: “What about those who only teach for the paycheck? For whom it is just a job? Should we judge them, pity them, or run them out of the profession?” I’d say we should judge all teachers by how well they teach and not on their reasons for teaching. I’ve never considered that a certain approved disposition is either necessary or sufficient to good teaching. (See 7 Observations About Defining Expert Teachers.)

 Back to Enrique. I asked him if pay were an intrinsic or extrinsic reward. He wrote back:

No matter how much we may crave money, I consider pay to be an extrinsic reward. The main reward that we seek is to be in “flow”. Being in flow is an intrinsic reward. It can’t be supplied extrinsically. Flow is the exhilarating sensation of being completely wrapped up in something that you enjoy very much. This state of being has nothing to with money-it is independent of money. Of course people need to earn enough money to take care of their needs. Otherwise they don’t have the luxury of seeking flow states.

I’ll end this very long post with that, but my thinking has only begun.

I do wonder what input readers would offer to the topic. What motivates you – in the most general terms? What distinctions do you make between internal and external rewards? How actively do you pursue rewards for their own sake? How does pay figure into your calculations? And how does flow?

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