Rewarding the Brain for Great Teaching

decison in brain-based learning

Kimberly, a veteran teacher, has to make a big decision at the end of this school year. She’s either going to “re-up” and stay another year, or quit her job and seek another teaching job elsewhere. I am going to describe her work in a minute. But go ahead and put yourself in her shoes and ask yourself, “What would you do?”

First of all, Kimberly’s (I have changed her name; this is a true story) classroom kids all come from poverty. Every one of them has home issues, some have disabilities and all of them were struggling every year in school until this year.

Yet, her students alone outscored ALL other students on district-wide assessments by more than 25% points on average and 100% of her students passed their state-mandated and school mandated exams. In short, she is an “over the top, amazing teacher.” Many would call her an “irreplaceable asset.”

She has spent her entire 15-year teaching career actively seeking out schools where the students need her most, and her current school is one of the lowest-performing schools in the area.

So, what is the big decision that Kimberly, an amazing teacher, has to make at the end of this school year? It’s simple; “Should I stick around this school another year or not?”

Will her brain focus on the rewards of seeing how well her kids do, and decide to stay? Or, will she walk out the front door, never to set foot in her school again, leaving every future class of kids at that school without her amazing presence? And how much does guilt or regret (of not leaving or staying in a job) play into the decision?

The Research

Rewarding behaviors in the workplace has been well-studied for almost a hundred years. It’s not simple, either.

Let’s start with the upside. A recent study on dopamine hints at an answer. When we get the “rewards” in our brain (e.g. when dopamine is released), it also primes the body for action (Saddoris MP, Sugam JA, Cacciapaglia F, Carelli RM. 2013). In a classroom, when a teacher feels successful, it fosters more energy and action. When kids improve and the teacher feels excited, it prompts even more energy. Now the brain associates pleasure with the physical location, environmental cues and the people around us.

But the reverse is also true.

Now for the downside story. If things go badly in your classroom, now your brain associates pain with the physical location, environmental cues and the people around you.

When we’re constantly not meeting the challenge, only the most highly resilient teacher will get more determined to improve. Many teachers start feeling disillusioned and even depressed when the students don’t do well. They can become overwhelmed with guilt and/or depression. This is a critical outcome because guilt (regret with social consequences) is very counterproductive for future improvements. Those who feel guilt easily make more future low risk choices to avoid those bad feelings (Wagner U, Handke L, Dörfel D, Walter H. 2012). This is a problem for teachers, since most of the top teachers are taking on risks on daily basis.

The research on teacher retention is pretty clear. Most typical “rewards” for teachers don’t work. Some school administrators have relied almost exclusively on short-term incentives such as cash rewards, prizes, and promotions for improved test scores. The research shows that these have minimal (but not zero) effect (Hanushek, E. A., J. F. Kain, and S. G. Rivkin. 1999).

Why do public schools lose good teachers?

There is a hierarchy, a nearly vertical list of “deal-breakers” and “deal-makers.” Not surprisingly, for most (but not all) teachers, money is not in the top three. And more than 25 percent of teachers in schools scoring in the bottom quartile of achievement leave their schools each year (Hanushek, E. A., J. F. Kain, and S. G. Rivkin. 2001). But in essence, the list is the same for staying or leaving; it’s just reversed. Good environment or bad environment at school? That’s an easy decision for whether to stay or not.

PART TWO: Applications and Contributions

Let’s “flesh out” each of the studies listed above. This is fairly easy to do. High-poverty schools (like Kimberley’s school above), that also are good at retaining strong teachers, do the following:

  1. have a safe, orderly, welcoming and respectful school environment
  2. provide ongoing support for teachers; timely materials, supplies and curriculum
  3. the principals are strong instructional leaders and advocates
  4. the principals give huge amounts of actionable feedback to teachers, both affirming and corrective
  5. the principals delegate authority, give teachers more opportunities at school to develop themselves (with job-embedded professional development and improved leadership skills)
  6. encourage collaborative opportunities at all levels (staff, parents and experts)

I’m sure you could add to this list above, but it’s insightful (Olson 2003). In short, there’s an uncanny connection to the human brain’s hierarchy (safety first, followed by social support, academic support and support of aspirations). When a teacher is satisfied that the working conditions of his/her school provides them with the support they need to teach well, they are more likely to stay.

Ultimately, it is emotions that make the decision, even more than the pocketbook (you and I know there are exceptions). But it’s how we feel that is what’s real to us.

Ultimately, will Kimberly stay? There are two potential pathways.

PATH 1: Here’s what happens WAY too often. Kimberly walks into the principal’s office. She announces she is resigning, and the principal says nothing and just signs the paperwork. The principal says nothing about the teacher or the kids, about the school or the future.

PATH 2: (Hint, if you’re an administrator, say this to her before the year is up) “Kimberly, all I hear are good things from your kids. All I see in the data are high scores. You are amazing and I want you to stay. What can I do to keep you here next year?” That one positive interaction just bumped up the odds that Kimberly will stay.

You see, all of us want the same things in life. Once we can live safely, put food on the table and have some health (e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy), we want to be appreciated. We want to feel important and even special.

Is there someone in your life that you need to appreciate today? Is there someone that is special to you, but they need to hear it?

Hanushek, E. A., J. F. Kain, and S. G. Rivkin. 1999. “Do Higher Salaries Buy Better Teachers?” Working Paper 7082, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.
Hanushek, E. A., J. F. Kain, and S. G. Rivkin. 2001. “Why Public Schools Lose Teachers.” Working Paper 8599, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.
Saddoris MP, Sugam JA, Cacciapaglia F, Carelli RM. (2013) Rapid dopamine dynamics in the accumbens core and shell: Learning and action. Front Biosci. 5:273-88.
Useem, E. 2003. “The Retention and Qualifications of New Teachers in Philadelphia’s High-Poverty Middle Schools: A Three-Year Cohort Study.” Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Eastern Sociological Society, Philadelphia, PA. March 1.
Wagner U, Handke L, Dörfel D, Walter H. (2012). An Experimental Decision-Making paradigm to Distinguish Guilt and Regret and Their Self-Regulating Function via Loss Averse Choice Behavior. Front Psychol. 3:431.

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