Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Yesterday, I had the chance to have a longer chat with a fulltime student-teacher. As is my usual practice, I probed into her reason for aspiring to become a teacher. She revealed that she majored in accountancy in undergraduate studies. Upon graduation, she started to work in the accounting department of a company for a year, but after going through 365 days of real-life accounting practices, she realised that the nature of the job did not match her personality traits, or her aspirations in life. She wanted to work with people, not figures and balance sheets. More importantly, she needed to see meaning in what she was doing, and have something to be passionate about. She recalled the sense of satisfaction that she had had when she was a private tutor – the sense of achievement she derived from succeeding in teaching her tutees something new or difficult. She admitted that she did not need to worry about career prospects if she stayed in the accounting profession. Nevertheless, she quit her job, and applied to the teacher education programme to train as a teacher.

In a way, her story is not breaking news to me, as from time to time, I come across a student who has switched to teacher training from another field. These student teachers share one inclination – they wish to find meaning in what they do. I am often awed by their sense of vocation, but deep down, I am also worried. The ecology of the school as a workplace has changed so dramatically in recent years that not every part of a teacher’s day-to-day work has to do with educating young people. Students are not always easy to teach, and parents can be difficult to deal with. The workload is backbreaking. These energetic, angelic, and unsuspecting young adults have chosen to become teachers because they wish to find meaning in what can be a lifelong career. But one day, will they regret their decision, when they are facing the harsh realities of teaching day in and day out?

I still believe that it is possible to experience meaning in teaching today, but one has to possess a will of iron, superhuman EQ and AQ, and a triathlon runner’s physique.

In my teenage days when poverty was commonplace in HK, extrinsic rewards such as pay and promotion prospects were the only consideration when people chose between jobs. Today, this student teacher’s story, and that of some of her peers, perhaps point to one aspect of human nature – that deep down, we yearn to find meaning in what we do. This is probably what Maslow refers to as self-actualisation.

In the context of work, why is it that more and more people act like robots in the workplace, and will only liven up on weekends? Why do more and more people want to retire early? On the other hand, why are there the few lucky ones who jump right out of bed in the morning and dash to the workplace with endless energy to start another day of challenge, and who don’t think of work as work? In “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel H. Pink, a writer on transforming work and workplaces, identifies and examines 3 elements that lead to true motivation for staffers: (1) Autonomy, (2) Mastery, and (3) Purpose. Thus:

(1) Autonomy: In our jobs, we need to have some space for planning and handling how we go about what we do. If all the time, we can only follow a routine, like when we are required to follow, slavishly, lesson plans that are thrust on us, we won’t be very excited about our lessons. Hence, bosses who micro-manage may get their staffs’ obedience, but not their initiative. (2) Mastery: the work needs to be designed in such a way that it enables us to do a better and better job. This is the satisfaction that devoted master teachers get. If what we do is forever repetitive, we won’t have much zest about it. (3) Purpose: We need to see purpose in what we do. Otherwise, sooner or later, we feel disillusioned – What am I doing all this for? This, to me, is why some people turn to teaching – they want to see purpose in what they do.

Hence, to my wonderful student teachers, this is what I wish to say to you. I salute you for your desire to educate young people and to do something meaningful in your life. I have to caution you, though, against romanticising teaching. Some years into your teaching when you have the chance to reconnect with former students and witness their growth, or when they have a heart-to-heart conversation with you on FB, you will be pleased that you have done something meaningful in your life. Be prepared though, that much of everyday teaching is about fighting battles of various kinds. And there WILL be times when you wonder whether you made the right decision some years ago.

How to keep up your passion? Here is one suggestion. Look out for those people in your group who are as passionate about teaching as you. Continue to stick with them after your teacher training year and meet up with them once in a while. Your passion for teaching will then continue to rub off on each other.

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