Negative Rewards for Positive Behaviors

Article excerpt

The Paradox of Our Profession

We educators have perpetuated a practice that works against the excellence we say we want in our schools, the authors point out. We can continue on our course and reap the consequences, or we can reverse course and rethink the preparation of administrators.

In reflecting on and discussing our experiences in public schools over a combined total of 50 years of teaching and administrative service, we realized that we both continue to be amazed by a curious feature of the education profession that educators know about and frequently discuss - but continue to perpetuate nonetheless. Whether engaged in deliberately or not, the act of negatively rewarding the most dedicated and successful professionals in our public schools is an all too common practice.

In business and industry, men and women who perform in ways that draw positive attention are usually recognized for their work and given monetary rewards and/or promotions to higher-level positions. In education, outstanding teachers and administrators are often rewarded with extra duties, responsibilities, and assignments - some of which are less than desirable. While we all know that this happens, we do not end the practice. It is as if we believe that such actions won't undermine the very quality and excellence we so desperately need and publicly seek in our educational institutions. But a small study we conducted suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.

In a recent study at Western Illinois University in Macomb, teachers and administrators seeking advanced degrees and certification were asked several questions on a survey designed to determine their perceptions regarding the practice of being negatively rewarded for their positive behaviors. The questions were structured to ascertain whether the respondents thought negative rewards truly existed, whether they thought they had ever been negatively rewarded, whether and to what extent such a reward system affected their performance, and whether they thought there was a solution to the problem. The respondents were also asked to share their experiences and to comment on the subject.

The percentage of both teachers and administrators who said that they had experienced negative rewards for their positive behaviors was alarmingly high: more than 78% of the teachers and more than 85% of administrators. Teachers reported that they received negative rewards that included larger classes, more students with behavior problems, more duties and responsibilities (e.g., monitoring study halls or the lunchroom), and more committee assignments. Administrators stated that their negative rewards included more responsibilities (e.g., chairing committees or overseeing special projects), more calls to play the role of mediator, more duties (e.g., supervising extracurricular activities or the lunchroom), and more work without more pay.

One piece of data that emerged from our study has far-reaching implications for public school administrators. Teachers reported that, at first, the negative rewards they received had positive effects. The teachers described feelings of increased self-esteem and pride. After a short time, however, these same teachers indicated that they felt used, burned out, angry, resentful, and frustrated. They viewed the continuation of negative rewards as backhanded praise and began to question their career choice. They noted that their personal standards of performance slipped as well.

Administrators reported a more positive response for a longer period of time - but eventually they, too, felt emotions similar to those described by the teachers. They began to feel disillusioned, hurt, depressed, irritated, and angry. Their work slowed down, and they felt alienated from the staff and faculty. The administrators in our study were predominantly principals in elementary or secondary schools. …