During graduate school, I spent two years learning from a professor who didn’t believe in extrinsic rewards. She didn’t provide positive affirmations but instead gave detailed evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of each assignment. I deliberately selected the Evergreen State College because of the non-conventional approach to education and the absence of “grades.” It surprised me then when I became anxious about each assignment and I felt terrible about the work I submitted. I was shocked when my professor asked another student to look at my paper as an example because the red ink covering the pages had convinced me that I didn’t meet her expectations.
One night I had a vivid dream that I received all “A”s on my transcripts. I woke up happier than I had felt in months with a deep sense of security from within. Then I realized that it was only a dream. In reality, I had a full-page narrative for each class, which used evaluative words for every assignment, such as, excellent, good, or the dreaded, “adequate.” At the end of two years of intense work, one day my professor said, “Your thesis paper was the best I read all weekend.” I ran to give her a hug, nearly knocking her over. Despite her efforts, I still craved words of praise!
I didn’t realize at the time that my professor was trying to recondition me. She wanted me to develop an ability to accurately evaluate myself and to not rely on the positive feedback from those around me. Although to many this may seem cruel, I believe that her training was vital to my current ability to be successful.
My professor was preparing me for a battle. To learn how to be a non-traditional teacher, I also needed to learn not to rely on the support of the traditional teachers around me, who may or may not agree with my methods. My professor was training me to be an independent teacher, who could resist pressure to resort to brainless test-preparation and rote-memorization skills. She wanted me to be able to remain firm in my commitment to become a teacher who will teach students the critical thinking skills they need to survive in the world outside of the classroom.
To be a strong teacher, I also needed to understand how to evaluate myself. Teachers do not have bosses monitoring every assignment they give to students. I would only have my students’ performance as an indication of whether or not my methods were effective. To be successful, I needed to be self-reliant, self-aware, and self-critical.
As it turned out, I haven't spend the past nine years since graduation as a full-time classroom teacher. However, the skill of being self-reflective has been equally important in my work for large organizations, which had different goals and objectives for my position than I did. Yet to me it didn’t matter as long as my employers still allowed me to follow my vision and achieve my goals. I didn’t do my work for the sake of my employer. I worked because I believed that my position made a valuable difference in the communities I worked with.
I am still grateful when I receive positive affirmation. Yet, deep down I know that I do not need it to stay focused on achieving my objectives. My secure belief that I am making a positive difference is enough reward for me!
This video I recently watched reminded me of the factors that drive and motivate me and how truly important this intrinsic motivation is!