A little competition can be fun for everyone—even teachers. It can spur employees on to success, and it can help them continue to move forward. On the other hand, the wrong kind of workplace competition can strike anxiety and distress in employees. So how can we keep our competitive nature in check—and maybe even use it to our benefit?
What's Good about Competition?
Workplace competition can sometimes be inspiring. I remember when my colleague, Dianne, earned her National Board Teaching Certification. I knew how challenging the process was, and while I was happy for Dianne, I was also envious. Dianne, however, encouraged me to apply and helped me through the process. About three years after Dianne passed her boards, I passed mine.
Similarly, I remember being in awe when my fellow English teacher, Mary Ellen, published her first book. We had a book release party for her, and she signed all our copies. Her book Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults is the preeminent handbook for teaching Shakespeare to adolescents, and I vowed to also get into the writing game.
Further reading: Effective Classroom Management to Achieve Your Daily Goals
Rather than feeling inferior when your colleagues succeed, celebrate their successes. Remember the saying "a rising tide lifts all boats." Celebrating successes is a sign of a healthy, positive work environment.
Know When It's a Problem
Teachers are especially highly driven people, so it can be disconcerting when a colleague accomplishes a goal that you haven't achieved yet. If you stay at school until all hours in an attempt to outdo your coworkers, a competitive work environment is definitely the culprit. Too much competition can make teachers defensive and unhappy, and it can take a physical and mental toll.
Dan Ariely of the Wall Street Journal suggests controlling your exposure to personal comparisons "so that you don't feel inferior and you stay motivated." That may mean you need to start a new friend group at work or spend more time with the friends you have outside of school. Dan also advises to "switch water cooler talk away from workplace competition."
How to Counteract Unhealthy Competition
Some aspects of working in schools can exacerbate unhealthy competition. For example, the results of high-stakes testing means that school districts often compare teachers' test scores. Pitting teachers against one another can be especially demoralizing, since there's a great deal outside a teacher's control that can affect a student's test score. Instead of getting sucked into unfair comparisons, teachers should share best practices that lead to student success.
In addition, teachers should carefully view test scores. While the data can be helpful in improving classroom instruction, other factors—including poverty, attendance, and a student's own motivation—can impact those numbers.
According to the Harvard Business Review, "The way leaders communicate about competition can make employees experience anxiety or excitement about competing." Leaders need to invest energy into fostering excitement instead of "creating anxiety by singling out and highlighting low performers."
Administrators should be cautious in making comparisons or publicly pointing out where individual teachers have fallen short—for example, by making comparisons or publicly pointing out an individual teacher's test results. If negative competition is happening at your school, talk to your principal about how to handle this more effectively.
Remember Why You Became a Teacher
Don't let comparisons cause you to lose your focus on the job of teaching. Research says that people are less motivated by extrinsic factors like competition or rewards and more motivated by intrinsic factors—like teaching a struggling student to read or helping an at-risk student graduate.
In his TED Talk on motivation, Dan Pink discusses the research that points out that competition and rewards don't last. Administrators need to keep that in mind and realize that competition and rewards won't create behavioral changes that last. Teachers need to keep their focus on why they became teachers; helping students learn, changing lives, and changing the world.
Compete with Yourself
People can be driven to intrinsically compete with themselves. By setting their own personal goals, teachers can progress and grow without the stress of competition.
Further reading: 5 30-Day Challenge Ideas Teachers Should Try
Instead of getting caught up with what everyone else is doing, sit down, evaluate your own performance, and decide where you want to be in your career. Setting your personal goals and benchmarks can help you focus on your own performance and less on what others are doing.