Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
West High teacher Val Gates plays a game of Jeopardy with her students in class on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017.

The annual designation of “Utah’s Teacher of the Year” invariably confers well-deserved recognition to an educator singled out for exceptional accomplishments, as is the case with this year’s honoree, West High School’s Valerie Gates. As with all who reach professional success in any endeavor, she has built a legacy of achievement premised on one motivational force — an uncommon passion for her work.

At a time when Utah struggles to recruit and retain qualified teachers and is striving to improve public education, Gates' story raises an essential question — what can the state do to harness and encourage the kind of passion that drives her and others or, conversely, what can Utah do to remove those things that might suffocate a similar fervor among current or prospective teachers?

If schools choose to look at an individual teacher’s personal drive as an essential component of success in the classroom, we may begin to look at policies that affect the profession of teaching in a different light. For example, the current tendency is to construct salaries for teachers around quantitative measurements such as levels of education and experience in certain fields. Passion is a qualitative trait not easily measured in an aptitude test or licensing exam.

Although tough to measure, there is more than anecdotal evidence that a teacher’s individual commitment is a key determinant in student achievement. A decade ago, the nonprofit Teach for America, which recruits new teachers to work for two years in low-income schools, found a correlation between student achievement and the willingness of individual teachers to go beyond the basic requirements of their job.

Specifically, the most successful educators worked to build strong alliances with their students and their families; they were constantly changing lesson plans and adapting to the levels of progress among students, individually and collectively. They spent extra hours planning lessons, even months in advance, and they worked to develop specific learning goals for each student. Those things go well beyond the baseline for teacher performance in most schools.

It’s particularly interesting to note that a common trait of passionate teachers is the desire to constantly tweak their plans, which also requires permission to exercise flexibility in the curriculum. The question then arises as to whether an institutional devotion to standardized testing may at times have a stifling effect on those teachers who would thrive in a less structured or micromanaged environment.

As for pay, those with passion for a vocation may enter it regardless of whether they see compensation levels as lacking. However, if they find themselves in a workplace where their desire to expand and innovate is somehow suppressed, with levels of monetary reward low and likely to remain low, will they stay? The data suggest many, if not most, leave. A recent report by the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah shows that 56 percent of teachers leave the job within eight years.

Connecting teacher compensation to a measurement of “passion” is not a simple undertaking. Nevertheless, education policymakers would be smart to find ways to encourage and reward that characteristic common among virtually all those who are chosen as the year’s top teacher.