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Professional Opinion

Two keys to motivating teachers

Educators must value their work and expect success
Barbara Blackburn is one of the nation’s foremost authors on student engagement and increasing rigor. Ronald Williamson is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University.
Barbara Blackburn is one of the nation’s foremost authors on student engagement and increasing rigor. Ronald Williamson is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University.

Is there a motivation problem with teachers in your district? If so, you’re not alone. It’s a common problem, particularly once the school year is under way and there are multiple demands on teacher time.

What can we do to maintain high levels of motivation? While many people respond to external pressure to get things done, the most success comes when teachers are intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by two foundational elements: People are more motivated when they value what they are doing and when they believe that they will be successful.

Showing connections

Teachers we work with have one burning question: “How can I immediately use this information?”

Adult learners juggle multiple demands, and must prioritize their activities and their attention based on how well something meets their immediate needs. Too often, there is no clear link between learning and the importance of application. Teachers are more engaged in learning when they see a useful connection to their work.

Hands-on learning also provides more value. Teachers are generally more motivated by doing something than they are by sitting in a lecture.

They are also more motivated when they have been involved in the design and structure of new learning. Rather than simply planning a new initiative, administrators should involve teachers at an early stage in thinking about the adoption of new techniques and how they might be implemented.

Finally, teachers value their relationships, with you and their colleagues. The old adage “they don’t care what you know until they know how much you care” is as true for teachers as it is for students. Teachers need to feel liked, cared for and respected by their leaders. Most teachers need the same from their peers.

When teachers feel isolated from other teachers and from you, they are disengaged and less likely to see value in what they are doing.

Expecting effectiveness

Confidence in successful outcomes also motivates teachers. And that belief emerges from three factors: the level of challenge, prior experience and encouragement from others.

First, the gap between the difficulty of an activity and a teacher’s skill level is a major factor in self-motivation.

Imagine that you enjoy playing soccer and you have the chance to compete in a local game. You will play against Lionel Messi, named world player of the year four times in six years. How do you feel? In that situation, there’s plenty of opportunity for challenge, but perhaps too much challenge.

This is where professional development is helpful. When implementing a new initiative or instructional strategy, be sure to provide the appropriate support to improve each individual’s skill level.

A teacher’s experiences are also a consideration. For example, a teacher is more likely to believe they can be successful implementing a new grouping strategy if they’ve already used small groups successfully in their classroom. On the other hand, if a teacher continually struggles with behavioral issues during group work, they are less likely to try the new strategy.

A third contributor to feelings of success is the encouragement a teacher gets from others. When you encourage, you accept teachers as they are, so they will accept themselves. A leader can help a teacher realize that things that don’t work are opportunities for continued learning.

Value and success

As you make improvements in your district, it’s important for teachers to be motivated to participate and to implement changes. Although extrinsic motivation—such as rewards and evaluation protocols—may help, they are not nearly as effective as creating a district culture where teachers, and other employees, are intrinsically motivated.

Tapping into value and success are two effective ways to build that intrinsic motivation.

Barbara R. Blackburn is a nationally recognized consultant and author in the areas of instructional rigor, motivation and instruction. She can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com. Ron Williamson is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University. He may be reached at rwilliams1@emich.edu.