Motivating K12 teachers to innovate

Leaders must fully understand everyday realities in the classroom

When school leaders want to bring innovative practices to classrooms, what’s the greatest challenge that stands in their way? Lack of funding? Inadequate in-house expertise?

According to a recent SpeakUp survey (, 46 percent of administrators point to one key factor above most others: teacher motivation.

This finding makes intuitive sense. Teaching children is no simple matter, which means we trust teachers to use professional judgment as they plan instruction.

New practices don’t make it into teachers’ lesson plans unless teachers have a compelling reason to adopt those practices.

So what motivates teachers to adopt new practices? What are the keys to getting teachers to try new tools and strategies with their students?

Today, popular ideas to motivate teachers abound—from merit pay to leadership opportunities. But to truly understand what drives teacher motivation, you need to understand teachers’ circumstances.

Understanding teachers’ ‘Jobs’

Recently, my colleagues and I released a research paper ( that draws on the Jobs to be Done Theory of motivation to uncover the factors that inspire teachers to change how they teach.

The theory—validated through decades of research across many sectors—starts with the premise that circumstances drive behaviors. Put differently, people’s goals and motivations, and what they seek out in order to meet those goals, are circumstance specific.

We call these circumstance-based goals “jobs.” Just as people hire contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build cases, people search for someone they can hire to help them when jobs arise in their lives.

Through interviewing teachers, we uncovered three jobs that often motivate them to adopt new practices. These jobs exist in teachers’ lives independent of any innovation initiative.

Job 1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this job want to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement. They often look for opportunities to serve as curriculum coaches, mentors or department chairs.

For these teachers, a compelling approach to innovation seems like a viable way to improve the school, seems straightforward enough to share with their colleagues, and offers them an opportunity to shape the direction of the program.

Job 2: Help me engage and challenge more of my students. Teachers with this job are generally confident with how teaching and learning happen. But they have a few students each year whom they struggle to reach.

They search continuously for new ideas in books, online, at conferences and among colleagues. But they only adopt innovations that seem both practical and worthwhile.

Job 3: Help me replace a broken instruction model so I can reach each student. Whether from perpetually low test scores, low graduation rates, ongoing student behavior issues or a general sense that learning lacks joy and passion, teachers with this job struggle with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students.

For these teachers, the practical, incremental innovations that appealed to teachers with jobs 1 and 2 are completely unsatisfying. They’re tired of best practices that fail to address the larger issues they face. They want novel approaches that offer a complete reset on teaching and learning.

Fulfilling teachers’ jobs

Understanding these jobs is an important first step toward setting up innovative programs for success. But how do administrators apply this understanding? Here are two suggestions.

Align new programs with relevant jobs. Because different teachers have different jobs, no innovation program can be all things to all people. Fortunately, teachers looking to lead (job 1) may find willing followers in teachers looking for manageable improvements in their day-to-day approach to instruction (job 2).

By appealing to those two common jobs, school leaders can often motivate a majority of their staff.

Busy teachers looking to fulfill job 2 don’t have time or patience for a program that demands 30 hours of professional development or that requires them to shelve the resources and strategies they’ve relied on for years.

They want practices they can use right out of the box; and they want ongoing, job-embedded support to get them through any technical difficulties that arise along the way.

But what do you do if some of your teachers are only motivated by overhauling classroom models completely (job 3)? These teachers need space to experiment, push boundaries and fail forward, often in low-stakes assignments outside of mainstream instruction—such as in elective courses, remedial courses or after-school programs.

But don’t expect these teachers to pursue breakthrough innovation while also keeping up with pacing guides, mandated curriculum and all the boxes on the teacher evaluation rubrics. Make the ultimate goals of their innovation efforts clear, but give them flexibility in the means and timeline for achieving goals.

Make latent jobs relevant. The option discussed earlier is fine if your goal for most teachers is incremental improvement. But what if you need to radically transform teaching and learning? How do you get teachers with jobs 1 or 2 to fundamentally change their practices?

Fortunately, teachers’ jobs change over time. Circumstances, not personality types, are what make a job relevant for a given teacher at a given moment. If you want more teachers to find motivation through job 3, give them experiences that let them conclude for themselves that the status quo fails their students.

For example, identify areas where students’ academic or life outcomes fall woefully short, then let those students’ stories speak for themselves. Bringing teachers to this point may take some time, but in our experience, it’s the only real way to increase their appetite for radical change.

The risk of ignoring jobs

Whereas the three jobs mentioned earlier illuminate ways to motivate instructional change, we also found a fourth job that serves as a cautionary tale. Several teachers we interviewed had jobs that amounted to “help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.”

In short, when innovation mandates came down from on high, these teachers quickly concluded the new programs were not viable solutions for any of their relevant jobs.

So they did what they needed to do to make sure they could check the appropriate boxes on their teacher evaluation rubrics. But they didn’t bother figuring out how to make the practices improve their and their students’ lives.

Across the country, school innovation tends to span a skewed distribution. At one end are the shining outliers that the field loves to point to as the future of education.

But more often than not, schools push innovation with great fanfare, only to meet lackluster results. The reasons for these failures are varied and complex.

But our research makes at least one reason clear: Leaders fail to understand the motivations of frontline teachers who must blend innovation into their day-to-day realities.

Teachers are not stubborn or lazy. Most work hard to deliver great learning experiences for their students. Thus, for innovation to work for them, it must fulfill the jobs they are trying to get done.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on disruptive innovations in K12 education and the changing roles of teachers in innovative educational models.

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