By Kevin Perks, Director of School and District Services with WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team. This article first appeared in the LEAF Subscription for Professional Learning in 2014. It has been updated and is posted here with permission.
“What about us?”
Previously, a teacher participant in a workshop I was giving on student motivation asked this question. After learning about a variety of practices and strategies designed to foster a positive culture of learning and engagement among students, the teacher wondered if similar approaches would help improve morale and motivation among their teaching colleagues. The teacher continued: “What good is it to try and motivate our students if we are exhausted and unmotivated ourselves?”
Since that workshop, I have continued to think about how to apply what is known about motivation to engage and energize teachers. Although a great deal has been written about how to motivate students, much less has been written on motivation as it relates to the adults who teach them. Nonetheless, one of the main objectives of educational leaders is to build and maintain an educational leaders’ staff of motivated, expert teachers. Data suggest this is no easy task.
In one report on teacher attrition prior to the pandemic, the Alliance for Excellent Education (Haynes, 2014) estimated that high-poverty schools (many of which are in urban or rural settings) lose about one fifth of their teaching personnel on a yearly basis. The data was worse for teachers within their first five years in the profession, with forty to fifty percent leaving teaching within that time frame.
More recently a RAND survey (Steiner and Woo, 2021) found that nearly a quarter of teachers indicated the desire to leave teaching at the end of the school year. Based on data like this, what can school and district leaders do to leverage the motivation of staff to create a positive climate in which teachers are excited to remain in the profession and stay eager to work with students and colleagues?
This blog post offers ideas that can help school and district leaders to boost motivation and morale among teachers and other personnel. It briefly explores what is known about motivation and then describes four practices that educational leaders can use to leverage the motivation that already exists among their staff. The article concludes with an example of how leaders can combine all four practices within a single approach.
What Is Motivation?
Over the past few decades, researchers’ understanding of motivation has evolved. Some of the earliest theories of motivation described it as a drive that came from an individual. You either had it or you didn’t. A common metaphor for this type of motivation was the gas tank. If a person could “fill up” their gas tank, the person would become more motivated. Subsequent theories of motivation considered motivation to be a product of the environment. Much like in a garden, if the right conditions were created, a person’s motivation would increase or grow. In contrast, more recent theories suggest that while the self and environment play a role, motivation is more complicated.
According to more recent thinking, the levels of motivation that individuals exhibit result from a dynamic interaction between individuals, the tasks they are engaged in, and the environment within which they are engaged (e.g., Hickey & Zuiker, 2005; Farrell et al, 2021). For example, although a person may be unmotivated to complete a specific task, they may become more motivated if their interests shift or if the nature of the task is modified, the context is adjusted, or other people who are also involved in the work change.
A useful metaphor is that of a river’s current (Middleton & Perks, 2014). Although it fluctuates, there is always a current in a river—even if it is hidden below the surface. This metaphor conveys that idea that individuals are always motivated; it is the task of leaders to tap into this energy and keep it flowing to accomplish what needs to be done. With the right tools and planning, leaders can harness this energy to create learning and work environments that exhibit greater engagement and higher morale. Fortunately, a wide body of research provides insights into ways that leaders can maximize the motivation among personnel.
How Can Leaders Harness Motivation Among Personnel?
The belief that motivation is a result of the dynamic interplay among individuals, the context, and the work being engaged in provides leaders with a variety of means through which to improve the motivational climate of a school. The following are four practices leaders can use to harness the motivation among their staff. Each is described in brief detail with some suggested strategies for implementing them.
- Promote teacher voice and decision-making
- Make tasks meaningful by connecting them to teaching and learning
- Support success on challenging tasks
- Provide opportunities for meaningful collaboration
Promote Teacher Voice and Decision-Making
One of the most robust findings from research on motivation is that individuals tend to feel more motivated when they perceive themselves as having autonomy (e.g., Farris-Berg & Diswager, 2012; Ingersol et al, 2018). In other words, individuals are more motivated when they perceive that they have the power to make decisions that impact what they do and how they work. Unfortunately, leaders sometimes miss opportunities to empower personnel in schools. A common example is in professional development offerings. Too often, teachers are given little to no voice in determining the types of staff development opportunities that would be the most valuable to them.
In contrast, some school leaders do encourage teacher choice in professional development. In one school, the principal asked staff to analyze student achievement data to determine areas of practice that could benefit from improvement. After the staff generated a list, the principal designed a flexible approach to professional development that addressed many of the topics staff had identified.
Teachers had the opportunity to go to workshops, participate in book groups, or receive training from outside experts, and were given flexibility to work before or after school. For some topics, the staff recognized that there were already experts on staff, so the principal also created opportunities for staff to teach their colleagues.
Make Tasks Meaningful by Connecting Them to Teaching and Learning
Individuals tend to be more motivated to engage in work they find meaningful (Eccles & Wigfield, 2020). Although there are myriad factors that make activities meaningful, two common factors are interest and value. An activity will be more meaningful if it connects to an individual’s interests and/or has a connection to something the person values. Leaders can increase the level of meaningfulness of teachers’ work by striving to make sure most activities that a teacher engages in connect to teaching and learning. In other words, the more a task connects to what a teacher teaches (interest) or helps to improve teaching practice (value), the more likely the teacher is to perceive the task as meaningful and the more likely the teacher is to be motivated to engage in the task.
There are a variety of actions leaders can take to increase the meaningfulness of the work teachers engage in. First, it may be helpful to assess what is currently being expected from teachers. It is often the case that educators have more to do than time permits. This is particularly true for teachers. Leaders can work to make sure the primary tasks teachers are responsible for have strong connections to student learning.
Another strategy is to encourage teachers to set their own learning goals. It is important that these goals, once set, do not sit on a shelf but are used to shape professional development and collaborative work time. To influence motivation, teachers actively assess their progress by routinely reflecting on their goals and measuring their growth and outcomes.
Support Success on Challenging Tasks
One of the more confusing elements of motivation is the role of challenge. Research and experience strongly suggest that challenge has the potential to be a very powerful motivator (Schunk & Pajares, 2005; van der Kooij and Hennink, 2021). For example, consider times when you were very motivated and deeply engaged in an activity or task. It is likely that most, if not all, of the experiences had a significant element of challenge. The reason is that when someone overcomes a challenge, they feel as if they have done something meaningful. However, the difficult part of challenge is that individuals need to also feel as if they have the capacity to succeed at the task. If a task is perceived to be too hard or even too easy, motivation can quickly wane. This is true for learners of all ages.
Most of the tasks that educators engage in are inherently challenging. Unfortunately, there tends to not be enough support provided to ensure success on challenging tasks. An example is with creating assessments. Leaders often ask teachers to develop end-of-unit assessments or performance tasks to measure student learning of standards, and these are often high-stakes tests. However, most teachers have had minimal training on how to design valid and reliable assessments. Asking them to develop high-stakes assessments without appropriate training puts them in an extremely difficult situation, one in which they are likely to fail unless given support. Thus, some actions leaders can take to improve motivation among personnel are to identify the more challenging aspects of teachers’ current work, make sure teachers have the training and support to do what they are being asked to do, and provide enough time for them to practice and become competent.
Keep in mind that much of what works for school-aged students also works for adult learners. Just as it would not be good practice to ask students to do something complicated without giving them the opportunity to explore, instructing them in how to do it, and letting them practice in order to develop mastery, the same is the case for working with teachers as adult learners.
Provide Opportunities for Meaningful Collaboration
A fourth element of motivation, which can have a positive impact on morale among staff members, relates to the relationships and social connections that people make or strengthen through working collaboratively (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2002; Durksen et al, 2017)). Think about the most motivating activities you have previously participated in as an educator. Probably many of these were collaborative endeavors. While people can easily be motivated to engage in independent tasks, motivation often increases when there are added opportunities to work with others, particularly with people you care about.
Given the role relationships can play in accessing motivation and fostering a positive culture and climate, leaders should provide or promote opportunities that foster positive collaboration among staff members. However, relationships can be tricky. Once again, just like with students, simply putting educators together does not guarantee successful interactions. Thus, it is helpful to give individuals choices about who they work with and when.
In addition, collaboration is most successful when norms and working agreements have been established, the tasks are as clearly defined as possible, there is expert facilitation with clear protocols, and the work has structure that is appropriate to the task.
A Powerful Approach
Many school and district leaders create innovative ways to tap into all four elements of motivation. One of the most successful approaches I have seen is to provide teachers with routine opportunities to engage in collaborative professional development. Within this approach, school leaders establish routine times when teams of teachers can work together in small professional learning communities (PLCs). The leaders provide the PLCs with a set of protocols or processes they can use to support a range of collaborative work, and leaders make sure that each team has at least one member who has facilitation skills and is trained in using protocols.
The protocols often include processes for planning or tuning units and lessons, designing or validating assessments, analyzing videos of instruction, or analyzing student work or data. Such collaborative professional development is very successful at tapping into motivation and boosting morale because it provides teachers with a wide range of choice, and it is highly meaningful and directly focused on instruction and learning. The skilled facilitation and protocols support success on these challenging aspects of teaching. Such highly collaborative work builds a positive culture by routinely engaging teachers in important tasks that improve their practice.
A high level of motivation is not just important for students—it is equally essential for teachers and all personnel who support student learning. Leaders must be deliberate in trying to build and maintain high levels of motivation among staff. When successful at doing this, schools become places where all individuals thrive and enjoy working. When less successful, morale and achievement can suffer.
Leaders can use the following prompts to begin considering strategies to leverage the four motivation practices previously described.
- To what extent are you encouraging educators to make decisions that impact their work and learning?
- To what extent are you building meaningfulness by connecting work to teaching and learning?
- To what extent are you building capacity and supporting success on challenging tasks?
- To what extent are you providing opportunities for meaningful collaboration?
It can be helpful to periodically review these questions and discuss them with colleagues. Particularly when morale may be waning among staff, use these questions to generate ideas that can enhance motivation. Over time, as these four practices become commonplace, everyone from the students to staff may benefit as motivation improves.
Kevin Perks is Director of School and District Services in WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team. He leads a team that provides coaching and consulting to schools, districts, and state departments of education around school improvement, literacy, standards-based curriculum, instruction, assessment, motivation and engagement, professional learning communities (PLCs), and teacher effectiveness. Perks has written articles for a range of magazines and journals. He is co-author of Motivation to Learn: Transforming Classroom Culture to Support Student Achievement.
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