Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Motivating Teachers

A colleague asked for some tips on motivating teachers for a school and district that are facing conflict and tensions.  I thought I'd collect my ideas here if it would be helpful to others. Actually, the request was simply for inspirational videos, as I have used videos in the past for motivation.

However, I thought it important to say some things about the context and culture that need to be in place for sustainable motivation to occur. Showing an inspirational video during a time of crisis may lead to temporary feelings of re-commitment or renewed energy, but we need the determination that comes from day to day motivation that can only be achieved through attention to culture over the long run.

My thoughts are based on my own experience and Daniel Pink's book Drive, which outlines the three main drivers for motivation in the knowledge worker economy.  Those drivers are Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy.


In order to motivate teachers, it's critical to reconnect them with the goal of our work.  This is not a difficult task.  It's not like we're selling vacuum cleaners.  What teachers do every day is, without question, life changing and transformational even on an ordinary day.  Videos and discussion about the purpose of learning will reengage teachers with their initial calling to work with children.  More importantly, the day to day actions of leaders must be congruent with the goal of improving learning opportunities for all students.

Leaders need to ask, What is the purpose of our school?

Sometimes, it's best to let the kids start the conversation. Adora Svitak can get them to see What Adults Can Learn from Kids

and teachers can answer the question Do you Believe in Me, by Dalton Sherman.

Furthermore, Rita Pierson will remind teachers,  Because Every Kid Needs a Champion.

If you are rethinking your school mission, vision, or purpose, you may want to watch Simon Sinek's excellent talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

While working on purpose, one must focus on the future and not the past. Opportunities for new learning are everywhere.  Get your staff thinking about kids,  while imagining and creating an amazing future together.

Maybe you want to discuss Dan Meyer's Math Class Needs a Makeover

or Ken Robinson's provocative How Schools kill Creativity.

You could also read Seth Godin's treatise on Stop Stealing Dreams: What is school for?.  Some of his ideas will anger or frustrate but they will get your teachers talking about the future of schooling and encourage them to band together to write their own story for their students.


Everyone who shows up for work wants to be known for excellence.  Leaders can create the environment where excellence can thrive.  You need to embrace the growth mindset, which says that everyone can learn. Leaders should highlight existing strengths within their staff and elevate teachers to lead the learning.  Teachers should be encouraged to share their best work by blogging and sharing through other social media streams.

Leaders need to ask. How can I create a school where adults and students are always learning?

There are so many examples of individuals who have overcome struggles to achieve great things.  I always get emotional when I see the story of Jason McElwain, the autistic basketball manager who finally gets in a game and then ... well, you'll just have to watch it.

Of course, some athletes achieve greatness because of their God given abilities but hard work is still needed especially when it comes to other areas of their life. This decorated and famous University of Georgia football player was a highly sought out recruit who decided to become a great reader too.

Everyone wants to work in an environment where they have the tools, collegial relationships, and encouragement to produce their best work.  Leaders who inspire provide all the ingredients necessary for mastery to occur.  They provide clear and explicit targets with lots of timely feedback that helps every learner in the school learn and grow.  There is great satisfaction in mastering something that beforehand seemed impossible or out of reach.  Teachers are motivated when they are improving in their craft and they see the fruit of their mastery in the lives of students.


Finally, when teachers take ownership of their learning to improve their craft, they will be highly motivated to do the work that lies before them.  There is no one who will eagerly pursue rote implementation of programs and curriculum that are handed down from the state, district, or even the Principal.  Teachers should be deeply involved in the development of the course of action at a school as well as its implementation.  Do you want motiavted teachers?   Give them a voice.  Give them choice.  Give them "autonomy" to define how they accomplish the goals you have set for your school.

You can do this in any number of ways.  Leadership, grade level, and course alike teams are all vehicles through which teachers can chart a course (with guidelines of course) that make sense to them and allow them to define their reality.  In Ed Catmull's excellent book Creativity Inc he describes the feedback that directors receive on their films from a group called The Braintrust.  Although The Braintrust gave many suggestions, ideas, and feedback, ultimately it was the director  of the film alone who was tasked with choosing from all of these suggestions to modify and adapt the film based on the feedback.  Teachers need that same structure and power if they are to be motivated to pursue excellence  in the classroom every day.

Leaders need to ask the question. What structures and processes can I create so that you can do your work better?

So, if you want to motivate teachers to create schools where students AND adults can flourish, then by all means, show some video!  However, you also need to commit to doing the work every day that builds the kind of environment where motivation is ongoing and sustainable.

What other ideas do you have for motivating teachers?

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