What motivates teachers: The importance of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

During the summer (and last night), whenever I had a reunion gathering with my former students, I would make a point of asking them how they were experiencing their work. Are they enjoying their teaching? Or are they feeling frustrated and burned out? Why?

Their answers directly and indirectly confirm what Dan Pink has identified as the three most crucial factors for motivation in the workplace: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. (“Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us”.) Now, let me exemplify these factors with the teachers’ experiences, beginning with the last factor.

PURPOSE: In order to sustain motivation at work, people need to see the purpose of what they are doing. In education, we also refer to that as ‘meaning’: What is the meaning of my work as a teacher? Theoretically, compared with other jobs and professions which deal with non-human materials or matters, teaching should be a job that is easier for practitioners to find meaning. After all, we are dealing with young people, and there is the potential for us to make a difference in their lives. However, if teachers have to spend excessive amounts of time on non-teaching duties which have nothing to do with educating young people, such as organising events that only aim to raise publicity for the school, attending long and tedious meetings that lead to nowhere, and having to give students tons of mechanical homework and then marking them equally mechanically, they begin to wonder: “What am I doing all this for?” I may be exceptionally pessimistic, or cynical, but what I have been seeing in the last ten years or so is that some schools are forgetting what they exist for. They are not reflecting enough on purpose when formulating policies or engaging in day-to-day activities.

MASTERY: For teachers to keep up their passion, they need to feel that they are becoming better and better at what they are doing – designing lessons, classroom management, dealing with problem students, etc. For this to happen, they need enough time to concentrate on the professional aspects of their work, such as planning effective lessons, creating interesting learning resources, and participating in professional development activities. I call this ‘feeling professional’. Teachers need to have a sense of pride in their work. Today, teachers have to possess all the requisite professional qualifications before they can become fully qualified teachers. Yet, sometimes these professional qualifications are flaunted on the school website simply to boost the school’s image, and are not tapped into in school cultures that do not emphasise and value good teaching and superb professionalism. If all that teachers can do is donkey work, they will lose their passion in teaching sooner or later.

Autonomy: Teachers need some space where they can exercise their professional decisions. Of course, there should be a degree of common ground between what teachers (e.g., of the same grade level teaching the same subject) do. But unifying or monitoring what teachers teach, or do, to the point where they simply follow some plans designed by others to the letters will do more harm than good in keeping up their initiative and creativity (if these are still treasured by school administrators). Sir Ken Robinson has asserted again and again that for teachers to thrive, what they need is support, not control. For me, it is particularly disheartening to hear stories about how some school administrators, on receiving complaints from parents who are not well-informed about pedagogical theories or the rationales behind teachers’ policies and classroom management practices, impose their own wishes on the teachers, just to appease the parents. Why don’t they instead explain to parents the school’s pedagogical practices and urge them to trust the teachers? After all, we are professionals in education!

Related to autonomy is the concept of trust. Those of my former students who have reported that they are enjoying their work, or are at least finding part of their work rewarding, highlight trust by the school administrator as the crucial factor why they don’t mind sacrificing much of their own time and why they are more than willing to go the extra mile in performing their duties.

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Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose – these are what make teachers go out of their way to do great things for the students, and for their school!

DRIVE: The Summaries

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