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.


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


When a school exists simply to please the parents …

Today’s article by Tsip Tsao (To Kit) in Apple Daily will resonate with many teachers in Hong Kong. He is talking about how many teachers in Hong Kong easily give in to unreasonable parents, and do not stand by their professional duties and judgments. One can accuse Tsao of not being sympathetic enough with teachers (unlike me, haha), but at least his article points to the difficult situation that teachers are often facing in their dealing with parents.

When I was a schoolboy, teachers were like little gods. They could not only scold the students in front of their parents, they could even reprimand the parents at the same time. Now, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Parents often not only fail to give teachers the respect they deserve; they treat teachers as service industry staff whose primary duty is to serve them and their children to their satisfaction. (Of course, not all parents are like this. But just a few of them in one class are enough headaches for the teacher and the school.)

What has caused this to happen? Is it the excessive push for accountability in school management? Is it the falling birthrate that has made survival the top priority for some schools and teachers? Is it the pervasive ethos of complaints in Hong Kong? Is it the growing consumer mentality among some parents? Is it becaue of the expanding middle class who are obsessed with their ‘rights’? This is not the place to embark on a sociological investigation of what has led to the present situation. But I AM concerned that some schools are giving in to parents’ unjustified complaints and requests too easily, and thus abandoning their educational role too quickly. (Of course, I have heard grievances from people in other fields about the arrogance or indifference of the schools their children are attending in communicating with them, and sometimes I can’t help thinking that there is an element of truth in what they are saying. But that’s another story.)

As a former teacher, and currently a teacher educator and a parent, I think the scenario depicted by Tsao in his article is unfortunate and unwarranted. It doesn’t have to be like that. But teachers often find themselves caught in the middle: they have to handle complaints from parents, and at the same time, they are employees and have to be mindful of the boss’s position. This is why the stance of the principal is important. Surely we shouldn’t be defensive, but if the principal sides with parents no matter what, then there’s little that teachers can do.

If parents do not do their part properly, and complain unjustifiably, schools should take a stand, and insist on what is educationally desirable. Schools should treat parents as educational partners, but schools are not commercial establishments and their top priority is not to please the parents. The principal’s attitude is the most crucial. If the message they give to teachers is: “As long as you’re discharging your duties based on your best professional judgment, I will support you. If parents complain, I will take the opportunity to educate them, too” … If that is the message that principals are giving to teachers, it will be a very different story. If however the message is: “The parents are our bosses; let’s not offend them”, well, what can teachers do?

I still believe that a school can’t win parents’ respect simply by pleasing them. By standing by our educational principles, we may lose a couple of parents in the short run and this might threaten some schools’ survival, but these are unreasonable adults anyway. For the majority of parents, if we are patient enough, they will come to revere schools that show themselves to be run on educational principles. The more we do back flips to simply please parents, the more they will disrespect schools. Isn’t this simple human nature?


Tsip Tso’s article:


















Who wants to be the panel chair?

Some of my former students are now English panel chairs. They often have mixed feelings about this role. On the one hand, it is an opportunity for them to make further use of their experience, insights, and ideas. On the other, the position also entails constraints and conflicts that they have to deal with. Occasionally, a panel chair, after struggling for a few years, will become so exhausted or frustrated that she will decide to return to solely classroom teaching.

I have never been a panel chair myself, but I have always been curious about what makes, or breaks, a good panel chair (and for that matter, a good curriculum leader). At the moment, I am organizing a seminar for primary English teachers, the topic of which is “Achieving Excellence in the Teaching of Reading and Writing”. The speakers will include principals and teachers from the two schools that have won the Chief Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2010. As the award was for teamwork, on top of the substantive issue, the teaching of reading and writing, I also wanted them to talk about how to foster innovation and collaboration within the English department. Thus, I have included a roundtable discussion in the programme for them to share their experience on the topic. The following are the questions I have prepared for them to discuss, and I am looking forward to benefitting from their insights and experience:

1.    Schools are busy places, and teachers are busy people. There are tons of routine and urgent matters that school personnel have to deal with, day in and day out: marking assignments, setting test and exam papers, organizing extra-curricular activities, planning special events, communicating with parents, and planning and teaching several lessons a day. This busyness may lead us to focus on getting as many things done and as quickly as possible.

 Your obtaining the Chief Executive’s Award is testimony that your school values good teaching. How do you promote this emphasis on good teaching in your school?


2      There are many aspects of the English language curriculum that a school can choose to innovate in. In your case, how did you decide or choose to develop the area for which you won the CE Award (viz., reading to learn and learning to read; process writing)?

3      For a host of reasons, schools cannot ignore the assessment performance of their students. Because of that, some schools may be hesitant about innovating because they are not sure whether it will improve students’ assessment performance (e.g, in TSA). How do you see the relationship between good teaching and innovation on the one hand, and students’ assessment results on the other? Was this ever a dilemma that you had to face?

 4      You have won the CE Award as a team. How did you foster this teamwork spirit? In fact, how do you foster a spirit of collaboration within your English Department?

 5      While we emphasise collaboration and teamwork, we experienced teachers also know that each teacher has his/her teaching style. We want teachers to be creative, but at the same time, in a curriculum innovation project, and in fact within a school’s English language curriculum, we need teachers to agree to and follow certain department-wide or school-wide policies and practices. How do you handle the need for uniformity on the one hand, and valuing individual teachers’ teaching styles and ideas on the other?

 6      The official English curriculum guide (2004) sets out the duties of various curriculum leaders at different levels: principals, vice principals, school curriculum development coordinators, English panel chairpersons, level coordinators, etc. The curriculum guide also spells out the duties of the principal, the English chairperson, individual teachers, etc., in carrying out curriculum leadership. However, a school is not like a disciplinary force. Curriculum leaders cannot say to their colleagues: “That’s an order.” They need their colleagues’ genuine respect and cooperation.

 What experience can your share in this regard?

 7.    Any other things you would like to share with the audience.

Is school teaching still a worthwhile job?

J (false name) is frustrated with many of the meaningless policies and practices at her school. She gave up a promising future in the business sector to enter the teaching profession with an aim of doing some meaningful work. Yet she is now constantly held  back by tedious school policies such as requiring teachers to put down ticks that conform to a certain size, and punishing students for using a ball pen when they have been told to use a pencil. On the other hand, the extra efforts that she puts into teaching and caring for the students not only fail to be acknowledged and appreciated, but are seen as threats to her co-workers.
When I asked J how she managed to keep up her passion under the depressing circumstances, and what made her stay in primary school teaching, she affirmed: “I can give unconditionally to the children.”
I am a teacher educator, yet I have lots of mixed feelings and no simple answers, whenever people ask me whether teaching is still a worthwhile job today. On the one hand, the ecology of the school and the job of teaching has deteriorated to the point where it is seldom possible for teachers to do much meaningful teaching. (Yes, I am pessimistic.) Teachers are bombarded with duty after duty that have little to do with educating students. Competition between schools either for survival, or for reputation, or for the best-performing students, has led to policies and burdens that constantly put teachers under heavy stress. Conscientious teachers become burned out even before they are able to find their feet. Some veteran teachers insulate themselves from frustrations by converting themselves into teaching robots who sneer at continuing development of their professional competence and who numb their hearts to the laughter or worries of problems of their students.
Under the circumstances, what is remaining in the job of teaching that makes it still worthwhile? J is right: Good teachers can still give unconditionally to their students. Especially in primary school teaching. As J puts it, if you give unconditionally to the students, they will know, they will appreciate it, and your efforts will always pay off, though to varying degrees.
How many jobs in present-day society will enable you to give unconditionally? Certainly not hedge fund managers. They need to be greedy and brutal. Not the Permanent Secretary for education. He is more obsessed with the education budgets than with the meaning of education. Not the industrious accountant, for numbers have no feelings. Not even the caring professions like doctors, nurses, social workers, counsellors, etc. Even if they are willing to give unconditionally to their clients, there are professional and ethical concerns that restrain them from doing so. More importantly, their clients are adults, and we know how complicated, and shall I say evil-minded, adults can be. Our kindness is not always met with gratitude; in fact sometimes people may either inadvertently misinterpret our kindness, or intentionally take advantage of our kindness. So, although we have all learnt to be kind, we have also learnt to protect ourselves.
But children are different. They don’t doubt our motives. They may not often express their thanks explicitly. Those who have had unpleasant past experiences may even find it difficult to accept our loving care. But they can always feel it. We CAN make a difference in their lives. And we CAN give unconditionally to them.
Not everyone will agree with me, but in my view, given our many distorted social values and as a result the distorted ecology in our educational system and in many of our schools, teaching is becoming a disheartening job. Many teachers, like J, stay only because they want to be of service to children and young people. They do not stay because of the “generous remuneration package”, as claimed by one school in its recent recruitment advertisement. What do schools exist for? If we truly believe that schools exist for educating the young, how can we let unnecessary, uneducational, and uncaring, educational and school policies and practices continue to break the hearts of these wonderful people?