The Secret to Activating Teacher Motivation

Nearly everything in education hinges on teachers. Higher standards only raise achievement levels if teachers teach to those standards. Better curriculum only improves outcomes if teachers plan their lessons using that curriculum. And new strategies—such as project-based learning or blended learning—only enhance student learning if teachers put them into action. Because children’s minds and hearts are complicated, we need teachers’ intuition and expertise to figure out the best ways to engage, motivate, and inspire them.

This reality creates a conundrum for education leaders and reformers. None of their ideas will succeed unless those ideas gain traction among the teachers who carry forward the work of education on a day-to-day basis. Many promising programs, reforms, and innovations fall flat because school leaders can’t get teachers to buy what they’re selling.

So, what’s the key to getting teachers on board with new approaches to instruction? 

Using a powerful theory and methodology called Jobs to be Done—developed and validated through extensive research in other sectors—we set out to uncover the factors that motivate teachers to use new practices in their classrooms. Specifically, we interviewed teachers who had recently pivoted to blended or project-based teaching to identify the events and circumstances that prompted them to bring these new practices into their classrooms.

According to the theory, teachers change their practices when they have an unmet “Job” they need to fulfill. We call these Jobs because just as people hire contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, teachers search for something they can “hire” to help them with a particular issue. Jobs Theory cuts through the noise of what teachers say they want or what school leaders expect them to do, in order to identify the events and circumstances that actually cause them to make the decisions they make.

Through our interviews, we uncovered four Jobs that motivate teachers to change their instruction:

Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job were eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement efforts. They looked for promising yet simple practices that would be straightforward to share with their colleagues.

Job #2: Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable. Teachers with this Job were happy overall with the teaching and learning in their classrooms, but wanted practical strategies for reaching a few students who were slipping through the cracks.

Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Teachers with this Job taught in circumstances where few students were succeeding academically. They were eager for radical new approaches that would help them find a renewed sense of purpose as teachers.

Job #4: Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative. For these teachers, their schools’ initiatives didn’t seem to offer viable ways to reach their goals, and thereby created compliance-oriented motivation. They focused on doing what they had to do to not disappoint their school leaders, colleagues, and students.

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