Motivating teachers to improve instruction

In the last two decades of education reform, teachers have been viewed as central to both the problems of education and their solutions. Education researchers and school leaders have faced the challenge of motivating teachers to high levels of performance.

According to sociologists, current school environments are a reward-scarce setting for professional work and often seem to work against teachers’ best efforts to grow professionally and improve student learning (Peterson 1995). Much of teachers’ work is carried out in self-contained classrooms that isolate them from the support of their colleagues. Because of this organizational structure, teachers are difficult to supervise, do not receive regular feedback from others, and often find it hard to collaborate.

Perhaps as a result of these circumstances, the research also shows that many good teachers leave teaching in the first three years (Frase 1992). Clearly, education leaders need to find ways to keep teachers in the profession and keep them motivated. A motivated teacher, as described here, is one who not only feels satisfied with his or her job, but also is empowered to strive for excellence and growth in instructional practice.

This issue looks at teacher motivation and considers how it has been treated historically, how it is affected by external and internal factors, and how new directions in professional development, teacher evaluation, new teacher induction and school reform are currently creating opportunities for more effective teacher motivation.


History of Teacher Motivation Measures

In the 1980s, state governments and local school districts enacted an array of incentive plans designed to recruit, reward, and retain the best teachers. Merit pay and career ladders were intended to provide financial incentives, varied work, and advancement opportunities for seasoned teachers. These, along with across-the-board pay raises, work environment premiums for difficult assignments, and grants or sabbaticals for research and study, were expected to improve teacher performance and motivation.

According to Johnson (1986), measures developed to boost teacher motivation are based on three theories of motivation and productivity: 

  • Expectancy theory. Individuals are more likely to strive in their work if there is an anticipated reward that they value, such as a bonus or a promotion, than if there is none.
  • Equity theory. Individuals are dissatisfied if they are not justly compensated for their efforts and accomplishments.
  • Job enrichment theory. Workers are more productive when their work is varied and challenging.

The first two theories are justification for merit pay and career ladders, and the third suggests differentiated staffing, use of organizational incentives, and reform-oriented staff development.

Merit Pay

The idea of merit pay has a straightforward appeal: it provides financial rewards for meeting established goals and standards.

Some researchers have warned, however, that merit pay may change the relationships between teachers and students: poor students may pose threats to the teacher’s rating and rewards (Johnson 1986). Another concern is that merit pay plans may encourage teachers to adjust their teaching down to the program goals, setting their sights no higher than the standards (Coltham 1972).

Odden and Kelley reviewed recent research and experience and concluded that individual merit and incentive pay programs do not work and, in fact, are often detrimental (1997). A number of studies have suggested that merit pay plans often divide faculties, set teachers against their administrators, are plagued by inadequate evaluation methods, and may be inappropriate for organizations such as schools that require cooperative, collaborative work (Lawler 1983).

Differentiated Staffing and Career Ladders

While merit pay plans attempt to reward excellent teacher performance with increased financial compensation, career ladders such as mentor teacher and master teacher programs and differentiated staffing reforms, popular during the 1970s and 1980s, are designed to enrich work and enlarge teachers’ responsibilities.

However, many of these programs have faltered for largely the same reasons that merit pay plans have failed - unanticipated costs, teacher opposition, inadequate evaluation methods, and dissension (Freiberg 1984).


New Theories of Teacher Motivation

Merit pay and other incentive policies gained legislative popularity largely because of their seeming simplicity. They were meant to provide external incentives - financial rewards, advancement opportunities, workplace variety - but did not adequately resolve the problem of teacher satisfaction.

Frase (1992) offers one reason why measures relying on external rewards have been insufficient. There is overwhelming research evidence, he says, that teachers enter teaching to help young people learn, that their most gratifying reward is accomplishing this goal, and that the work-related factors most important to teachers are those that allow them to practice their craft successfully (see also Frase 1989; Lortie 1976; Mitchell, Ortiz, and Mitchell 1987).

Frase identified two sets of factors that affect teachers’ ability to perform effectively: work context factors (the teaching environment, and work content factors (teaching).

Work Context Factors

Work context factors are those that meet baseline needs. They include working conditions such as class size, discipline conditions, and availability of teaching materials; the quality of the principal’s supervision; and basic psychological needs such as money, status, and security.

In general, context factors clear the road of the debris that block effective teaching. In adequate supply, these factors prevent dissatisfaction. Even the most intrinsically motivated teacher will become discouraged if the salary doesn’t pay the mortgage.

But these factors may not have an extended motivational effect or lead to improved teaching. For example, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that teacher compensation, including salary, benefits, and supplemental income, showed little relation to long-term satisfaction with teaching as a career (NCES 1997). According to Frase (1992), content variables are the crucial factor in motivating teachers to high levels of performance.

Work Content Factors

Work content factors are intrinsic to the work itself. They include opportunities for professional development, recognition, challenging and varied work, increased responsibility, achievement, empowerment, and authority. Some researchers argue that teachers who do not feel supported in these states are less motivated to do their best work in the classroom (NCES 1997).

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (1997) confirm that staff recognition, parental support, teacher participation in school decision making, influence over school policy, and control in the classroom are the factors most strongly associated with teacher satisfaction. Other research concurs that most teachers need to have a sense of accomplishment in these sectors if they are to persevere and excel in the difficult work of teaching.

Frase and Sorenson (1992) studied work content factors in a questionnaire administered to 73 San Diego School District teachers. They identified three major areas that relate to teachers’ job satisfaction.

  • Feedback is the factor most strongly related to job satisfaction, yet teachers typically receive very little accurate and helpful feedback regarding their teaching.
  • Autonomy is strongly related to job satisfaction for many, but not all, teachers. Autonomy is not necessarily defined as freedom from interference in the classroom; rather, the majority of teachers view autonomy as freedom to develop collegial relationships to accomplish tasks.
  • Collegiality is also important for teachers. Collegiality can be expressed through experiencing challenging and stimulating work, creating school improvement plans, and leading curriculum development groups. The literature suggests that collegiality is directly linked to effective schools (Johnson 1986; Glatthorn and Fox 1996), where "teachers valued and participated in norms of collegiality and continuous improvement (experimentation)" (Little 1982, 1).


New Directions Shaping Teacher Motivation

School Reform

Since the goal of current school reform efforts is to improve student achievement, these efforts are well-aligned with the primary motivator of teachers - the power to help children learn.

Zemmelman, Daniels, and Hyde (1993) write that teachers’ attitudes are crucial to the success of in-depth curricular innovation. Moreover, the beneficial effort of teachers’ attitudes on education reform is reciprocal. Some research shows that when principals effectively used shared governance strategies and participatory management, teachers feel energized and motivated, and their sense of ownership and empowerment increases (Blase and Blase 1994).

Well-implemented school improvement plans can increase collegiality and give teachers the satisfaction to committing themselves to school improvement goals. Some practitioners believe that such rewards may be more effective in motivating teachers and improving teaching practices than individual, extrinsic rewards (Johnson 1986).

However, Frase and Sorenson (1992) caution that not every teacher will respond positively to educational reform approaches. Autonomy for one may be isolation for another; one teacher may welcome feedback, another may see it as infringement on his or her professionalism; and while one may welcome collaboration, another may see it as stressful imposition. Opportunities for participatory management must be differentiated for each teacher.

Professional Development

The interrelation of teacher motivation and school reform efforts has also been addressed through the issue of staff development. Traditionally, staff development has meant encouraging teachers to enhance pedagogical skills and knowledge of subject matter through advanced academic study at the graduate level; providing funding for conferences and workshops; and developing other training opportunities, including inservice programs.

However, many leading school reformers have called for new forms of professional development. Lieberman (1995) argues for a "radical rethinking" of professional development that encourages teachers’ growth. She believes that teachers must have opportunities to try out new practices by taking new roles and creating a culture of inquiry.

Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin (1995) suggest that staff development also means "providing occasions for teachers to reflect critically on their practice and to fashion new knowledge and beliefs about content, pedagogy, and learners" (p. 597).

Monahan (1996) describes a new concept, Comprehensive Professional Development (CPD), that focuses on strategies for facilitating teacher growth through professional dialogue with colleagues, collaborative curriculum development, peer supervision, peer coaching, and action research leading to schoolwide change. Unfortunately, he reports, principals and teachers still regard CPD like activities for continuing professional development to be less important than traditional methods. Monahan suggests embedding strategies like collaborative curriculum design, peer supervision/review, and portfolio analysis within the tenure review process, and providing incentives such as increased preparation time for peer collaboration and resources for action research.

Problem-based school development (PBSD) is an approach that takes staff development and school form to the next level by creating a professional community capable of sustaining longterm educational reform (Clarke et al. 1998). Inspired by a 10-year partnership between the University of Vermont and school districts, PBSD consists of teams that consider problems, search for new information, and organize local inquiry projects in their respective schools. "The drive to develop and test solutions to real problems makes PBSD an authentic learning experience, managed by independent team of teachers who teach themselves by working together" (Clarke et al. 1998, x).

Even traditional staff development models such as workshops can be motivational if they give teachers control by asking them to set their own agenda at the beginning of a meeting or inservice, asking for their analysis of problems in the school or in children’s learning, and respecting their answers (Zemmelman, Daniels, and Hyde 1993). Many teachers respond with great energy when they are immersed in new perspectives on their own teaching and learning abilities and provided with opportunities to express themselves honestly.

The National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (1996) offers several recommendations for establishing professional development programs that result in teacher growth and motivation.

  • Find the time to build professional development into the life of schools. Reorganize the school day to enable teachers to work together as well as individually, both daily and weekly, and throughout the year. Redefine the teaching job to include blocks of extended time for teachers’ professional development.
  • Help teachers to assume responsibility for their own professional development, based on an analysis of the needs of students in their own schools. Professional development goals, standards for student learning, and standards for professional practice should be decided locally by the school community of teachers, administrators, and parents. In addition, teachers and administrators should collaborate in each district to create peer assistance and review to nurture the practice of all teachers.
  • Work with the community to provide high-quality professional development. At the local level, parents, business, and the community should continue to help schools set the vision for students’ success and support teachers’ learning. Teachers’ organizations should collaborate with districts to invite local leaders to join in conducting an inventory of available local resources and institutions for teachers’ professional growth, including higher education, business, cultural groups, and other relevant agencies.

Induction and Support of New Teachers

New teachers enter the profession for intrinsic rewards, but the negative effect of extrinsic conditions may overwhelm them. They face new and difficult challenges: classroom management and discipline, adjustment to the physical demands of teaching, managing instructional tasks, and sacrificing leisure time. Without proper support and aid, a new teacher’s problems can grow worse.

Key ideas for supporting new teachers include:

  • Relocation and acclimation assistance can help the new teacher with locating housing, can share information about the community, and can introduce the recruit to other new teachers.
  • Mentor/buddy teachers break the isolation, show the new teacher the ropes and help them reflect on a day’s experience and redirect efforts for next day. In addition, these experienced teachers can transmit instructional, planning, and/or management skills the novices lack skills that can help new teachers grow professionally as they adjust to the realities of teaching. (Frase 1992). In addition, the mentor teachers themselves gain the satisfaction of sharing their knowledge and experience and helping their new colleagues grow professionally.

Teacher Evaluation

Recognition and feedback have been cited as important motivators for teachers, so it would seem that evaluation is an obvious vehicle for using these incentives to direct the teachers on the path towards professional growth and improvement (Frase 1992).

However, the most common practices in evaluation are limited in their capacity to improve teaching, and chiefly serve as monitors of minimal competency for retention (Loup et al. 1996).

Peterson (1995) calls for a new direction in teacher evaluation that will bring better results more allied to the goals of comprehensive professional development and the goals of education reform:

  • Emphasize the function of teacher evaluation to seek out, document, and acknowledge the good teaching that already exists.
  • Place the teacher at the center of the evaluation activity. Ask the teacher to consider his or her duties, responsibilities, contributions and outcomes, and direct the evaluation from that point.3
  • Use multiple and variable sources, such as student and parent surveys, peer review of materials, logs of professional activity, and pupil test-score data.
  • Use the results of a teacher evaluation to encourage personal professional dossiers, publicize aggregated results, and support teacher promotion systems.


A Final Word

Discovering what matters to teachers and how best to motivate them for sustained and improved performance is a complicated challenge. Extrinsic rewards that have been tried in the past have generally not produced the desired results. Research and experience show that teachers are most likely to value intrinsic rewards such as self-respect, responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment.

One clear finding of the research points in a hopeful direction - helping young people to learn is the central goal of both those who enter the teaching profession and those who are working to reform public education. Therefore, new directions in participatory school improvement, comprehensive and meaningful staff development, and supportive teacher evaluation hold great promise for improving teachers’ professional motivation.



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"Motivating Teachers to Improve Instruction" was reprinted in its entirety from Information for School Leaders prepared for the Association of California School Administrators ( members by the Educational Research Service, 2000 Clarendon Boulevard, Arlington VA 22201 (

Source: NAEN Vol. 15, No.1, July/August 1999

(North American Association of Educational Negotiators (NAEN)

Learn about teacher performance pay as an incentive to increase accountability for academic performance in the January 2000 Phi Delta Kappan.