As you read this, it may be pre-planning, just before winter break, cold February, or even near the end of the school year in May.  No matter the time of year, you may have begun to feel that the teachers in your building never seem excited about teaching!  They complain about having to come back to work after a nice summer break.  They look forward to the winter break even more than the students do.  In February, they move around the building as if in a daze.  In May?  They are giddy about not having to come back to work in June!  Sometimes, they choose not to come back, and you lose some of your best teachers to the administrative ranks or to professions other than education.

The grim reality about the teaching profession is that many teachers do lose their enthusiasm for teaching, and the attrition rates are high.  Nearly 8% of the teachers in the United States leave the profession each year.  Over the past five years, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has also dropped by nearly 35%.  So, it’s not just that your current teachers aren’t excited about teaching; a generation of young men and women are turning their backs on the profession altogether.

Is there anything educational leaders can do to address the lack of enthusiasm on the part of current teachers, or to attract new teachers to the profession?  Some policymakers attempt to throw money at this issue, mandating higher pay for in-demand fields like math and science, or legislating bonuses and merit pay for teachers who seem to do a good job as measured by standardized tests.  Yet, time after time, research reveals that money is not what motivates teachers.

mentoring student relationships best practices

So what does motivate teachers? There are three main takeaways from the research on teacher motivation.

  1. Those who enter the teaching profession often do so because they have a sense of purpose. They have an altruistic goal to serve others, to work with students, or even a “calling” to education.
  2. The teaching profession, historically, has been one where teachers had autonomy in their classrooms—the ability to choose what to teach and how to teach it (Lortie, 1975).
  3. Teachers, ultimately, value their interaction with students.  Lortie’s (1975) findings suggest that teachers, who are motivated by and value their time with individual students, will resent any intrusions that detract from their interactions and time with students.

As policymakers have becoming increasingly involved in education, through mandated reforms in curriculum and assessment, the very things that have historically motivated teachers are under attack.  Teachers do not feel a sense of purpose, or a “calling,” to prepare students for standardized assessments.  The autonomy of individual teachers is also threatened by state-mandated curriculum standards and canned instructional materials.  Further, when school becomes about standards, assessments, and measuring the proficiency of teachers and students; those relationships and interactions with individual students are suddenly pushed to the side and seen as less important.

As a curriculum leader, you may face mandates that require teachers to implement specific programs.  Yet, when and where you can, strive to allow teachers voice and autonomy in their work.  Work with teachers and incorporate shared decision-making strategies so that teachers feel ownership in the instructional program.

Finally, the best way to motivate teachers is to always, always keep the students at the center of every decision that is made.  Why do we need to implement standards-based instruction?  Because it is good for students to have specific goals and targets.  Why do we need to give this assessment?  Because it helps us to see what our students know, what they don’t know, and where we need to continue to focus our work with them.  When you know what motivates teachers in the core of their being, you can begin to see why so many have lost their enthusiasm for the profession.  And you, as a curriculum leader, can work to spark that enthusiasm again.



Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peters, S. & Passanisi, J. (2012).  What motivates teachers: It’s more than money.  Education Week.  Available:

Westervelt, E. (2016).  Frustration, burnout, attrition: It’s time to address the national teacher shortage. nprEd. Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Available: