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7 ways to really motivate teachers

This article is contributed by Aimee Hosler, a writer forteacherportal.com and mother of two. Passionate about education and workplace news and trends, Hosler holds a B.S. in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

In 2011, actor Matt Damon spoke at the Save Our Schools teacher rally in Washington, D.C., Damon, the son of a teacher, touched on a number of themes that prevailed that day — namely, a frustration with test-based education and score-driven performance incentives. He also addressed the political lashing teachers had received in the media, like the perception that they were “overpaid” or had cushy jobs. “It has been a horrible decade for teachers,” he said. “I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel.” Damon’s speech quickly went viral. However, you interpreted his goals or qualifications, he did bring to light an issue many educators face: How do teachers stay motivated in the age of “teacher-proof” education? When teachers’ jobs and paychecks are used as political bargaining chips? Today’s educators probably need more than a catered PTO lunch to feel reinvested in or impassioned by their work. Here are a few ways to motivate them and inspire their best.


Teachers are leaders. They are expected to run a classroom of squirrely children, convincing them that yes, they do have to stay seated and no, they may not use their pencils that way. When it comes to developing their own lesson plans, however, districts often give them very little room to breathe. Most teachers do need to adhere to a set curricula most of the time, but giving them a little wiggle room can motivate them to excel. According to Education Week, educators who regain some control over their work perform better, improving student outcomes.


If anyone can appreciate a commitment to lifelong learning, it is a teacher. Teachers also understand that different learners have different needs, and that every year researchers find new, tested ways to meet them. That is precisely what makes ongoing professional development so valuable. By giving teachers new ways to reach more kids, you can remind them why they entered this field to begin with. Consider investing in seminars presenting new education technologies or pedagogical theories, like kinesthetic or project-based learning.


Teachers know that the language they use can nurture (or derail) their relationships with students. The same goes for administrators who want to connect with teachers. Use positive, respectful language at all times, and really listen to their concerns and observations. Do this not because you want to present yourself in a certain way, but because you know that teachers are professionals, too, and that for them, teaching is as much a lifestyle as it is a job.


In 2013, The National Education Association asked nearly a thousand teachers what they really wanted for National Teacher Appreciation Day (Hint: Shiny apples did not make the cut). A common theme: Teachers want to be held to higher standards — and no, that does not mean they want more standardized tests. Teachers want administrators to trust their experience, to give them more authority over their instruction, and to provide a fair measurement of how effectively they meet their students’ needs — preferably without Scantrons. They want to excel in their craft. Let them prove it.


If teachers want to find new ways to reach all different types of learners, they need well stocked supply closets and realistic student-to-teacher ratios. They need materials that can appeal to tactile, auditory and visual learners, and time to evaluate and work with each child. Let’s face it: Many districts simply do not have the resources to accomplish these goals — but you can still advocate for your teachers, or find creative solutions to help minimize the gaps. Anything — even a healthy dose of empathy — is better than nothing.


According to the aforementioned NEA poll, teachers want to be paid what they deserve — no more, no less. They have a point. A 2011 Economic Policy Institute report found that teachers earn less than similarly educated professionals in other fields, which is a shame when one considers how important their work really is for our future economy. Increasing base salaries is an undeniably challenging feat that demands widespread reform, but the fact remains: If you want good teachers to continue giving their all, make sure they can afford to do so.


These ideas for motivating teachers are drawn from research, polls and a good deal of introspection, but all teachers — and districts — have different needs. If you aren’t sure how to best support educators, just ask them. Chances are they have been waiting for you to ask.


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