How To Motivate Disengaged Teachers

Smiling teacher in his classroom

During the pandemic, it was understandable that the focus for almost everybody, including educators, was on the health and well-being of friends and family. Post-pandemic, however, I’m noticing a troubling trend: some educators are still suffering from an ambition deficit when it comes to teaching.

Just the other day, for example, one teacher told me that they called out of work because the previous day there was a field trip and their feet still hurt. In professional trainings I have facilitated lately, I also have had teachers leave early because they felt “too tired” to go on. Teachers told me they were leaving; they didn’t ask. We are definitely in what Robert Glazer calls an “Ambition Recession.”

To be fair, there are many valid reasons why some teachers are apathetic and/or leaving the profession. I previously wrote about some of these reasons in my Work It Daily article "3 Reasons for the Big Quit in Teaching." Yet, if we are to help students to grow and achieve, we need to get teachers back on the school improvement bus. However, this is not just the responsibility of individual teachers. What might school and district administrators do to motivate teachers to make a positive change?

Recently, I had the chance to listen to an episode of the New Yorker Radio Hour; the theme for that episode was change. During that episode, dance choreographer Akram Khan suggested that there are four—in my opinion, interrelated—reasons why people change. While he may have been talking about re-envisioning the ballet “Giselle” for the modern stage, I believe his thoughts are relevant to those in education who are charged with motivating teachers to participate, more fully, within the teaching profession.

Teachers Will Change When They Must

Teacher helps a student


The grass is not always greener on the other side. Now that many educators have moved out of teaching roles and have taken opportunities in the private sector (particularly in EdTech), we may see a boomerang effect. There is a certain amount of financial stability as a teacher. A teacher may not be making as much money as they would like but it is a constant. In contrast, when one moves into the private sector, financial compensation can ebb and flow erratically particularly when the threat of recession looms like grey clouds on the horizon. Teachers, like anyone, might then be happy to have a job and do more to maintain it.

Teachers Will Change When They See Enough To Be Inspired

Teacher smiles at her students


Traditionally, many teachers have been isolated within the four walls of their classrooms. Most still need to find adult coverage of their classrooms to take even a short bathroom break. How then might school leaders make internal exemplars of good teaching and learning more visible across the faculty? New Beginnings Charter School, in Brooklyn, NY, for instance, produces a weekly digital staff instructional newsletter that features classroom videos of their teachers using best instructional practices. They and ITAVA, in Queens, NY, engage in lesson study and open up model classrooms for teacher intervisitation. Lesson study is not the only way to coalesce teachers around a common goal; there are many additional ways to make teacher teams impactful.

The key here is that administrators need to plan deeply; they need to develop schedules that release teachers from the chains of their classrooms so that teachers can visit other classrooms and/or participate on ongoing teacher teams. Inspiration also requires triangulation of teacher development supports. For example, instructional coaches might consider referencing support materials/exemplars of best practice, provided in digital newsletters, during ongoing coaching feedback conversations. Help teachers become aware of where they can go for resources to improve their teaching craft and have multiple pathways for teachers to get there.

Teachers Will Change When They Learn Enough To Want It

Teacher educates her students on technology


When I worked with the Cristo Rey School Network, we were interested in learning how best to develop internal tutoring programs that would well serve students and prevent their exit due to poor academic performance. One of the most powerful tools we had in replicating a quality tutoring program, across the network, was the ability to draw upon the expertise of one of our schools that already had such a program in place. Providing a space for all our school leaders, and teachers involved in the tutoring of our students, to engage in problem of practice protocols proved pivotal for the replication of this one school’s tutoring model across multiple school sites. As our school leaders and teachers learned more about what already was working in-house, the enthusiasm to replicate said practices was infectious.

Networked learning can be internal—as in the case of Cristo Rey above—and/or external. The Canopy Project, a joint project between Transcend Education and CRPE, has, for example, over 200 member/school organizations interested in building transformative education environments focused on equity. It aims to do this by collaborating, not competing, on the development of best school design. How might school leaders include more teachers within internal and/or external networks of practice? The models for learning networks are out there.

Teachers Will Change When They Receive Enough To Be Able

Teacher educates his students on a new concept


Asked another way, are administrators and/or instructional coaches giving enough so that teachers develop efficacy? I’ve written elsewhere on how we might say that student learning is at the core of our work as educators but, in reality, this is not evident when we, as managers of learning, make time for everything but instructional observation and teacher coaching. Therefore, administrators would do well in developing a standing weekly schedule for themselves that prioritizes both informal classroom observations and feedback/coaching sessions with each teacher on staff. Move operational tasks to when instructional time is over for the day. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo discusses this, in great detail, in his book Leverage Leadership.

Kim Marshall further suggests that administrators, during mini observations, not write notes. Rather, later in the day, administrators might use a one-page staff list to record the day, date, and most relevant points from each visit. Later still, they can add a checkmark when feedback has been given to the observed teacher. Further, share anonymous instructional data, across classrooms, with teaching staff. Help teachers to understand why certain instructional priorities exist and solicit teacher participation in responding to the data.

If you would like additional ideas on how to impact student lives without sacrificing your own, and have a life teaching, check out my quick hack teaching courses here. You can also reach me on LinkedIn.

Man on laptop enjoys summer while working full time

There you are: sitting on the beach, covered in sunscreen, reading your favorite book, drinking your favorite drink under the cool shade of an umbrella. Life doesn't get any better than this. Suddenly, a door slams, a phone rings, a printer turns on. You jolt back into consciousness. You're at work, sitting in your cubicle, without even a hint of sunshine streaming in from outside.

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