What We Can Learn About Teacher Motivation From TALIS

Special Focus : Building an Efficient, Creative Teaching Force
Designing an Effective Training Program September 08, 2014

In this article, Janet Looney analyses the factors associated with higher levels of teacher motivation and job satisfaction. 

What motivates teachers? This question is central to much education policy. Teachers who are motivated are more likely to stay in the profession, to participate in professional learning and to innovate. 

Yet teachers themselves are seldom asked about what motivates them. The OECD’s 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) of 100,000 teachers in 34 OECD countries and economies goes some way to remedying this gap. The results also provide important clues on how to develop more effective policies to encourage real innovation and change in education.

According to the TALIS results, the factors associated with higher levels of teacher job satisfaction and professional self-efficacy include opportunities to participate in school-level decision making, feedback from supervisors that leads to improvements in teaching practice, positive relationships within schools, and opportunities to collaborate.   

This is good news for educational reformers because the very things that lead to higher levels of teacher motivation are also vital for innovation.

Take the issue of feedback. School leaders with a laser-like focus on improving the quality of teaching, learning and assessment in their schools visit classrooms regularly and provide timely feedback with specific suggestions and opportunities to discuss different teaching methods to improve.  This kind of feedback – a formative approach – is also vital for innovation. Teachers are able to identify what’s working, what isn’t, and decide how to make adjustments along the way.

Providing opportunities for teachers to participate in school-level decisions and to collaborate with peers not only raises teacher morale but is also likely to improve the quality of those decisions. Innovation specialists have recognized that the best ideas are not created by the lone genius in an ivory tower but by groups of individuals who challenge and inspire new ideas – what is referred to as “collective intelligence”. Indeed, the lack of collaboration within and beyond schools may be one of the most important barriers to innovation in education. More than is the case for other professions, teachers tend to work in isolation from their colleagues. Like other innovators, teachers need opportunities to challenge and inspire each other.

Collective leadership and teacher collaboration can have a positive impact on student attainment as well. A 2010 study sponsored by the Wallace Foundation in the United States found that collective leadership at school and district levels was associated with higher levels of student attainment. Another American study conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education found that among low-performing schools in Chicago, strong teacher-to-teacher trust, a shared focus on instruction and student learning and years of experience were all associated with improved student learning.

All of this has important implications for school leadership as well as for educational policy. Within schools, there is a need for a stronger focus on instructional quality which, as the TALIS data show, is often not the case. This central educational mission is frequently sidetracked by administrative duties and crises of the moment.  

School leaders also need to be willing to share leadership, and to create a climate of trust within their schools. Trust is vital not only to improve interpersonal relationships, but also to support innovation. No one will be able to innovate if they are not able to take the necessary risks. 

The TALIS findings imply a need for policy makers to rethink the kinds of incentives they develop to promote educational improvement and innovation. For example, a number of countries have developed incentive programs with financial awards going to the most effective teachers, encouraged school choice to encourage market-style competition between and among schools.

But policies encouraging competition may inadvertently undermine teacher collaboration. The challenge is how to find the best balance between these two approaches, not to eliminate all competition, which after all is important for innovation. More policy experimentation and research will be needed to find out where this balance is, and whether and how this may differ across cultures and contexts.

There’s also a need to know more about when and how teacher collaboration works well. Collaboration is challenging in the best of circumstances. Individuals don’t only need to work cooperatively but also to be willing to challenge each other’s ideas. Interdisciplinary collaboration or collaboration with community organizations or businesses may be especially challenging, as collaborators need to learn each other’s vocabularies and ways of thinking. It is also important that school leaders and teachers learn how to measure the impact of innovative new approaches.

Teachers responding to TALIS have indicated new directions for more effective educational reform and innovation. Policy makers and school leaders now need to dig down to learn more about the most effective strategies – and to do this with teachers.