To Beat the Teacher Shortage, Look to What Motivates Educators

Motivating employees means recognizing their achievements, offering intrinsically rewarding work, and granting them greater responsibility and the ability to advance and grow. Much of this is lacking from traditional teacher jobs today.

AP/Damian Dovarganes
A social studies teacher, Benito Luna-Herrera, at a California City Middle School. AP/Damian Dovarganes

Teacher shortages are mounting in certain districts and in certain subjects.

Across 100 large urban districts, 61 report instructional staffing shortages, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

A lack of substitutes and a long decline in the pipeline of new teachers are making it harder for schools to cope. The ratio of hires to job openings in the education sector is at a new low of 0.57, according to the National Education Association.

Philadelphia is a poster child for the challenges. Twice as many of the district’s teachers resigned between December 1 and February 15 compared to the year prior.

What’s more, the district is struggling with a 20 percent increase in daily teacher absences. Just 68 percent have attended 95 percent of class so far this year.

With the cries for help have come the usual tropes. Teachers, we’re told, need higher pay and retention bonuses — or else.

Although paying teachers more is a good idea to attract higher-quality talent and to ameliorate some teacher dissatisfaction, it won’t create a profession with excited and satisfied teachers.

To do that, we need to follow the research around what motivates employees — something that the teaching profession has ignored almost entirely. 

As far back as 1968, the psychologist Frederick Herzberg published an influential body of research showing that it’s possible to both love and hate your job at the same time. This is because two sets of factors affect how people feel about their work.

The first set, called hygiene factors, affects whether employees are dissatisfied with their jobs.

The second set, called motivators, determine the extent to which employees love their jobs.

To help eliminate one’s dissatisfaction, Herzberg found that it was important to address “hygiene” factors.

The top hygiene factor wasn’t salary: It was an employer’s policies and administration, followed by supervision, an employee’s relationship with their supervisor, and one’s working conditions.

An employee’s salary was in the middle of the pack of the key hygiene factors and ranked just above one’s relationship with peers and personal life. Job security ranked even lower.

Making someone satisfied and excited about a job, however, requires motivation.

Doing that means recognizing employees for their achievements, offering intrinsically rewarding work, and granting employees greater responsibility and the ability to advance and grow in their profession.

The traditional teacher job today lacks many of these motivators in the majority of public schools.

Teachers often work in isolation from other adults, which means there is little or no opportunity for recognition for their efforts. There is also no real career track for teachers in traditional schools and districts.

Opportunities for increased responsibility and career advancement are slim. Aside from becoming the head of a department, the only other way for most teachers to move up in this line of work is to stop teaching so they can be promoted into administrative jobs.

Beyond the occasional workshops or required training programs, teachers have limited opportunities for growth in the job after the first few years.

Yet there are ways to recraft the teaching profession to build in motivators.

Some schools, like Summit Public Schools, a network of 11 charter schools in California and Washington state, have combined classrooms so that educators can teach together.

This builds in daily opportunities for teachers to do everything from receiving peer recognition for their accomplishments to specializing.

For example, one teacher might love digging into data and assessments to create different groupings of children or offer students rapid feedback. Another teacher might want to steer clear of data, but loves tutoring small groups of students and facilitating richer projects.

In allowing educators to specialize, it also gives them a chance to master the areas of teaching where they have passion so they can continue to grow.

Other schools, like the Ranson IB Middle School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, have implemented what the education consultancy Public Impact calls multi-classroom leaders.

In these environments, an educator manages several other educators across classrooms. This allows for regular recognition, feedback, and growth — as well as the opportunity for more responsibility over time.

The multi-classroom leader model also unlocks better management practices across the school by reducing the number of direct reports to a principal.

That in turn can also help eliminate a potent source of teacher dissatisfaction that can be more targeted than a blanket salary increase or retention bonus for all teachers.

Even more promising, independent research from the Brookings Institution has suggested that this multi-classroom leader model yields statistically significant learning improvements for students in math.

Given that student learning should be the focus of schooling, creating a motivated teaching force to help all students succeed should be the starting point for a conversation around tackling the schools’ staffing challenges.

The New York Sun

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