How do you Motivate a Teacher?

Harallaby, Clausewitz, and Aeneas

Harallaby, Clausewitz, and Aeneas

How do you motivate educators?  Boy that’s a good question!  Spoiler Alert…my Big Walnut University students did a remarkable job of motivating me this semester. Read on to learn how.

Many are convinced that all we need to do to motivate, or to in some cases frighten, teachers is to make schools function like the private sector: 

  • Make teachers compete
  • Institute merit pay
  • Plaster teacher performance records everywhere, like on the post office bulletin board next to wanted criminals.


Believe me…I get it!  Motivating teachers IS important.   Dana Goldstein recently authored a fascinating article in Slate about the benefits and limitations of merit pay.   The track record of merit pay has been mixed.  The take home…so far at least: merit pay has worked well only in certain situations.  In those situations where it’s worked, it’s been expensive, and limited in its appeal.

Always remember, education is a non-profit endeavor.  Teachers don’t teach to become rich…they teach to make others rich!  Competition doesn’t always bring out the best in us.  Don’t believe me?  Check out parent behavior at your next local youth sporting event.

In the midst of my first year of teaching at Mt. Vernon High School, I made a great friend.  John Frye was a Physical Science instructor.   He had five years experience, so he was my unofficial mentor.  But he was an unorthodox mentor by any measure.  We coached middle school football together, and being young bachelors, we hung out a lot.  Spending time with him was fascinating.  He had worked on an oilrig, lived out west, and almost any topic brought up, he had read about, and offered intriguing paradigms.  He was one of those guys that constantly surprised you.  If a tourist from Egypt appeared and asked directions, he might break them out in fluent Arabic, a skill you had no idea he possessed.  He was that kind of guy.

One night, we were discussing Life the Universe and Everything and he said the following: “Jimmy, in this job we’re like rats in a cage.  The bell rings and we run to this room.  Then, we do our little act for fifty minutes.  Then, the bell rings again and we run to the next class and do the same.  In the middle of our day, we wolf down our lunch, and then hustle through the afternoon.  We do the same, day after day, year after year.”

Whoa!  This wasn’t uplifting.  I asked him why he remained in teaching.  He was adamant, “It’s a great job and I’ve tried others.”

He claimed the routine nature of the job was his primary struggle and the majority of the work he really enjoyed.

He stared me down and said, “Hey, am I not allowed to bitch just a little?”

Enough said!



I’ve thought about his statement a lot.  I’m acquainted with many guidance counselors and administrators, and to a person, they claim the prospect of going back to the routine nature of the classroom has zero appeal.  They all miss the relationships with the students, but not the confinement of “that bell schedule”.  I’m very close to one former teacher who went into guidance, and then administration.  She definitely echoes this sentiment.  Oh by the way…it’s my roommate Penny Sturtevant.

While the routine nature of education isn’t a huge turnoff, I’ve had moments, when I felt claustrophobic.  Teaching is obviously not assembly line work, but sometimes it feels that way.

And yet, millions of my comrades around the country and I take on each year determined and enthusiastic.  Yes…there are some lazy teachers, but they’re a small minority.  Other staff members consider them pathetic.  And, does anyone really believe the private sector is slackerless?  Educators take great pride in what we do and our work is important.

But it would be easy to slack!   Regardless of educator commitment to the cause, the profession does lead to restlessness.  There’re just so few avenues for professional growth.  There’s administration and that is about it!  To become an administrator you have to commit time, money, and effort to get certified.  You can’t just be promoted based on your performance.  And to many, administration is unappealing.

For all the talk about teachers being professionals, the job doesn’t always make you feel like one.  We often feel like we never graduated from high school.  We do our school shopping in August, we can’t wait for Christmas and summer vacations, we do cartwheels when we get a snow day, and we interact constantly with young people.  Aside from lunch or brief conversations with colleagues in the hall between classes, our entire day is filled with interactions with individuals up to thirty years our junior.  They certainly keep us young.  We know their slang, their shows, their music, and their fashions.

Obviously, there are worse afflictions than being made to feel youthful.  But such feelings can run counter to professionalism.  Sometimes we seem more like camp counselors than adult professionals.  A colleague once remarked that he was out in the “real world” and saw a thirty-year-old stockbroker in a suit and thought, “Check out that old dude!”

Okay…so it’s time to answer the question about my gift from my students.  The Big Walnut University Class of 2013 did give me something remarkable.  THEY CHALLENGED ME!  They certainly didn’t give me a salary bonus.  They demanded instead, by their very existence, that I accept the responsibility of educating them.  They inspired me to evaluate everything I did as a teacher.  Thanks to hours of preparation and planning, and MY constant evaluation of curriculum and tactics, I’m a far better teacher today than I was JUST ONE YEAR AGO!

It’s beneficial to realize if you struggle with this profession, you’re not alone.  Given the nature of working in public education, feelings of restlessness are totally understandable.  It’s important to recognize and accept those feelings, understand they are natural, and search for some personal and professional growth outlets.  It’s not an easy search, but be patient.  If you’re as creative with your search as you are with your lesson plans, you may be amazed at your result.  One day, I woke up and found myself writing a book.

Teaching dual enrollment World history at Big Walnut University has revitalized me.  This year is my 29th in teaching…I’m excited about year 30!   Finding creative ways to help students grow is an educator’s best motivator.  When schools are caring nurturing atmospheres where there are ample opportunities for teachers, they’ll search high and low for ways to motivate themselves.  There’ll still be a few slackers, but they’ll be marginalized by colleagues.


For Teachers:

  • Explore teaching new classes
  • Commit to new tactics
  • Team teach a class with a colleague
  • Incorporate your personal interests into your lessons
  • Commit to connecting with your students

For Administrators:

  • Treat your staff like professionals
  • Choose teaching candidates wisely
  • Create a nurturing atmosphere
  • Encourage your teachers to grow
  • Commit to connect with your staff
  • Celebrate success
  • Build confidence in your teachers

Here’s my book “You’ve Gotta Connect”

ugc cover

7 thoughts on “How do you Motivate a Teacher?

  1. This is a great site and a great man his passion for education and inspiring ways of teaching provide a way for a student to go beyond the text. I have seen it first hand

  2. this blog is great, and this man speaks truth. his experience shows in his teaching, but he never seems burnt out or fed up with the classroom. Sturtevant teaches you volumes, and you don’t even realize it until you’re tested on the material. the true embodiment of fun and learning

    • Thank you Reverend Allaby! I’m going to miss you BIG TIME! U have a PS3 Sturtevant Training in your future

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