Podcast: What Motivates Teachers?

In mainstream education, half of all teachers leave the teaching profession within five years of joining. If teachers are the most important factor in helping students learn it’s essential we figure out what managers, schools and teachers themselves can do to solve this problem.

Subscribe on Android
Support the Podcast - Buy Tracy a coffee

What Motivates Teachers? - Transcript


Tracy Yu:  Welcome to the "TEFL Training Institute" podcast, the bite‑sized TEFL podcast for teachers, trainers and managers.

Ross Thorburn:  Tracy, how long have you worked in the same company for?

Tracy:  Almost 10 years. A long time.

Ross:  You must have renewed your contract a whole bunch of times then, have you?

Tracy:  Yeah.

Ross:  Can you tell me some of the reasons why you decided to stay?

Tracy:  I remember clearly the first time I renewed. I was really, really sure that I enjoyed the job teaching. I also enjoyed working with my colleagues and I liked the work environment. I listed the pros and cons and I think the schedule is not great but...

Tracy:  ...compared to some other factors, I think, yeah, I definitely want to stay.

Ross:  What about more recently?

Tracy:  For last two times, when I renewed contract, it's mainly because there were new challenges and the position has been changed. I can say got promoted or doing different role.

Ross:  When I do training with managers and I usually ask them, "What's the number one thing that motivates teachers?" Can you guess what they say?

Tracy:  Let me guess. I will say money...

Ross:  Yeah.

Tracy:  ...is one of them?

Ross:  Some people always say money and yet, again, there, none of the things that you said really were related to money. It was career development, it was your peers, it was enjoying teaching, all those different things.

Tracy:  I won't deny, salary increase would definitely going to be one reason why people, they are staying or they're changing jobs, but I don't think from my experience, that was the main reason why I did that.

Ross:  Today, we're going to look at teacher motivation and teacher retention and we've got three questions.

Tracy:  The first one, what are the common mistakes for teacher retention?

Ross:  What can managers and organizations do to retain teachers? Finally...

Tracy:  Why it's important for managers and organizations to keep teachers and to motivate them?


What Are The Common Mistakes For Teacher Retention?

Ross:  Tracy, what do you think of some of the maybe common mistakes that managers and organizations make?

Tracy:  You mentioned earlier about money?

Ross:  Yeah.

Tracy:  I would say most people just assume, OK, no salary increase and compared to other organizations in this field, and the salary is not very competitive, that's why people leave because people live in the real world. They want to get more money, have a better living standard.

Ross:  Money is important, right?

Tracy:  Yeah. No one [laughs] is going to say no.


Tracy:  Why do the managers still believe that's the main reason or the number one reason why people stay?

Ross:  Or why people leave? I think it's just a very 19th century, like a Victorian, very simple way of looking at motivation. A very capitalist way of looking at it. If you want people to do something, offer them money and they'll do it. I think the reason that doesn't work for teachers is because if you were someone that was really, really motivated by money, you wouldn't have become a teacher.

Tracy:  That's true. That's not the really wealthy industry, to be honest.


Ross:  ...or you'd become a lawyer or you'd try to become a doctor, or you'd have become a sales person, but you wouldn't have moved to Prague and got a teaching job. At least for me, when I moved to China, I took a pay cut of about...I was getting paid, I think, a quarter or a fifth of what I getting paid before in the UK.

That is not to say money is not important to me, but it's obviously not the main driving reason behind what I'm doing. Otherwise, I wouldn't take a 70 percent pay cut for a new job. I was sure that there was other factors that are important.

Tracy:  I think that will lead to the next one that I've been thinking about because a lot of time, the managers they believe what they believe. They never ask the teacher, "Is this the reason why you stay or is why the reason you leave?"

Ross:  There's a quote in the Bible, I think, isn't there? It's like, "Do unto others as you would have do unto you." Have you heard this before?

Tracy:  Yeah, I think so.


Tracy:  It doesn't work...

Ross:  This is like treat other people the way you want to be treated.

There's a quote from George Bernard Shaw who says, "Do not do unto others as they expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same." Obviously, different people are motivated by different things, but I think this is assumption that what motivates me must be the same as what motivates you.

The big problem in organizations is that senior managers do get a high salary and probably are quite motivated by money. They may assume, "Oh, that must be the same for teachers," but it's not.

Tracy:  Yeah. That's a good point. A lot of managers of organizations don't really listen to teachers and what they really need and what motivates them because I think...We talk about sit down with teachers at different time, maybe before the probation or other probation six months or one year or different year before contract.

You just maybe have a regular meeting or conversation with your teacher and just find out what's going on with them and what they really need.

Ross:  I think listening is the key thing there.

Tracy:  Exactly.

Ross:  If you're doing a review with someone after however long, that the main person speaking in the review to be the employee not the managers so you can find out more about what interests them, what their goals are, why they're doing the job. If you don't know those things, how can you expect to motivate someone?

Tracy:  A lot of teacher I talk to, at least, some teachers say, "Do you really think that I'm doing this job for money? No, because I want to really help people and to see my students develop, to learn something. I want to see their happy face at the end of the class." Don't assume people do or stay this job just because of money.

What can managers and organizations do to retain teachers?

Tracy:  You've been a manager for a few years. What are the secrets for you as a manager to keep your staff?

Ross:  If you care for your staff and you say, "Oh, I know that you're going to leave one day. What I want to do in the next year, we want to give you some of the skills and things that are going to help you get to the next position, either on this company or outside this company."

Say, you've told me you want to run your own center, school, or your own CertTESOL school, then great. "Great. OK, let's work on having a plan for you over the next year so that you can get skills, so that you'll be able to run your own school in a year's time, or two years' time." You're much more likely to stay with me for those two years.

I think it's counter‑intuitive for people because I think people think, "Oh, I don't want to encourage my staff to leave." I think you want to encourage your staff to achieve their goals and those goals will probably usually be outside the company.

For me, that secret is like listening to them, finding out what is it they want to achieve in the future, and then help them to make sure they get the skills in their current job that'll help them get there in the future. Your aim isn't to keep people until they're 65.

Tracy:  Yeah.


Ross:  Your aim is to keep people as if keeping them for one year, keeping them for three years or four years.

Tracy:  That's an interesting point, though, because even for employee or for teachers and they stay longer and then automatically, we believe, "OK, the reason why I stay another year because I want to have a promotion." Of course, that's fine, but after what you mentioned, and then you think about, "OK, I'm going stay another year or two. What can I get out of it?"

Ross:  Yeah, exactly. That's why you want to talk to people about. What do you want to get out of staying here for another year and having that conversation with people?

Tracy:  That's my point. Just accept the position, the title, and the real skills and the competencies and knowledge and all that kinds of stuff, and people need to consider more. You know what I mean?

Ross:  I think that's something that managers need to help people to realize. For a lot of people, it's like, "Oh, I'm going to be standing up in front of a room of 15 kids again for a year teaching them ABC."

[laughs] There's a lot more in a way of skills that you can get out of that that can help you to get a better job or something when you leave, or you can study a qualification or something that's going to help you get a different job when you leave.

It's helping people realize what are the skills that you need for the future and then how can we make sure that you get those skills in your current position.

Tracy:  Yeah. In another word, I think, just to try to let them see their value in this team work, in this company...


Ross:  It's just part, I think of recognizing people. I think it's about recognizing the right things. It's not about saying, "Well, well done. You got the most student retention, or you got the highest demonstration class conversion," or, "Well done. You came to work on time every day for the last month." It's about praising people for things that they want to be praised for.

Tracy:  Can I ask you here? I'm just confused that should we ask them or do you want me?

Ross:  You don't need to ask people like, "What do you want to be praised for exactly?" You can find out what people think that they're good at doing, and I think praising people for, "You made the most money for our company every month."

That's great if it's a sales person because that is the role of a sales person, it's to make money. If it's a teacher and you praise them for making money, then you're not going to keep people who are very suited for the teaching profession.

That all comes down to like you were saying at the beginning, getting to know people's motivation, understand...


Ross:  ...and then sitting down with someone on the first day in the new job and say, "Why are you here? What do you want to get out of this?"

Tracy:  What if the teacher says, "I just want to come here to travel"?

Ross:  That's fine.

Tracy:  How can you help them?

Ross:  That was what I wanted to do in the beginning.

Tracy:  How can you do that to relate to their retention? Because you know they're going to leave. "I don't care..."

Ross:  I didn't leave. I came here to travel and I'm still in the same country, in the same organization 10 years later. People's motivations change and we know, again, from research that the majority of what's called Self‑initiated Expats, SIEs, so people who make the decision themselves to go abroad.

One of the most common reasons, and the most common reason for language schools is, that they want to travel. Of course, give those people opportunities to do that but they might enjoy the job as I did. Like I really, really enjoyed teaching and as time has gone by, my motivations for staying in this profession, this industry have changed.

Why it's important for managers and organizations to keep teachers and to motivate them?


Tracy:  We talked a lot about the common mistakes and how we motivate and keep teachers. Why do we do that? Why do we care about doing it?

Ross:  The main, I think, reason for big organizations is just it's very, very expensive to recruit teachers from abroad. You could save so much money by just keeping teachers in the same position for longer.

That's the big picture. I think if it comes down to the small picture about teachers and students, then as a teacher, the most important thing you can do is understand and get to know your students.

Tracy:  Yeah, that's the common feedback that I heard when I met some students in the center and just say, "Oh, OK. After my six months alternative leave, I came back and there's no teacher in this school. I really know. They all left." I think that's a really, really bad effect on the students. It's definitely bad for the students.

Ross:  It's not necessarily saying that every teacher who's been teaching for five years is better than every teacher who's been teaching for six months. I think it's pretty much always true that you're a better teacher after five years than you were after one year. I definitely was.

Tracy:  Another thing is, similar to recruitment, is training, because we're doing training. [laughs] You know how much time and efforts we spend with the teachers and then they leave.

That's the most frustrating thing for a trainer, at least for me. I have the teachers, I spend all the time, I'll be one or two weeks with them, and then you'll just see in six months or a year and they just left. They can do a really good job but...you know what I mean, and have to train new people again, again, again, and again.

Ross:  Which is really, really costly for organizations, right?

Tracy:  Yeah, exactly because they have to pay us to do training and stuff.

Ross:  This is something that's becoming more and more common not just in education but everywhere. If you look at my parents, they pretty much stayed in the same jobs for about 30‑something years. For your parents, how long did they work in the same companies for?

Tracy:  Their whole life, yeah.

Ross:  Yeah.

Tracy:  Definitely. More than 30 years.

Ross:  Right. I think now, things are changing a lot faster and I think the world average according to LinkedIn is only something like four years that people stay in the same company.

Tracy:  Of course, nowadays, we don't expect people to stay in the same company, same position 5, 10 years because that's unrealistic. Again, don't want to spend a lot of time and money, keep hiring new people and training them.


Wrap Up

Tracy:  Ross, you just started a new job. If you have a chance to tell your manager three things that can motivate you, what they are going to be?

Ross:  The team I work with is really important in my last job. I really loved all the people that I had worked with and that kept me there for quite a long time.

As a manager, having control over who you hire is really, really important. Things like your work schedule and your work‑life balance is also super important especially nowadays. That's something that research has shown as important for every generation.

For me, working overtime isn't a problem occasionally, but I know of some people and friends who've had to work six days a week and 12 hours a day every day for two years. Those people obviously quit.

Making sure there's some work‑life balance. Professional growth and development, it might not be getting like doing tons of training courses or anything, but it might just be the opportunity to research and present at conferences.

Tracy:  That's very good advice.

Ross:  I hope she's listening.

Tracy:  [laughs] Good luck. All right. Bye, everyone.

Tracy:  For more podcasts, videos and blogs, visit our website, www.tefltraininginstitute.com.

Ross:  Www.tefltraininginstitute.com. If you've got a question or a topic you'd like us to discuss, leave us a comment.

Tracy:  If you want to keep up‑to‑date with our latest content, add us on WeChat @tefltraininginstitute.

Ross:  If you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us on iTunes.