How to motivate and retain young teachers (from the 2017 IATEFL Conference)

Ask more or less anyone what motivates people and you will hear more or less the same answer: money.

Without exception, every time I have a run a workshop about how to motivate teachers, the participants pick “salary” as the most important factor. The participants at this workshop at IATEFL 2017 were no different. Their answers to “What do you think motivates teachers?” collected at the beginning of the workshop, are shown in Figure 1. There is research to support this belief. In 2006, Andy Hockley surveyed 105 teachers about their motivations at work and found salary was one of the most commonly identified factors for teacher motivation (Hockley, 2006). But is that still true now?

Figure 1: Automatically generated word cloud showing participants’ thoughts on “What motivates teachers?”

Figure 1: Automatically generated word cloud showing participants’ thoughts on “What motivates teachers?”

Generation Y

Much of the teaching workforce is now comprised of “Generation Y”, sometimes called “Millennials” (born between 1980 and 1994), who some researchers think are less motivated by responsibility and compensation and more motivated by career opportunities and work-life balance compared with their Generation X counterparts (born between 1965 and 1979) (Barford & Hester, 2011). “Carrots and sticks” are sometimes used as a metaphor for rewards and punishment in motivation. What if those we are trying to motivate are not rabbits, but monkeys? Are we using carrots when we should be using bananas?


To find out, over a period of two years, I surveyed 468 expatriate teachers, 169 of whom had recently resigned from their positions and 299 of whom had recently renewed their contracts. All teachers worked in the same private language teaching organization (LTO) in China. 83% of teachers in the LTO were Generation Y (i.e. born post 1980), around half taught adults and half taught young learners. Teachers who resigned were asked to select the primary reason they resigned. Teachers who renewed their contracts were asked to select the primary reason they renewed their contracts. The results are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Teachers’ motivations for contract renewal or exiting the LTO

Figure 2: Teachers’ motivations for contract renewal or exiting the LTO


From Figure 2 it is clear that in this study salary was one of the least important reasons for teachers to either leave the LTO or renew their contracts. If this is true for Generation Y teachers in general, many of our policies and incentive structures are at odds with our teachers’ motivations. The importance of this should not be underestimated. There is a correlation between teacher effectiveness and teacher tenure (Henry, Bastian & Fortner, 2011). Motivating teachers to stay in the profession for longer is not just a question of saving recruitment costs, but of helping students learn.


The three main motivators for teachers to renew their contracts in this study were growth, training & development, career opportunities and “the work itself” (i.e. teaching). The main reasons teachers left the LTO were disliking the location (the country or city they lived in), and work conditions (working hours, time off, work-life balance, etc.)



Instead of investing in salary increases for teachers in an attempt to motivate and retain young teachers, LTOs can instead invest in teachers growth, training and development by sponsoring teachers to undertake professional qualifications and allowing teachers time away from class to team teach and peer observe. LTOs must also invest in teachers’ career progression. Not everyone can be (or may want to be) a manager, but “career opportunities” doesn't necessarily mean “management”. Smaller increases in responsibility can be effective in motivating teachers, such as mentoring new teachers, coordinating materials, running training sessions, etc.


In terms of reducing demotivation, LTOs need to help expatriate teachers integrate with the culture of their new location. In this study, “location” was the most influential factor in teachers’ decisions to renew their contracts or resign. Showing teachers where to eat and how to use public transport and providing housing and local language lessons should all help to decrease turnover. Teachers’ comments about working conditions were usually related to scheduling and holidays.



We might know what (we think) motivates us, but we probably know much less about what motivates our teachers. Ultimately the only way of accurately knowing is to ask them. When it comes to motivating teachers, there may be no better advice than that of George Bernard Shaw, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”


Barford, I., & Hester, P. (2011). Analyzing Generation Y workforce motivation. Defense AT&L, 40(2), 36-40.

Henry, G. T., Bastian, K. C., & Fortner, C. K. (2011). Stayers and leavers: Early-career teacher effectiveness and attrition. Educational Researcher, 40(6), 271–280.

Hockley, A. (2006, March). What makes teachers tick? IATEFL Leadership & Management SIG – Newsletter, 37, 10-13.