Career structures can improve teacher motivation

07 November 2016


Lucy Crehan is the author of the book “Exploring the impact of career models on teacher motivation”. She explains some of her latest findings in an interview with IIEP.

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Why is teacher motivation a problem today?

The pursuit of universal access to primary education, the second of the Millennium Development Goals, has successfully led to many more children attending school across the developing world. However, this gain has come at a cost. The rapid expansion of primary school places has led to a greater demand for qualified teachers, and, as demand outstrips supply, untrained and less-educated teachers are being recruited to fill the gap. Unfortunately, this has had an effect on the status and motivation of teachers, and a number of researchers in such contexts have warned of a ‘teacher motivation crisis’, with others describing it as a ‘colossal problem’. 

Even in those countries which have been comfortably providing universal access to primary and secondary education for a while, there are growing concerns about the single salary schedule. This is the system where teachers’ pay increases year on year, irrespective of whether they tirelessly devote themselves to improving their practice, or hand out worksheets at the start of the lesson and then catch up on their emails at their desk. Under such a system, the latter get away with their lack of interest in improving their students’ education, and the former get frustrated about the lack of recognition and career development. 


What is the solution?   

Some policy makers have suggested that the way to address these problems is to pay teachers based on their students’ results. This is the most obvious solution; but it is not the right one. Research into the psychology of motivation suggests that beyond a certain point, money doesn’t motivate. In fact, if people feel that the pay system they work within is controlling, then payment by results can reduce motivation in the long term, and lead to a narrowing of focus on measurable outcomes, or even cheating. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is brought about in environments in which people feel they have autonomy over their work, where they have good relationships with colleagues, and where they have the opportunity to achieve mastery in whatever it is they do. 


Is intrinsic motivation enough?

We ought to be encouraging intrinsic motivation through providing teachers with opportunities for collaboration with colleagues and access to quality professional development. But what about the teacher for whom this is not enough, who continues to play on her phone for most of the lesson? How can we create a system which holds teachers to account for the quality of their work, without reducing the intrinsic motivation of those who already have it with a system they perceive to be controlling? Creating a more sophisticated career structure might be the answer. 


What is a career structure?

Career structures come in different forms – some are more successful than others. Essentially, it is a system in which teachers’ pay progresses up to a point, beyond which they must pass an appraisal and take on an enhanced teacher role in order to increase their salary. Chartered teachers, master teachers, lead teachers… perhaps you’ve heard of these terms before. Such a structure means that motivated teachers can take control of their own professional development and apply for new positions that appeal to them without having to leave the classroom. In the meantime, those that don’t bother to take on this responsibility and improve their teaching are stuck at a lower pay grade, giving them a disincentive to remain as they are. 


How are career structures applied?

There are a few features that can make career structures more successful. Firstly, although the whole point of these structures is that teachers can be promoted while remaining in the classroom, it is important that the new roles include some additional responsibility – sharing their good practice with their colleagues for example – so that others don’t perceive them to be getting something for nothing. 

Secondly, the standards against which teachers are evaluated need to be stringent enough that not all who apply for the new roles get them, allowing the roles to remain prestigious. 

Thirdly, at the lower levels of career structures, it appears to work best if anyone who successfully meets the (high) standards is awarded the promotion, rather than teachers being pitched against each other – this is more likely to lead to the collaboration between teachers that is so helpful for encouraging intrinsic motivation. 


Originally a teacher, Lucy Crehan studied for her MEd at the University of Cambridge before conducting research into some of the world’s ‘top performing’ education systems. Her second book, ‘Cleverlands’, is out in December. Lucy now works as part of a team advising governments on education reform at the Education Development Trust.

You can find her at @lucy_crehan and


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