Could new career opportunities lead to greater teacher motivation?

29 March 2018


Barbara Tournier/IIEP-UNESCO.
A sign in a principal's office in a New York City School.

It is often said that teachers matter most when looking at what makes a great education. However, there is a global crisis in teacher motivation, resulting in many ministries of education struggling to attract and retain capable and motivated educators. Some of the reasons include a lack of prospects for promotion, stagnant, low pay, and overall unsatisfactory working conditions.

In response, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning has been exploring whether an overhaul of teacher career structures and management could be the key to reinvigorating the profession.

Where to start

There is wide consensus that giving greater recognition to teachers is desirable, however there is less agreement on how to achieve this. Some policy-makers believe the solution is to align teacher pay with student results. This may be the most obvious solution, but it is not the right one.

Research into the psychology of motivation suggests that money can only motivate to a certain extent. In fact, if people feel that the pay system is controlling then payment by results can actually reduce motivation in the long term.

Systems that are more promising offer career advancement opportunities while allowing teachers to stay in the classroom. Among those systems, there has been a lot talk around what we refer to as career ladders (see image below).

Singapore’s career ladder:


In these systems, pay progresses up to a point and then teachers must pass an appraisal and take on an enhanced role or responsibility. As a result, motivated teachers can take control of their own professional development and apply for new positions without necessarily leaving the classroom.

From New York City to South Africa, two examples of wider opportunities

New York City and South Africa –two places that IIEP investigated in its research– are examples of systems that have tried to broaden career opportunities for teachers.

The NYC teacher career structure is a combination of a single salary schedule with an automatic salary increase every year and a career pathway that offers opportunities for vertical and horizontal mobility. Teachers who want to progress in their careers while remaining in the classroom can apply for three Teacher Leader positions that are associated with differentiated responsibilities and levels of pay: Model Teacher, Peer Collaborative Teacher or Master Teacher.

In South Africa, teachers can choose between a Teaching & Learning stream (to advance as a practicing teacher within the classroom), a Management and Leadership stream (to move into management and leadership positions within the school and education system), and a Research & Policy Development stream (to pursue a more academic path).

Intrinsic motivation can help spur continuous improvement

Many believe that teacher careers should provide opportunities for promotion. This can help to keep the best teachers in the classroom, find ways to recognize teachers’ work, and give them a sense of growth in their professional life. However, while doing this we must be careful to encourage and not undermine intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation flourishes when people feel they have autonomy in their work, when they have good relationships with colleagues, and when they have the opportunity to achieve mastery in whatever it is they do. Our hypothesis is that career ladders can encourage intrinsic motivation amongst teachers and incentivize continuous improvement.

However, it is very difficult to validate the link between career structure and teacher motivation, because of the wide range of factors that intervene in this relationship. That is why we looked at variables that could increase intrinsic motivation, including agency over career choices, teacher collaboration, and opportunities for continuous professional development.

Agency over career choices

In this context, agency refers to the amount of choice teachers have to determine the direction of their career. Our research has shown that people positively perceive the opportunity to choose between different career pathways in NYC and South Africa. A majority of teachers surveyed in South Africa either ‘agreed’ (41 percent) or ‘strongly agreed’ (30 percent) that they had control over the direction their career.

However, in both settings career advancement opportunities are limited by design and implementation challenges. For example, In NYC, school principals are sometimes not able to staff qualified teacher leaders because of budget shortfalls. Meanwhile, in South Africa, fewer teachers pursue the Teaching & Learning pathway because it is under-budgeted and does not actually offer an improved role.

Teacher collaboration

In NYC, Teacher Leaders and the teachers working with them reported more collaboration with each other, whereas previously they had been more isolated within their own classrooms. This collaboration happens through visiting a colleague’s classroom to observe, meeting in groups to discuss student work and teacher practices, or attending professional development workshops offered by teacher leaders.

In South Africa, the career structure design is not specifically geared towards fostering teacher collaboration as it is in NYC. Actually, the limited number of promotional posts tend to generate competition among teachers.

Opportunities for Continuing Professional Development

Opportunities for professional development and pedagogical improvement for teachers progressing through the career structure are also helpful in improving motivation. This was indeed the initial focus of the Teacher Career Pathway in NYC. Not only did it have an impact on the professional development of Teacher Leaders, but also the teachers with whom they work with. For example, one peer collaborative teachers said: “It’s a chance to facilitate and help other teachers in the classroom. Not being on an island. I collaborate so much more with other teachers. It’s made me a stronger teacher.” Principals asked in the survey have also seen the effects of this, and 91% of respondents agreed that “having teacher leaders in our school last year helped me to build instructional capacity”.

Opportunities for CPD in New York City:

On the other hand, in South Africa, although all teachers have to go through a three-year Professional Development cycle, it is not linked to the teacher career structure. Teachers are frustrated that the high value afforded to CPD as part of their professional duties does not necessarily translate into remuneration and new opportunities.

Learning from implementation : design and approach


In NYC, the emphasis has been on creating a collaborative and trusting culture in schools. This required a shift from an accountability frame, where teachers were used to judgmental observations, to a collaboration frame in which they could be more open about the challenges they face. This culture shift took time, and was something that happened at the individual school level.

A career ladder cannot be functional unless clear roles and criteria are defined at each level. In NYC, the central team spent a lot of time defining these roles and they are constantly refined. In South Africa, good intentions to offer opportunities to teachers in the classroom vanished because there was no clear criteria for promotion within the ‘classroom pathway’.

Lessons from implementation: administration & management

In NYC, a shared vision of the Department of Education (DOE) and the Union about how to improve teaching practice gave coherence to the career structure. Remarkably, one of the distinctive features of the programme and most likely one of its biggest strengths has been the continuous collaboration between the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the DOE. This has contributed to the teachers’ buy-in and has facilitated communication between the DOE and teachers.

Another key takeaway from NYC is the ongoing monitoring and adjusting of the career pathway. The Teacher Career Pathways took an incremental approach to implementation, which included learning by doing (for example on teachers’ roles). As a result, the programme grew progressively and its foundations were laid before it was taken to the next level. From the beginning, a budget was also dedicated to more formal monitoring including longitudinal surveys, interviews, and focus group discussions.

School heads are also key for the successful implementation of the career structure. They need to have a clear understanding of the goals and means of the reform.
In both NYC and South Africa, financing represented the biggest limitation to the smooth implementation of the career structure. The career structures also reflect the inequities of the education system: the wealthiest schools are the ones able to budget for diversified teacher and leadership roles.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, career structures that widen advancement opportunities have the potential to support the shift towards teacher collaboration and intrinsic motivation. However, they are complex and resource-intensive reforms that require careful design and implementation as well as administrative, human, and financial capacity.

Our research, which will be forthcoming in a series of policy briefs and case studies including NYC and South Africa, will provide a useful lens into how countries are organizing their teacher careers today and addressing challenges unique to their teaching landscape. By understanding and sharing these experiences, policy-makers in a variety of country contexts will be able to forge a clearer path towards enhanced teacher motivation, attraction, and retention.

View the related presentation from #CIES2018: