Types of Teacher Motivation and Why They Matter

Female teacher smiling in front of classroom

The field of education continues to navigate a perpetual concern with teacher turnover and attrition.1 The number of teachers leaving the profession due to burnout, dissatisfaction and undesirable conditions is alarming. As teachers leave the field, their students and the school communities continually suffer from disengagement, lack of community, disruptions in classroom learning and more.

Teaching is challenging and it requires commitment, stamina and growth. What keeps teachers committed to their work is their motivation. What is teacher motivation fueled by? It is imperative that educational administration looks more deeply at this issue to help leverage teacher motivation when addressing retention. 

What motivates teachers to enter the field, and more importantly, to stay?

While there are many types of motivation for students, we are going to examine altruistic motivation, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. The latter two are more commonly understood. Each matter in the realm of education are applicable to educator retention. Furthermore, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation each have a particular role in the development of students as well. 

Motivated teachers are likely to be more engaged, perform to their highest potential and positively affect those around them. On the other hand, teachers with low motivation may lack interest in their work, disengage from peers and students and perform at a minimum rate or less. The toxicity that can arise from unmotivated teachers can infiltrate a school community, potentially causing great damage. Teacher motivation is linked to student learning in many ways.2 Thus, understanding teacher motivation at the foundation can assist with improving it and addressing it.

In This Article:

Altruistic Motivation

People often work to satisfy human relations, work desires and livelihood needs. This can mean that people want to connect with others, they want to be useful, they want to be recognized and they want to make an earning to live on. Educators might get into the field for the same reasons. Research shows that most educators get into the field to make a difference in the world.3 This exemplifies altruism: the practice of selflessness for the well-being of others.

Altruistic motivation relies on the intentional and voluntary behavior that is performed without expectation of rewards and is focused on benefits for another person(s). The altruistic desire to leave a lasting impact and to positively influence the lives of students is a driving motivational factor that brings educators to the field and gives them reason to remain in the field. The reward of making a difference in students’ lives and building relationships may be enough to satisfy the needs of educators. Altruistic motivation is important because it is a leading factor in both getting teachers into the field and helping them stay there. 

Ways to emphasize altruistic motivation for students: 

  • Ask teachers to share why they entered the field
  • Allow teachers to share their meaningful work stories with others
  • Highlight teacher stories of meaningful work in school newsletters 
  • Recognize the difference teachers make with their students
  • Encourage and recognize the relationships built in the school community
  • Share success stories

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivations can come from positive or negative external reinforcement. Such motivations may include salary, material benefits, vacations and rewards. A teacher might be motivated based on their perception of how well they are compensated for their work. For example, teachers often get professional development hours or further their education because they are motivated to move up on a pay scale. 

Autonomy, feedback, job security and evaluative scores are other extrinsic factors that can motivate teachers to stay or possibly to leave. Some educators may also consider having motivated students and resources for support as extrinsic motivators. Therefore, helping students to be motivated can be significant in the field of education as it can influence teacher motivation. 

In education, extrinsic motivators can also negatively affect teachers. For example, the measurement of teacher competence through student achievement scores can negatively affect teacher motivation if they feel they have no control over students’ test scores. Teacher evaluations are also associated with negative extrinsic motivation if teachers feel they are measured by impossible expectations rather than by the work they do every day. 

Teachers are often faced with unrealistic expectations, which is one of the top reasons they leave the field.1 Teachers have to manage lesson planning, student behavior, grading, parent communication, relationships, politics, committees, virtual learning, and actual lesson teaching to name a few. When teachers are then measured by unrealistic expectations, they lose self-efficacy and motivation. 

While autonomy and building competence can support intrinsic motivation, they can also support extrinsic motivation. Supporting teacher development and self-efficacy by recognizing their efforts and providing resources that neutralize unrealistic expectations may help them feel more motivated to perform. 

Ways to emphasize extrinsic motivation:

  • Provide professional development opportunities based on interest
  • Provide positive feedback and reinforcement
  • Write a personal note to a teacher or peer
  • Provide resources to support teachers and students
  • Build a community with motivation for teachers and students
  • Provide autonomy for teachers when able
  • Highlighting teacher efforts in a school newsletter
  • Allow teachers to peer observe and learn from one another
  • Focus evaluations on effort and growth

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is typically based on a genuine interest and enjoyment from what internally drives an individual to do something. It involves feelings, desires and incentives, all of which stem from an individual’s behavior and what matters to oneself. This might be considered the “internal interest.” With teachers, intrinsic motivation is about teaching and learning because they love to do it while also enhancing personal development and successes in teaching. 

Intrinsic motivation for teachers can greatly influence their satisfaction, commitment and levels of student motivation. Teachers tend to remain in education longer when they intrinsically believe teaching is fulfilling for them. According to Deci and Ryan, intrinsically motivated individuals and teachers often gain satisfaction from the work.4

Deci and Ryan also note the link between intrinsic motivation and belonging, autonomy and competence (the ABCs), while addressing the conditions necessary for fostering intrinsic motivation.4 Teachers should feel a sense of belonging in the school community. Teachers need autonomy in their work. Additionally, teachers need to feel confident in their abilities and have self-efficacy, which is influenced by the environment. With the ABCs in place, teachers will be more intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation can influence teacher retention and student learning experience. Like altruistic motivations, an intrinsic motivation to do good, to teach specific content and to positively influence the lives of students can be a motivating factor for teachers to enter and remain in the field.

Ways to emphasize intrinsic motivation:

  • Cultivate an environment of respect
  • Generate a sense of belonging through relationship-building exercises
  • Build self-efficacy through support, resources and professional development
  • Offer recognition and praise for efforts
  • Provide opportunities for passion projects
  • Encourage goodness
  • Model and support positivity
  • Allow autonomy 
  • Build competence through recognition
  • Share decision-making responsibilities and leadership initiatives
  • Create conditions conducive to success for all (differentiate support for teachers too)
  • Encourage and empower teachers and students

Motivating Teachers

Motivation in education is one necessity for educators and students. More so than ever, teacher motivation is pivotal for the field as attrition is a constant concern.

Leaders and peers can help generate teacher motivation in various ways (as discussed earlier and below). 

  • There is a need to help teachers recall and live through their altruistic motivations that bring them to the profession. Through that connection with, and an emphasis on their desire to do meaningful work, teachers can be fueled to continue their work. 
  • Building on teachers’ altruistic motivation, fostering intrinsic motivation can support teachers in times of fatigue or difficulty in their role. 
  • By providing support for building teacher self-efficacy and competence, cultivating a sense of community and belonging, while offering autonomy, can help teachers increase their intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction. 
  • In some cases, providing extrinsic motivation, such as feedback and professional development, can also motivate teachers.

For teachers looking to bolster their own motivation, there are also several individual practices. 

  • Take time to reflect on the influence you’ve made with students and journaling the success stories. This may allow space in your life for recognition and self-awareness, all linking to that altruistic fire inside. 
  • Take time for self-care. By recognizing the good you are doing and rewarding yourself with something that makes you happy, you can build your confidence and capacity.
  • Engage in professional learning that you enjoy. By building your competence and connecting to what drives you, you may be more intrinsically motivated to enhance your practice.
  • Connect with colleagues at lunch, on prep periods or whenever you can. Sharing stories and practices not only creates belonging and commitment but also develops skills and knowledge. 
  • Build stronger relationships with students and families or caretakers by asking questions to learn about each other. Create a sense of belonging for others and build intrinsic and altruistic motivation.
  • Reward yourself and your peers for hard work. Even a note of appreciation to yourself or others can make a big difference in someone’s day.
  • Remember why you entered the field and let that be the drive to why you stay.

Motivating Students

While teacher motivation has been the focus here, it is also important to note the need for student motivation. Students are often influenced by teacher motivation and vice versa. For an environment to thrive, all individuals should be motivated to engage and build a sense of community. 

In a learning environment, a teacher’s motivation can cause students to engage or disengage. A student’s motivation may be an intrinsic or extrinsic motivator for teachers. Furthermore, fostering intrinsic motivation in students can be beneficial for them as they navigate their lives. Intrinsic motivation is crucial in moral development.

Just as described in teacher motivation, students need the ABCs in order to build intrinsic motivation. Teachers can provide these conditions in their classroom practices. 

  • By providing students with voice and choice in activities, lessons, content, research projects, etc., students can feel a sense of autonomy.
  • Through scaffolding, differentiation and feedback, teachers can help build competence.
  • With caring environments of inclusivity where all students are heard, respected and valued, belonging and relatedness will be built.

As student motivation is enhanced, they are more likely to be engaged and apply themselves. With student motivation heightened, teacher motivation typically increases and they are more likely to show up for students. In turn, as more teachers show up for students, more students are likely to want to show up in return. The overall cycle is centered on the conditions needed to foster motivation and the benefits are rendered to all involved.  

In conclusion, the importance of balancing motivation and teaching, while harnessing student motivation, cannot be emphasized enough. It is the responsibility of teachers, students, leaders, peers and alike to uplift this critical profession for the good of society. To do so, we should be focusing on the motivational factors conducive to building up one another and enhancing motivation in everyone. 

The field of education is built on the foundation of teaching and learning, community and relationships and the drive of individuals. This is why a Bachelor of Science in Educational Studies can help students learn about teaching and how to guide their students in the classroom. Thus, let us consider how to cultivate more motivation. 

1 Bryant, J., Ram, S., Scott, D. and Williams, C. (2023, March 2). K-12 teachers are quitting. What would make them stay? McKinsey & Company. Retrieved on Dec. 19, 2023. 

2 Al-Said, K. (2023, March 29). Influence of teacher on student motivation: Opportunities to increase motivational factors during mobile learning. National Library of Medicine: National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved on Feb. 26, 2024.

3 Arthur, J., Kristjánsson, K., Cooke, S., Brown, E., and Carr, D. (2015). The good teacher: Understanding virtues in practice: Research report. The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Retrieved on Dec. 12, 2023.

4 Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (2008 August). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Research Gate. Retrieved on Dec. 16, 2023.

Approved by the assistant director of the Canyon Center for Character Education on March 8, 2024.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.