On my first day of work, my administrator handed me a thick binder and said, “This is the instructional pacing guide, which the district requires you to follow. Please do not deviate from the plan.” Suddenly I understood why the teacher I was replacing had quit midyear.
After just one semester, I left too. Although I loved my students and colleagues, my joy for teaching waned in this controlling environment. I had previously worked for principals who empowered teachers to grow and thrive, even under the most challenging conditions, so I knew the existence of this kind of leadership was not a myth. It wasn’t until I became an educational researcher years later that I stumbled upon a framework that administrators could use to create an environment that nurtures teacher growth.
That framework is Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which proposes that humans seek opportunities for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that an environment that supports all three cultivates their intrinsic motivation to learn and grow. According to Deci and Ryan, people universally thrive in an autonomous environment, in which they have some degree of say in their day-to-day activities, rather than a controlled environment, in which their time is dictated by those with more power.
This theory is particularly applicable to teachers in public schools today: Teachers increasingly feel that their classroom autonomy and their perceived competence among the public have diminished. A recent study found that this type of work environment could impact the mental health—and even the mortality—of those who choose to stay. It’s unsurprising, then, that teachers are leaving the profession in growing numbers.
Today I work as a high school instructional coach. Following are some practical suggestions that detail how administrators can support teachers’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In my experience, responding to these needs can have a favorable impact on both individual teacher satisfaction and overall school culture.
1. Support Teachers’ Need for Autonomy
Releasing curricular control: Trust teachers to select their own texts and learning materials when possible, and to choose the most appropriate learning strategies for their students. Avoid overreliance on scripted curricula and online programs, as these stifle teachers’ and students’ creativity. Allow teachers’ individual personalities to shine through in the classroom.
Listening to them: Allow teachers a role in decision-making on rules that affect them and their students. Having an open-door policy in which teachers feel free to share suggestions and concerns with you is one of the most authentic ways to honor their voices.
2. Help Teachers Feel Competent
Praise: Focus on things teachers are doing well and praise them for even the smallest incremental successes. Too much criticism, even if warranted, is defeating.
Realistic expectations: Many teachers today come into the profession through alternative means of certification. They may not have the pedagogical knowledge that those emerging from a teacher training program do—and should not be expected to perform as such on day one.
Support: Offer one-on-one coaching and meaningful, ongoing professional learning opportunities to foster growth in identified areas of weakness. One-and-done professional development classes and drive-by coaching do not lead to transformative change in teachers’ practice.
3. Foster Relatedness Among Staff
Play: Begin the school year on a playful note with staff team-building activities. Studies show that shared laughter promotes group bonding. Encourage teachers to do the same in their classrooms; it will help them find joy in their work.
Vision: Develop a mission and vision for your school, and work with teachers to bring them to life. Having a common goal and sense of purpose builds unity.
Personal relationships: Take time to get to know teachers personally. Just as the most effective teachers know their students well, so too should an administrator really know their teachers. But first, lower your own walls and allow teachers to get to know you. It’s OK to be human.
Community: Plan social gatherings outside of school hours to continue building a positive school culture. Whether in small groups or as a whole staff, ongoing opportunities to get to know each other make a huge difference in helping teachers feel connected.
There are many factors beyond our control that create challenges for educators today, including societal criticism, comparatively low wages, and an emphasis on testing. Rather than complain about the things we cannot change as leaders, why not change the things we can? Let’s offer teachers autonomy and create warm, nurturing school communities in which both they and their students can thrive.