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Money Might End the Strike, but It Doesn't Motivate Teachers

Money Might End the Strike, but It Doesn't Motivate Teachers

by Shane McFeely and Ben Wigert

Teachers across America have had enough.

In several states, educators have staged walkouts to protest low pay. Hundreds more have called in sick with "pension flu."

To some, these demonstrations might suggest that money is a powerful motivator for teachers. But there's more to the picture than just wages.

On the one hand, many teachers feel that they're underpaid. Gallup analytics show that only 14% of teachers strongly agree that their pay and incentives are fair in comparison to the job market for people doing similar work.

These teachers are not wrong: A 2015 Economic Policy Institute study found teachers' average pay is 17% lower than other professionals with a college education. Further, the National Center for Education Statistics and the Council for Community and Economic Research report that teachers in many states have experienced net wage decreases from 2010-2016.

At the same time, only 6% of teachers strongly agree that pay and incentives motivate them to do what is best for their overall organization. Money might be pivotal for bringing teachers back to the classroom, but it's unlikely to drive them to perform their best each day.

So what does inspire teachers?

Intrinsic motivators -- such as mission-filled work and having job autonomy and opportunities to be creative in the classroom -- can be potent motivators for teachers. These factors that teachers experience in the classroom every day tend to be more powerful than extrinsic motivators -- such as pay and benefits.


How Education Leaders Can Motivate Teachers

First and foremost, education leaders at all levels should do everything in their power -- and budgets -- to provide fair wages. Offering competitive pay helps attract and retain talented teachers. Then, leaders can focus on creating an engaging school culture and learning environment.

Building an engaged school has a direct impact on both teacher outcomes -- including well-being, engagement, absenteeism and turnover -- and student outcomes -- such as student engagement, growth and achievement.

Here are three suggestions for fostering an engaging work environment for teachers:

  1. Make individualized development opportunities a priority.
    Employees value jobs that invest in their futures and advance their skills. School leaders should understand each teacher's professional goals to provide individualized, strengths-based career development opportunities. One-size-fits-all professional development opportunities rarely engage all teachers. Investing in each teacher's development is fundamental to engaging and retaining them.
  2. Create the right culture.
    Teachers who are engaged are 62% less likely to leave their district compared with teachers who are not engaged or actively disengaged. It's on school leaders' shoulders to build a positive, engaging work environment. Such a culture includes recurring meaningful recognition and transparent, frequent conversations with teachers about their needs, successes, and goals. Leaders should also measure teacher engagement to make data-driven decisions about their engagement needs.
  3. Carefully consider teacher incentives.
    Nearly seven in 10 (68%) teachers say they would prefer a steadily increasing salary with no opportunity for additional pay based on performance. Only 4% of teachers say that the amount of pay and incentives they receive is formally tied to how well they perform. Measuring teacher performance is notably difficult, and high-stakes education incentives have previously led to unproductive behaviors to game the system. Pay-for-performance systems are only effective if job performance can be measured precisely. Education leaders need to rethink how they measure and evaluate teacher performance by integrating multiple student, teacher, and principal outcomes.

Teachers want to be paid but not in a high-stakes, pay-for-performance environment. While it's clear that teachers should be paid more fairly, financial factors alone are not enough to engage and drive them to excel. Investing in teachers holistically requires ongoing and intentional effort. Teachers want a paycheck and a purpose when they come to work.

Experience how Gallup can help your school engage students and teachers:

Bailey Nelson contributed to this article.

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