What might make teachers stay?

Part of the #blogsync series for March 2013

The theme of this month’s #blogsync project is the matter of why so many teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

As with so many things, it sometimes helps to look at matters from a different point of view. It is hard to understand the myriad of factors that affect human behaviour, and so hard to understand the many factors that might lead to an individual teacher deciding to opt out of the profession. But what if we looked at the factors that might help to motivate teachers to continue to stay in the profession and develop increased skill and expertise in the field?

Let me first recommend a video by the RSA: an animation of a fascinating talk by Dan Pink all about MIT research into motivation for employees. It isn’t teacher-specific, but it certainly has a lot to think about that might be relvant:

In it, Dan Pink describes three factors which were found to be key in providing motivation – and perhaps more importantly, satisfaction – for employees:

  • autonomy, mastery and 
  • purpose.

Which of those are attainable within the first 5 years for the average newly-qualified teacher? How many of those departing teachers, who might otherwise have been successful and positive contributors to our education system, feel that they lack one – or perhaps all three – of these opportunities?


I’ve been teaching for 7 years now, and lead my own team. I am fortunate enough to work in a school where the leadership team recognises the strengths of its staff and encourages them to take a lead on a broad range of areas. I work in a classroom where – within reason – what happens is entirely up to me. Of course, I am required to demonstrate that what I do has a positive impact, through observation, assessment and the like, but within those parameters, I hold a considerable amount of autonomy over my daily work.

That autonomy has allowed me to make changes to the way I work, to the curriculum, to teaching styles… a whole host of things. Not always with fantastic outcomes, but always in a safe environment where it is possible for me to say “that was a disaster” and not feel concerned for my post!

How many new teachers have that opportunity? Or rather, perhaps we need to ask how many of those new teacher who have left never had that opportunity? Of course there are risks involved in autonomy, but there are also risks involved in removing it entirely. The overwhelming view of teachers at all levels today appears to be that the gradual decline of autonomy within schools is a matter of regret. Curricula, exam syllabuses, strategies, inspection frameworks: all of these limit our schools’ autonomy in some way, but perhaps if we can at least maintain that which remains for all our teachers – including those who are still making  mistakes – then perhaps we can reduce some of the exodus?

Of course, the freedom of autonomy comes with responsibility, and a responsibility that is much better managed with increased experience. Which leads us nicely onto the next theme.


I haven’t masted my profession. In fact, I would say that I frequently fail at it. If Gladwell was correct about the 10,000 hours then I should be at least half-way there and I’m not convinced.

The reality is that mastery is probably too much to hope for. But I do know that I’ve got better. I know not because of Ofsted or observations or data – although all of those have been part of that journey – but because I know and understand a lot more about my craft than I did when I began. And I will know more in another year’s time.

So if we can never achieve mastery – or at least, certainly not within those vital first five years – then what hope have we?

I’m going to venture into risky territory here and wonder if we might not learn something from Catholic guilt. Maybe if we all permanently carried around the guilt of original sin and our own misdemeanours we might become better at managing our failings?

Because in real life, there is always something more that could be done. The marking of books could always have been more thorough. Each lesson could have had one additional differentiation tweak. Each plan could be just that bit more detailed. Each child could have just a little more time. But each of those little failings soon adds up. It is all too easy to become overwhelmed with a list of failings, rather than recognising what has been achieved.

I won’t ever be the perfect teacher, and I will never truly master my profession. And now safe in the knowledge of that burden, I can really focus on being the best teacher I can be – while hopefully still having a life. How do we make sure that new teachers entering the profession are supported to recognise their limitations, without making them feel like failings? Because after all, if anything draws people to teaching, it is most likely to be the third of those great values.


At some point every one of will have sat in an interview explaining to some university professor why we wanted to enter the profession. And while we may not all have been entirely honest in our responses, it is fairly likely that the vast majority felt that it would provide some sort of higher purpose: it’s not just any old job.

Often we contrast purpose with financial incentive. “Teachers aren’t in it for the money” we claim – and rightly so in my opinion. Yet often in this world of ours we find ourselves talking only of another currency. We professionals who came into the career that would allow us to foster relationships, to educate, to engage with young people, find ourselves talking in the same hard numerical terms as any city banker.

That’s not what I see as my purpose. That’s not to say that I don’t want to use data. On the contrary, I think it can do a great deal to help me to achieve my purpose. But perhaps like the difference between a charity worker welcoming a big donation, and a banker welcoming a big bonus, I want the currency to be a means to an end. And I know that it is.

But what of those teachers who find their role dictated by the currency. The schools for whom the currency becomes the be-all and end-all. What offer of purpose does this provide to new teachers? Particularly those new teachers for whom, in the early years, a lack of mastery means that the demand for the currency leads to an erosion of autonomy in pursuit of the goal. What then?

As Dan Pink says at the end of his presentation: ” if we get past this kind of ideology of “carrots and sticks” and look at the science I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off but I also think they have the promise to make our world just a little bit better.”

Maybe if we can re-introduce some autonomy and purpose, and the freedom to work towards mastery, without demanding it from the off, then maybe we can start to stem the tide?

Other relevant blogs:

@headguruteacher Tom Sherrington on Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking (Autonomy)

The rest of the #blogsync blog


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3 thoughts on “What might make teachers stay?

  1. […] pay is comparable to many early stage professional pay scales and as Michael Tidd mentions in his blog  pay is not necessarily what motivates […]

  2. […] Michael Tidd: What might make teachers stay? […]

  3. Harry Fletcher-Wood 29 December 2013 at 10:05 pm Reply

    The Dan Pink talk you base this on is one of my favourite TED talks and has influenced everything I try to do for myself and for my students. The way you have applied this to teaching seems spot on to me & I think the points about the need for autonomy and what mastery looks like are particularly apt. It was a real pleasure reading this, thank you.

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