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Teaching Profession Opinion

What Motivates Teachers to ‘Opt In?’

By Contributing Blogger — October 02, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Anne Vilen, senior writer at EL Education.

I recently facilitated professional development for a high school faculty in which nearly a third of the teachers were new to the school. As they trickled in past our start time, I could see that they carried with them the meeting norms of their previous schools. Teachers were arriving from a full day with students to an overcrowded, slightly too warm classroom. They were likely thinking about that kid who was absent again, their empty stomachs, or how beautiful the weather was outside, and NOT about standards-based grading--the topic of our professional development. Ten minutes into the session, I noticed a few teachers at the back of the room answering emails, entering grades, and checking Facebook. This is a familiar scene in after-school PD.

We often approach teaching teachers differently than teaching students. We tend to pay less attention to their needs as learners and, as a result, they disengage or get distracted. The reality is that teachers are motivated to opt in (or not) by many of the same factors as their students. One of the key factors for both students and teachers is their sense of belonging in the school community.

Education researchers have recently begun to uncover the complex relationship between a sense of belonging and student achievement. A preliminary report by the Raikes Foundation says, “When students are valued and respected as individuals and are not reduced to a stereotype, they persist in school, learn deeply, and become lifelong learners.” An Education Week Research Center study of 528 teachers affirms this conclusion, but one teacher notes, “It’s very hard day in and day out to convince [students] that they are loved, valued, and respected when they go home every night to a dysfunctional home.”

The hypothesis behind the recent research, I would argue, can be extended to teachers. The degree to which teachers feel connected to and cared for by their school community dictates a great deal about how they tune in to new learning and to working collaboratively to solve problems (especially complex ones) in their school community. It’s also similarly hard for teachers to feel they belong to the learning community if they go home to situations that are challenging or dispiriting, or arrive to work in the morning to a dysfunctional school. The trouble is, very often leaders don’t know what’s going on with teachers at home or what’s going on beneath the surface of well-intentioned systems in their own school. How do you find out?

Lead by Listening

To bolster teachers’ sense of belonging so that every teacher can commit to the kind of full-on learning and collaboration that mission-driven education demands, leaders can begin by asking the right question: “What do you need to feel safe, valued, and productive?” This is a simple but deep question. As a school leader, I often incorporated this question into a journaling exercise during summer orientation and asked teachers to reflect on their answers in advance of one-on-one check ins. Teachers told me things like:


  • “To feel safe, I need to know that every time you come in my classroom, you’re not scripting my lesson and evaluating me.”
  • “To feel safe, I need to find reliable childcare that’s closer to school. I’m worried that I’ll be out a lot this year taking care of my kids.”
  • “To feel valued, I need my teammates to honor our norms in meetings so that people show up on time and we aren’t just wasting time griping.”
  • “To feel productive, I need a better system for ordering supplies. I fill out a raft of forms and things don’t get ordered or don’t show up on time. . . . And, what can you do to streamline our after school meeting schedule?”

I also asked for permission to keep teachers’ journal entries so that we could reflect back on them later in the year. When I noticed a teacher opting out or getting frustrated with me or her colleagues, I would refer back to her answers, then set up an appointment to revisit the conversation and to ask additional questions that would get us back on track.

Alena Aguilar provides a list of questions teachers should ask students to find out what makes them feel like they belong, questions that result in answers like these. I suggest this same set of questions, slightly altered, would create a healing dialogue with teachers:


  • What would be the most useful thing for me to know about you as a teacher?
  • What do you wish was different about our school?
  • Describe a moment in school last year when you felt really engaged. Why do you think that moment was such a positive one for you?
  • What do you think your colleagues think about you, and what do you wish they’d think about you?
  • Tell me about a teacher who you feel knew you well. What kind of student were you in his or her class? What did he or she do to get to know you?
  • If you could build a school, what would it look like?
  • What do you wish I would ask you so that I can be a good leader for you?
  • What makes a weekend day great for you?

To these I would add a few additions from Shane Safir’s book, The Listening Leader:


  • What would wild success look like for you?
  • What do you most want to be a part of creating for our community?
  • What can I learn from your experience and expertise this year?
  • What have you not mentioned that I need to hear?
  • When you step up to the balcony, what’s a different way of seeing this challenge?
  • How can I both support you and hold you accountable to that goal?

Structure Time for Teachers to Reflect, Discuss, and Grapple

In schools, what we make time for is a good indicator of what we value. Holding space for teachers to reflect deeply on these questions and journal at some length goes a long way to creating a culture of transparency, inquiry, and dialogue. In summer orientation, provide a list of questions and give teachers 20 minutes or more to respond to the three or four that feel most important to them. Another way to create time and sustain the dialogue throughout the year is to schedule time during faculty or team meetings for a think-pair-write protocol, taking on one question at a time.

The conversations between peers and between teachers and leaders that emerge from these questions--and from unpacking “safe,” “valued,” and “productive” separately--push both teachers and leaders to be vulnerable and to connect at a human and humane level. Teachers are invited to share without shame or judgment the very real hurdles of working in an educational environment that may be under-resourced, overscheduled, or under-appreciated. Leaders may also have to acknowledge their own failings as administrators who have created or embraced systems that don’t work for teachers.

On the common ground of this shared vulnerability, leaders and teachers can face challenges together and grapple productively with how to fix them. The bridge of belonging is paved with such shared vulnerability and with a shared sense of ownership that motivates a desire to improve.

Leading with the Right Questions Helps Teachers (and Students) Learn Deeply

Safir notes that “Relationships aren’t a warm and fuzzy goal of softhearted leaders. They are the connective tissue that makes learning possible for students and adults.” By asking questions that create opportunities to inquire about inequities, reflect on teachers’ visions of their classrooms, and explore personal work-life balance, leaders empower others to make clearer and better decisions. A sense of belonging isn’t just about feeling better about going to work. It’s also about performing better at work. What’s more, research shows that student achievement also increases when faculty trust one another. A school in which ALL teachers feel they belong and are bolstered by common purpose is one where teachers, and students, are primed for deeper learning.

Photo Credit: Anne Vilen

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