Thursday / April 25

How to Increase Adult Engagement and Motivation

Do you look forward to going to work most days? Do you feel that your work matters? Are you part of the decision-making process in your school or district? Do you use your unique strengths and talents most days?

If you answered, “Yes” to the above questions, it is highly likely you are engaged in, and motivated by, your work. You go the extra mile. You are growing and developing in your role. You know you are contributing in a meaningful way.

Common sense tells us that our ability to engage and motivate children in schools correlates with the engagement and motivation of the adults in those same schools. Observe a school culture where the adults are actively disengaged and unmotivated and you will likely observe disengaged and unmotivated students.

Unfortunately, there is widespread adult disengagement in our nation’s schools. According to research from the Gallup Organization, only 30% of U.S. teachers are engaged in their work;[1] a percentage that matches the national average for all U.S. workers. If our goal is to unleash the potential of all students, we need to focus on unleashing the potential of all adults in the system, in equal measure.

As a school or district leader, you have the opportunity to lead in such a way that increases the engagement and motivation of your faculty and staff. What are some practical ways in which you might do so?

In his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Dan Pink tells us that intrinsic motivation requires autonomy, mastery and purpose. I find this framework helpful when working with school leaders to help them transform culture and lead their schools during change; for example, one of the first things we do is to involve teachers and administrators as leaders in the process. We ground the work in the school’s North Star (purpose), recruit faculty and staff as the designers and implementers of the change (autonomy), and help faculty and staff identify personal and professional development goals for the year ahead (mastery).

What are some ways in which you might use ‘Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose’ to increase engagement and motivation in your school or district? Here are a few questions and strategies to help you get started:


  • What is the curricular and pedagogical vision for your district?
  • Is this vision widely held and understood by your community?
  • Do the adults know their unique part in making that vision a reality?

As a school leader, a significant part of your role is establishing the vision for your school or district and nurturing the conditions for its implementation. The more the vision is generated by your community, the more buy-in and motivation for its implementation you will have. Is your current vision compelling and clear and is it connected to the school or district’s day-to-day work?

If you answered, “yes”, congratulations! – and check your answer with a dozen or so faculty and staff. Do they share your view?

If you answered, “no”, how might you ground your school or district community in purpose? Do you need to conduct a series of visioning sessions to establish a compelling vision and purpose? Helpful resources include Schools that Learn, the DEEPdt Playbook and Design Thinking for Educators.


  • Having established a clear and compelling vision, do your faculty and staff have the autonomy to implement it?
  • Is there alignment with what your school or district values, as stated in the vision statement, and what happens in classrooms on a daily basis?

Too often I see a disconnect between a school’s vision statement and its practices – for example, we might say we value lifelong learning, that we want children to be creative, and develop higher order thinking skills – but then we prioritize evaluations on their work (and faculty and staff) based on blunt performance metrics such as responses on a multiple choice test.

As a teacher or administrator in your school, how much autonomy do I have to implement what we say is important in our school’s vision and does my opinion count? How aligned is your school or district evaluation system with what you say is important and meaningful?

I encourage you to survey your faculty and staff and ask if they have the autonomy to implement the school’s vision. Depending on the survey results, you may decide to convene a task force around this work to change structures and decision-making processes to increase autonomy. This is why ‘purpose’ is so important – having that clear and compelling vision statement provides the context within which to have a productive autonomy conversation.


  • Do your faculty and staff have the resources and professional development support to do their jobs effectively?
  • Are faculty and staff encouraged to work on meaningful professional development goals?
  • Do they have the opportunity to bring their strengths to work most days?

Your vision statement provides the context for your faculty and staff professional development. Many schools’ vision statement includes a “Portrait of a Graduate’, i.e. an articulation of the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that the school values and upon which curricular and pedagogical choices are made. What might a ‘Portrait of a Teacher’ look like at your school? What are the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that you value in your teachers?

Use your vision statement when starting your goal setting and professional development conversations this year. Be sure to ask what people’s strengths are and how they might bring more of those strengths to work. Ideally these development conversations are ongoing throughout the year and every faculty and staff member has the opportunity to build skills that takes them further along the path of mastery in their chosen area of specialization.

I often think of engagement in terms of a nested system – like a set of Russian Dolls – students are more likely to be engaged when faculty and staff are engaged. Which brings me to you. How engaged and motivated are you as a leader?  When you reflect on purpose, autonomy and mastery, are there elements you would like to work on this year to increase your leadership capacity? Perhaps you would like to take time to ground yourself in your own personal North Star and why you do this work, or perhaps you need to negotiate more autonomy to lead the school effectively. What about your own path of mastery as an education leader? I invite you to draft meaningful leadership development goals and to make those development goals public if possible. The leader as lead learner is a powerful first step in building a thriving school culture, one where engagement and motivation are palpable in person, and evident in meaningful school outcomes.


Written by

Julie Wilson is the Founder and Executive Director of Institute for the Future of Learning, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping transform the factory model of education. Julie has over fifteen years’ experience in organization development and change leadership; as a learning and development consultant at Harvard University, Julie managed the University’s career and professional development program, provided organization development consulting to University leaders and was the recipient of the ‘Harvard Hero’ award for outstanding contributions to the University.


In addition to helping schools and communities lead sustainable change, Julie highlights great practice and shares reflections on curriculum, pedagogy, and change at Julie graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with a Master’s degree in Technology, Innovation, and Education.  Look for Julie’s new book with Corwin, The Human Side of Changing Education, coming in Spring 2018.  Connect with Julie on LinkedIn and twitter.

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