For prestige, cash, or love of the job

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Motivation has been defined as the power to move or act despite obstacles or difficulties. You don't need to be particularly motivated to accomplish easy tasks, but motivation is vital when it comes to reaching taxing goals.

Teaching is a career path many consider fraught with difficulty.

The job involves emotionally and intellectually demanding work, often within a framework of inadequate resources. Many teachers complain of stress, burnout and poor career satisfaction.

But perhaps the demands of the job aren't to blame; more it's a mismatch between personal motivation and career requirements. For example, if teachers choose the profession because they like interacting with children, but then find most of their time is spent doing paperwork, then they are unlikely to find personal fulfilment.

Motivational theory argues that we all take action for three primary reasons: we want to, we believe it is our duty, or we believe we must (out of fear). If we take action because we want to, we tend to take more initiative and are more satisfied with our work.

Teachers, on the other hand, are likely to labour under all three motivators to varying degrees. There are aspects of teaching that they will enjoy; there are other requirements that are performed more as a result of duty than pleasure; and large swathes are primarily motivated by the fear of consequences, such as poor rating by external evaluators (Ofsted!), loss of professional reputation, parental complaints, being sued or disciplined.

As a result, teachers may be confused as to exactly why they are doing what they do, as their motivation is likely to shift from moment to moment during a working day.

Individual values strongly influence what people want out of their work.

Career choices are largely described by three key motivators: self-expression (creativity), people-orientation (helping others), and reward (money, awards or prestige). All motivators in life can be divided into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation applies to doing something because you enjoy it: the activity is the reward itself and requires no external reinforcement. Extrinsic motivation refers to tasks you do, not because you particularly enjoy them, but because rewarding consequences flow from them.

I see many stressed teachers in my clinic and, in my experience, they are not the homogeneous group when it comes to motivation that might previously have been imagined. Many are motivated by self-expression, while others are more motivated by helping others. Some are motivated by the prestige of working in an institution that is widely respected and envied.

I believe it is vital for teachers to develop some insight into their own motivation so they can better match their ultimate career path to their personal preferences and values. For example, primarily extrinsically motivated teachers who obtain most fulfilment from external rewards are unlikely to be happy if they stay in the classroom all their lives. They are motivated by the higher salaries of school management.

However, perhaps the key message is that it's a huge mistake to assume teachers share each other's motivating drives. They are an enormously heterogeneous group. Managing your career hinges on a good understanding of your own personal motivators, and how these might vary from your colleagues'.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals in London. His new book The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, pound;12.99) is published on March 10. E-mail:

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