Teacher motivation in low–income contexts
The world needs teachers. In the next 14 years, almost 26 million teachers will need to be recruited just to provide every child with a primary education
March 02, 2016 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti, and Jarret Guajardo, Save the Children - US
10 minutes read
Kirambo Teacher Training Center in Burera district in rural Rwanda, February 2016 Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme

The world needs teachers. In the next 14 years, almost 26 million teachers will need to be recruited just to provide every child with a primary education (International Task Force on Teachers Education for All, 2015).

More importantly, the world needs better teachers—teachers who are well-prepared, qualified, caring, and motivated. This is true for all children, but particularly true for disadvantaged students from low-income contexts. Such children are often taught by poorly trained and poorly qualified teachers, or teachers who have very low levels of motivation. This combination of poor preparation and low motivation is lethal in terms of children learning.

Figure 1: By 2030, the world will need 25.8 million primary teachers—3.2 million of whom will be new and 22.6 million to replace existing teaching force
Figure 1: By 2030, the world will need 25.8 million primary teachers—3.2 million of whom will be new and 22.6 million to replace existing teaching force

The downward spiral of demotivation

It is no surprise that many teachers in the world’s poorest and most challenging schools struggle to remain motivated. As Dembélé & Rogers (2013) note, “poorly functioning educational delivery systems, poor working conditions, a lack of resources, limited human capacity, weak accountability, low salaries, and poor management (including recruitment, selection, deployment, career advancement, motivation, incentives and retention)” (p. 174)  drain the motivation of even the most energetic and committed teachers.

Add to this the low regard with which teachers are often held, the low status of the teaching profession in many contexts, the professional hopelessness many teachers feel, and education systems in which teacher voice is excluded.

Not surprisingly, the result is a teaching force that is at high-risk for non-compliance of duties, attrition, poor performance, professional misconduct and poor well-being which further depresses motivation. This in turn weakens the overall system and depresses the quality of teaching and learning.

Why should we care about teacher motivation?

From a policy and practice perspective, we need to understand teacher motivation for several reasons. First, motivated teachers are more likely to implement educational reforms and less likely to be absent or leave the teaching profession (Jesus & Conboy, 2001), which results in substantial savings in terms of recruitment and retraining costs.

Second, teacher engagement is an important determinant of student academic success. Third, teacher well-being (both a cause and effect of teacher motivation) is also an intrinsically desirable outcome in and of itself, especially in humanitarian contexts.

Finally, and instrumentally, we need to understand what motivates teachers so they do what needs to be done because they want to do it.

Teacher Motivation Diagnostic Tool

The Teacher Motivation Working Group (TMWG) (a cross-organizational community of practice) came together several years ago to try to synthesize existing research, resources  and our own experiences (often as former teachers) to better assess and understand factors contributing to teacher motivation in developing countries where the issue is under-researched and poorly understood—despite the fact that demotivation is often endemic.

One of the first such major tools developed through the working group—with substantial support in piloting and revising by Save the Children and World Vision— is the Teacher Motivation Diagnostic Tool.

The tool aims to understand the challenges, beliefs, and factors influencing teacher motivation and well-being in a specific context. The tool attempts to measure internal and external supports and challenges faced by teachers in terms of their practice, their environment, and their receptivity to applying new techniques.

The tool, initially piloted in India, has been revised and re-piloted in Uganda, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. The hope is that by drawing on findings, policymakers and practitioners can refine professional development (PD) to better address the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of teachers, making it more likely that PD outcomes will be internalized and applied.

Hopefully, too, findings from the tool can point to the types of reforms or interventions that may be most effective in order to better support teacher motivation and well-being. After further refinement, the TMWG will soon make the tool publically available for download from its website.

Initial themes

Although many motivation and well-being dynamics are context-specific (and thus specific to individual teachers), some initial themes have emerged from using the diagnostic tool:

  • Support: The extent to which teachers are professionally supported by head teachers and supervisors makes a big difference in their level of motivation. While teachers greatly value classroom visits, these are typically few and far between. As such, there is scope to increase the quantity of these interactions and enhance the quality through training programs and interventions targeting head teachers and supervisors.
  • Beliefs: Teachers’ beliefs are, on average, misaligned with many of the pedagogical “best practices” commonly taught during initial teacher education programs. Indeed, many teachers still adhere to a “fixed” versus “growth” mindset (Dweck, 2006) believing that students’ intelligence is predetermined and fixed cannot be developed or cultivated. Rather than assuming that teachers can readily get on board with growth mindset-based techniques, teacher education and professional development should explicitly confront and address these beliefs.
  • Other challenges such as formative assessment (especially for teachers with large class sizes), a lack of community support for education and the negative impact on learning by issues such as poor student health and poverty. Some of these challenges can be addressed within existing teacher professional development frameworks while others require forging stronger links with the community or multi-sector approaches to improving quality of education.

Addressing the policy and technical dimensions of teacher quality is not enough. Social attitudes must also change. Teachers must be seen as a human resource. At a minimum, this involves providing teachers with a living wage, safe and sanitary working conditions, initial preparation and ongoing professional development, and legal and civil rights. More broadly, it demands consideration of teacher well-being, autonomy, the challenges of teaching in high-poverty contexts, multiple types of support, and intrinsic/extrinsic motivating factors when designing, piloting, and implementing any reform or intervention.

If you are at CIES in Vancouver, please stop by on March 6, 2016 from 8:30-11:30 at the TMWG session, Measuring Teacher Motivation and Well-Being for Enhanced Learning. Workshop attendees will explore the teacher motivation diagnostic tool and give feedback to enhance this public resource. Participant feedback will help the TMWG  better leverage its knowledge base and resources to support individuals and organizations in developing interventions for teachers, and collectively achieving the Sustainable Development Goals for Education.


Dembélé, M., & Rogers, F. H. (2013). More and better teachers: Making the slogan a reality. In J. Kirk, M. Dembélé & S. Baxter (Eds.), More and better teachers for quality education for all: Identity and motivation, systems and support (pp. 174-180).

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

International Task Force on Teachers Education for All.  (2015, October). Global teacher shortage threatens education 2030. Available: http://bit.ly/1M62mCr

Jesus, S. N. & Conboy, J. (2001). A stress management course to prevent teacher distress. The International Journal of Educational Management, 15(3), 131-137.

Timperley, H. (2008). Teacher professional learning and development. Educational Practices Series, 18. Geneva, Switzerland: International Academy of Education and International Bureau of Education.

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Thank you for this post. I just used it as an example of "governmentality" in my social theory seminar.

Is a teacher a state worker or unthinkable, many countries take teaching as unvalue job while teaching is the source of world development.

Teaching profession is the profession that creates all other professions.

Hi all, Thanks so much for your comments, and Susan for using this post in your class, and Thibaut for the UNESCO document, which I have just downloaded. We did not see the comments until now and will notify GPE of the glitch.

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