Why do teachers come to work?
What’s important to educators? From the kindergarten teacher to the college professor, what drives the professional? Some cite an altruistic urge to better mankind. Others say they can’t get jobs anywhere else and just care about a paycheck.
Maybe motivation depends on the situation. Turning to an oldie but goodie, analyzing the role of the teacher with Maslow’s hierarchy as a guide demonstrates how different motivations dominate different times.
Maslow’s somewhat understood paradigm
His famous 1943 article, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” has become a touchstone of pop psychology. Every psychology-related class from junior high to grad school lays out the bare bones of the theory. Usually incorrectly.
Maslow’s pyramid diagram that you remember from your organizational behavior class? It’s not in his article. He lays out the five needs in order, physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization, but never draws the famous diagram seen in texts or on the internet.
That pyramid might even subconsciously sabotage his paradigm by implying that physiological needs are large, esteem needs are medium, and self-actualization needs are small. Maslow himself notes that while the truly starving man may focus only on food, relatively few people experience truly life-threatening hunger.
The idea that you can’t progress from one level to the next without satisfying the previous needs?
We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. — A. H. Maslow
Maslow lists seven exceptions. Extremes like martyrs or psychopaths might disregard certain needs. He also lists the extremely creative, or people that sacrifice friends and family for public esteem. How many people let their career override their marriage?
With these clarifications in mind, Maslow still presents a good jumping-off point, a way to organize what might be behind different behaviors. We just have to remember that people are different, so the order might be different. Also, multiple motivations can be in play at any one time, and in different strengths depending on the level of satisfaction of other needs.
Here’s a proposed hierarchy specific to education:
#1 — I need to get a job
Employment gathers together physiological/safety needs. New college grads don’t often die of thirst, but they do have to pay the water bill. Maybe they say to themselves “Sure, I’ll use the Ph.D. I spent six years getting to teach that community college class an hour drive away!” or “I know I want to teach fourth grade, but that long-term sub job teaching seventh-grade history for half the pay in the next county looks good!”
These teachers still care about their students, but they have the flexibility to spend more time caring and less time worrying when they find a secure paycheck at a living wage. Until then, they will spend a lot of energy looking for that job that will make them secure and their current students will suffer.
This also explains the visceral reaction to Covid-19 among some educators. They may love the children and realize keeping them out of school may do some damage, but if you’re in your fifties with an autoimmune disorder like arthritis, the sudden perceived threat to life directly threatens the safety need, overshadowing the higher-level needs.
#2 — I need to fit in
Maslow conceptualized love needs as belonging, the opposite of loneliness. Romantic love can fill the need, but so can friends or family.
For a person trapped on a deserted island for years, human companionship may become the overriding urge.
Few of us live on deserted islands. Teachers have relationships outside of work, and they may meet their companionship requirements elsewhere. Even so, establishing social interaction in school is just as important as in any workplace.
#3 — I need to be respected
Esteem needs may drive many people to enter teaching in the first place. If you like to be respected, if you to be the center of attention and be in a position of power, then jobs like teaching are perfect.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Who doesn’t want to be looked up to? If a teacher doesn’t like being in charge, doesn’t like giving direction, then he or she will lead a miserable existence. The structure of the job bakes in the power differential.
Respect is essential. As long as teachers don’t stop here, don’t make the class all about them and their feelings of control, this need contributes to learning.
#4 — I want to do a good job
For educators, this can be a mashup of love, esteem, and self-actualization. With the job secured, the classroom managed, and a regular seat in the teachers’ lounge or on Friday evening happy hour, the lower level needs are satisfied.
What’s next? Job performance. Very few workers show up every day plotting to do a bad job. They want their classes to learn. They want their students to grow and prosper. Education costs a lot of money, and students deserve value for the money spent.
Maybe doing a good job means higher standardized test scores. Maybe it means better course evaluations. There are rarely performance bonuses in education, and there doesn’t need to be. Current theory says that monetary incentives for employees high in public service motivation may be counterproductive.
#5 — I’m on a journey with the class
This one is even more speculative than the other proposed levels. What does self-actualization look like in education? It will look a little different between kindergarten and college, but perhaps it’s when students and teachers are partners exploring learning together. The teacher learns from the class, finding new ways to communicate and connect. The class looks at the instructor not just as an authority figure, but as a fellow traveler.
Implications for education
What’s the lesson here? Using the general hierarchy laid out by Maslow, we can deconstruct possible different stages of evolution for what motivates educators. As Maslow noted, these motivations are not mutually exclusive, but if a lower level is severely lacking it tends to take the focus off of the higher levels.
For administrators, perhaps the lesson is to make sure that your educators feel secure and socialized into their environment. If they don’t feel threatened, if they feel like part of the team, they will be freer to concentrate on doing a good job and growing in their profession.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.