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The importance of a learning culture for teacher motivation

Written by: Helena Moore
9 min read

There is an ever-increasing focus on teacher learning. Teacher learning aims to improve teacher practice, which has an impact on student outcomes. It is therefore clear that if we want our students to be as successful as possible, we need our teachers, through their own learning, to be as successful as possible too.

For this, a culture of learning is vital; ‘culture is the make or break of professional learning’ (Weston and Clay, 2018, p. 65). Kraft and Papay (2014) highlight the impact of professional environments and culture in schools on teacher effectiveness, commenting on the importance of ‘transforming schools into organisations that support the learning of both students and teachers’ (p. 31). What this vital learning culture looks like is of great importance. Weston and Clay (2018) refer to a work culture that supports learning as being one where teachers ‘feel that learning is exciting and engaging’ and ‘feel a sense of belonging, that they are trusted, nurtured and given the time and space to grow and develop’ (p. 65). As highlighted here – and by Wiliam (2016) – time is needed for professional learning. But as time is always in short supply, Wiliam (2016) recognises that ‘if improvement is to occur, most of it will be generated by the teacher’s own efforts to improve’ (p. 239). Teachers therefore need to be motivated to improve; their school culture thus has to be not just a learning-based culture (for teachers), but also a culture that nurtures those teachers’ motivation.

How do we motivate teachers to learn?

Motivation – both intrinsic and extrinsic – results when, as humans, we believe that we will benefit as a result of the action or behaviour. In first joining teaching, recruitment may attempt to appeal to extrinsic motivators, namely money and career prospects. For many new teachers, however, there are intrinsic motivators at play: it builds on the value that they place on teaching and making a difference to young peoples’ lives. As teachers become more experienced, they may find that their motivation becomes more and more intrinsic, fulfilling their natural inclination to learn and be the best that they can in something they find interesting.

Self-determination theory (SDT) (Ryan and Deci, 2000) highlights the positive outcomes – namely high performance, low burnout and wellbeing (Eyal and Roth, 2011) – of intrinsic motivation in a workforce compared to extrinsic or controlled motivation. SDT is particularly relevant for considering the motivation of teachers, since it focuses on the role played by environments in allowing motivation – and particularly intrinsic motivation – to flourish. SDT declares that, as humans, we all have three basic psychological needs that need to be satisfied for us to be intrinsically motivated to perform at our best: relatedness, autonomy and competence. The environment in which we work can either facilitate or impede the fulfilment of these needs.

Therefore, for the most effective learning culture, the cultural environment needs to be one that facilitates (rather than suppresses) our intrinsic motivation; it needs to nurture our relatedness, our autonomy and our competence.

In this article, I will explore each need – or nutrient (Allen and Sims, 2018) – in turn and consider how each can be nurtured and bred within a learning culture to maximise motivation and continuous learning. Then, following the work of Kraft and Papay (2014) and my own experience as a coach, I will focus on coaching models as a particular method to use within a culture that facilitates and breeds teachers’ intrinsic motivation.

Relatedness – “Imagine trying to learn when you don’t trust the people around you” (Weston and Clay, 2018, p. 67)

‘Relatedness needs reflect the universal human desire to be valued, respected, and desired important by others.’ (Cerasoli et al., 2016, p. 784) A learning culture that nurtures and breeds motivation must therefore be based on trust and have collaboration at its heart.

Trust can be built through quality dialogue that is based upon feedback and reflection and, as Weston and Clay (2018) highlight, ‘begins with listening and understanding’ (p. 73). A culture that nurtures relatedness is perhaps also one that values first-time mistakes and the dialogue and growth that follows. This is often the trusting relationship seen between early-career teachers and their mentors – what is important is that this trust becomes the school-wide culture. However, trust within a school learning culture can be complicated. With hierarchical structures so often in place between colleagues, and systems of performance-related pay, it is understandably questionable how trusting the relationships between individuals placed across the hierarchy can really be.

Teacher collaboration is widely celebrated as an ingredient of effective professional learning (Banerjee et al., 2017; Kraft and Papay, 2014; Labonne and Long, 2016). The way in which it allows for connectedness and meaningful relationships with others also makes it an important aspect of learning cultures that foster motivation. Effective collaboration might include working parties and research groups, as well as the connectedness offered by the growing educational networks on Twitter and through professional bodies such as the Chartered College of Teaching. The format of this collaboration, however, is important. Banerjee et al. (2017) comment that ‘pressure to collaborate without the necessary support structure may accentuate job dissatisfaction’ (p. 234). It must therefore be a key aspect of the culture to be successful and not add to workload or pressure. Choice within collaboration must also exist, and this is connected to the next ‘nutrient’ for our intrinsic motivation – autonomy.

Autonomy – “if individuals are forced or manipulated to engage in a task, they lose the intrinsic desire to subsequently do so” (Cerasoli et al., 2016, p. 783)

Our need to be autonomous – to have agency – is immediately core in a learning culture because, as highlighted by Labonne and Long (2016), the term ‘learning’ affords teachers agency, unlike the commonly used ‘development’, which suggests that teachers are passive in the process. In contrast to this passivity, for the best performance and the development of intrinsic motivation, teachers must be agents of their own learning and changes in their practice. Innovation should therefore be welcomed (Weston and Clay, 2018); performance targets should be determined by the individual (Allen and Sims, 2018); and collaborative working groups must be able to determine and choose their own area of focus (Allen and Sims, 2018). Yet coherence within autonomy is vital – and that coherence needs to be based upon the aim of improving practice to improve learning for students. It is this very purpose of a learning culture that facilitates and drives the final need – competence.

Competence – “I think in order to do a good job you need to feel confident” (Allen and Sims, 2018, p. 30)

Humans’ need for competence ‘refers to the desire to demonstrate and improve one’s abilities’ (Cerasoli et al., 2016, p. 783). Competence is therefore a vital aspect of a learning culture. If, as teachers, our practice improves as a result of learning, student outcomes will also improve. And with these improvements comes the very feeling of competence – ‘the sense of success’ (Allen and Sims, 2018, p. 57). This then motivates us to keep learning. Indeed, Weston and Clay (2018) highlight the importance of competence in a learning culture, identifying the significance of making clear the benefit of the learning for all – both teachers and students. The learning culture also needs to celebrate these benefits, the success and the learning, as it is this celebration that draws attention to our competence. Allen and Sims (2018) comment on how low-stake lesson observations allow for such celebration and sharing of teacher learning successes. Professional learning that focuses on subject-specific training and learning might also have more considerable effect on a teacher’s sense of success and, in turn, their motivation to grow and develop.

Notably, with current discussion around teacher workload in the United Kingdom, it could be argued that learning cultures that nurture and breed competence in our staff could somewhat mitigate workload issues. The Parliament report of teacher recruitment and retention acknowledges the role of the DfE in influencing teacher workload but also comments on the role played by school leaders: ‘teachers who feel supported and professionally confident often feel that their workload is more manageable’ (House of Commons Education Committee, 2017, p. 15). The committee also states that, because of the lack of professional development for teachers in the United Kingdom (when compared internationally), this could contribute to the workload struggle, as teachers then feel less prepared. Increased competence – and so a learning culture that nurtures our need for competence – might ameliorate working conditions for our teachers.

A model for a learning culture for teacher motivation

Teacher coaching models are a form of professional learning that have been shown to have great impact on both student outcomes and teacher instruction (Allen and Sims, 2018; Kraft et al., 2018). Kraft and Papay (2014) identify the impact of coaching models on instruction as part of an effective, supportive professional learning environment. This environment is one in which teachers feel a sense of success, collaborate and work in a culture characterised by trust. A learning culture using coaching models is therefore a culture that can facilitate – but then also nurture –  the three basic needs for intrinsic motivation, according to self-determination theory.

Although coaching on teacher instruction can vary in model, it is the fundamental aspects of coaching that meet our need for relatedness, autonomy and competence. Allen and Sims (2018) highlight the requirements of all coaching interventions: ‘the coaches work with the coachee to ensure they deploy and develop the practices in a way that suits them – and then hold them to account for the progress against this’ (p. 84). It is a cycle of learning that is individualised and thus nurtures our need for autonomy – we are agents of the change within our instruction. Relatedness is vital for effective coaching; we are working with another towards the same shared goal, accepting their feedback to help achieve this. Trust is therefore vital. And the aim of coaching is progress – progress in our teaching instruction and progress for our students. It is this progress – and the working towards achieving this – that feeds our need for competence, for improving and proving our own abilities.

‘Senior Leaders often focus on pupil performance data and Ofsted inspection at the expense of developing a culture of professional learning.’ (House of Commons Education Committee, 2017, p. 20) With the current retention crisis, where teachers are so demotivated that they are leaving the profession at an increasing rate (Worth et al., 2018), improving teacher motivation is of high importance.  It is therefore time for senior leaders to shift focus to the development of learning culture – and notably one that facilitates teachers’ intrinsic motivation.


Allen R and Sims S (2018) The Teacher Gap (1st edition). Oxford: Routeledge.

Banerjee N, Stearns E, Moller S et al. (2017) Teacher job satisfaction and student achievement: The roles of teacher professional community and teacher collaboration in schools. American Journal of Education 123: 203–241.

Cerasoli CP, Nicklin JM and Nassrelgrgawi AS (2016) Performance, incentives, and needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness: A meta-analysis. Motivation and Emotion 40(6): 781–813.

Eyal O and Roth G (2011) Principals’ leadership and teachers’ motivation: Self-determination theory analysis. Journal of Educational Administration 49(3): 256–275.
House of Commons Education Committee (2017) Recruitment and retention of teachers. Available at: (accessed 17 July 2018).

Kraft MA, Blazar D and Hogan D (2018) The effect of teacher coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research 88(4): 547–588.

Kraft M and Papay J (2014) Can professional environments promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 36(4): 476–500.

Labonne E and Long J (2016) Features of effective professional learning: A case study of the implementation of a system-based professional learning model. Professional Development in Education 42(1): 54–77.

Ryan RM and Deci EL (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and wellbeing. American Psychologist 55: 68–78.

Weston D and Clay B (2018) Unleashing Great Teaching: The Secrets to the Most Effective Teacher Development (1st edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Wiliam D (2016) Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture where all Teachers Improve so that all Students Succeed (1st edition.) Florida: Learning Sciences International.

Worth J, Lynch S, Hillary J et al. (2018) Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England. Slough: NFER.

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