Motivation and successful teaching

As every teacher undoubtedly knows, how we feel in the classroom influences how we teach. When we have a bad night’s sleep, it can influence how we work the next day. Likewise, when we are feeling stressed, this has an impact on our teaching; for example, we may be less patient with our students.

This is true for students too. How they feel impacts on how they function in the classroom. Given all this, teacher and student wellbeing is vital for motivation and optimal functioning in the classroom.

Over the past several decades, there has been interest among educational psychologists about how to enhance motivation in the classroom. After all, students who are motivated tend to enjoy their learning more and report better academic achievement. Similarly, teachers who are motivated also enjoy their work.

One theory that has helped to guide this research is self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012). One of the core ideas of self-determination theory is that there are three internal (or psychological) needs that influence our motivation and wellbeing: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Of course, in real life things are much more complex, but distilling major ideas into three core needs provides a clearer understanding that researchers can then examine.

Autonomy refers to our belief that we are in charge of our behaviour and have choice or input into the activities we undertake and how we do them. Competence refers to our belief that we have what it takes to undertake and master what we set out to do. Relatedness refers to our need to feel connected to others, and to care for and be cared for by those others.

When these three needs are met, we experience greater wellbeing and motivation. For instance, if we feel autonomous, competent and connected at work, we are more likely to experience wellbeing and motivation in our job.

Most of the educational research on these three needs has focused on students and how support of their autonomy, competence, and relatedness can increase their motivation. However in recent research, several colleagues and I were interested in how this applies to teachers (Collie, Shapka, Perry, & Martin, 2014). When teachers experience autonomy, competence and relatedness, does this translate to greater wellbeing and motivation?

We collected data from just over 600 teachers and asked them about the three psychological needs, wellbeing, and workplace motivation. A key finding was that when teachers felt a sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness, they also experienced greater:

  • Wellbeing in their teaching work;
  • Motivation for teaching;
  • Satisfaction with their work;
  • Commitment to their school of employment

This finding has significant implications for teachers, students, and schools. After all, when teachers experience wellbeing, motivation, satisfaction with and commitment to their work, this can translate to better instructional quality, and greater student learning and motivation.

How to increase autonomy, competence, and relatedness?

Our research also looked at the role of the school in helping teachers meet their psychological needs. The principal’s role was of interest. For example, we found that teachers experienced greater autonomy, competence, and relatedness when principals:

  • Provide teachers with choices and options in what and how they do things, and encourage teachers to ask questions (Autonomy);
  • Convey confidence in teachers’ ability to do well at their job (Competence);
  • Listen to teachers and try to understand their points of view (Relatedness).

Following from these findings, we can also suggest guidance for teachers to help increase their own autonomy, competence and relatedness, including:

  • Being involved in school-level decision making (Autonomy). For example, taking the opportunity to vote on decisions or state one’s thoughts when requested;
  • Carefully planning and preparing lessons to enhance one’s sense of teaching proficiency (Competence). A positive experience in the classroom is a powerful way of boosting confidence in and enjoyment of teaching;
  • Working on building positive relationships with colleagues (Relatedness). For example, spending quality time with colleagues with whom you feel connected and comfortable.

Can teachers apply this knowledge to students?

Yes. Research shows that when teachers provide students with choices and options, listen to students thoughtfully, respect students’ perspectives, ask questions about what the students want to do, and resist stating answers too quickly, it supports students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999).

This type of understanding can help to improve students’ wellbeing and motivation in the classroom. In turn, this is likely to further improve a teacher’s wellbeing and motivation for teaching as well.


Collie, R.J., Shapka, J.D., Perry, N.E., & Martin, A.J. (2014). Self-Determination Theory and Teachers: Examining Well-being, Motivation, Job Satisfaction, and Organizational Commitment. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-110). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Reeve, J., Bolt, E., & Cai, Y. (1999). Autonomy-supportive teachers: How they teach and motivate students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 537-548. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.91.3.537

This is a reader contribution. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Teacher and its publisher.

When you reflect on your classroom practice, do you take wellbeing and motivation into account?

How does your school work to meet the psychological needs of teachers?