Scott Thornbury

Staying healthy and motivated – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury

What Motivates You As A Teacher? 

— Scott Thornbury

It’s not the best of times to be a teacher. In Spain, where I live, and in response to the deteriorating economic situation, the government has just announced an increase in class numbers and an increase in teachers’ hours. Not only is this likely to reduce the quality of education, but it reinforces a perception that teachers are undervalued (there’s no concomitant increase in teachers’ salaries, of course) and it contributes very little to teachers’ self-esteem. Not very motivating!

It’s worth reminding ourselves, though, that – even if our governments don’t value us – our students do. Who, apart from their parents and siblings, has made the biggest impression on their lives, after all? Ask anyone to name a formative influence on their lives and chances are, they’ll name a teacher.

What do teachers do, then, to validate their role in education and to retrieve a measure of self-respect?

I decided to ask my Twitter followers. My question: What motivates you as a teacher?

These are some of the answers I got:

As I sifted through the responses, I found they fell into four main areas:

  1. Learner feedback/ results. For example: “I love when the light comes on in a student’s eyes and you know that they’ve ‘got it”
  2. External validation: “Appreciation also helps to raise motivation..whether from students or from your boss”
  3. Intrinsic drive: “Continuous professional development & using my new knowledge to help students”
  4. Peer support/community: “What keeps me going is the experience of knowing extraordinary people every year”

Each of these areas is within the teacher’s control. 1. You can get results, because you know what you’re doing, and you do it well; 2. Your students – and even your boss – will appreciate you if you do your job; 3. You can push yourself even further, because you’re always learning; and 4. You can become part of a community of teachers who you care for, and who care for you.

And (with regard to point 4) that’s why ITDi is such a great idea: it extends the notion of community to a global level.


Connect with Scott, Chuck,  Tamas, Vladimira, Nour,  Ann and other iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development courses.

Like what we do? Become an iTDi Patron.
Your support makes a difference.

Published by

Scott Thornbury

Scott is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years' experience in English language teaching. He is currently Associate Professor of English Language Studies at the New School in New York, teaching on an on-line MATESOL program. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and his native New Zealand. Scott’s writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology including The A-Z of ELT, How to Teach Grammar and Teaching Unplugged. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP) and was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group, whose archived website, called Teaching Unplugged, can be found below. Scott currently leads a fascinating community at the popular and thought-provoking blog, A-Z of ELT blog. Scott is lead author in the iTDi Teacher Development program as well as being iTDi's Academic Director.

16 thoughts on “Staying healthy and motivated – Scott Thornbury”

  1. Dear Scott,
    Thank you for the great post.
    I very much agree on seeing the light in the students’ eyes. That is the most immediate feedback you get especially if you are a YL teacher. Then comes the intrinsic one, but that would be meaningless without the peer support / community. Thanks to İTDİ for keeping us motivated by gathering us here and giving a chance to share.
    Merve Oflaz

    1. I have hardly ever taught young learners, but – if I did – the ‘light in their eyes’ woud be my biggest motivation, I’m sure. And I agree, the peer support is key.

  2. I am struggling with learners who rarely make any progress, and your comments have given me inspiration to go on. The global teaching community revitalizes me. Thank you!

    1. If students are intrinsically motivated – i.e. driven by their own goals, needs, desires – great: that can energize the teacher. But, as often as not, it is the teacher who is the ‘external motivator’ – in which case motivation is part of a cycle whereby the teacher motivates the learner, who in turn motivates the teacher. Does that make sense?

  3. Thanks iTDi for bringing out such an issue at these tough times!I do agree that there are moments when any teacher would feel utterly down and temporarily demotivated.I agree that in Spain teachers might be experiencing some of that “down” times at the time.
    In other places of the world, teachers are already over-burdened with too much working hours. In Morocco, where I am working, for example, a secondary school teachers has to work 21 hours a week; some lucky ones work less. Personally, I have been working 21 hours a week (almost 4 hours a day) for the last 5 years. It’s unfortunate that governments and educational authorities continue to consider teachers the same way they do other employees, forgetting that teaching is a highly demanding job, both congnitively and emotionally. It’s so sad that they – educational authorities – forget that teachers have a lot of other things to do before they attend classes, including lesson planning, materials preparation, quiz corrections… and these responsibles tend more often to overlook that home-work.

    That’s absolutely true Scott! Everything that affects a teacher’s personal, financial, psychological life has direct, immediate effects on what happens inside classes; it has an immediate effect on our kids, on that minister’s child and on the nation as a whole.

    It’s high time that governments of the now-suffering countries know that their financial meaures shouldn’t touch/affect education by any means. Yes, there must be measures and solutions in crisis times! But, everything can wait, can be postponed, can be cut off… except a child’s future! A nation’s future! And by overloading a teacher’s memory with too much work and things to think about, we empty it of the other things that are necerssary for a child’s growth! An economic crisis might have short term effects; yet taking measures that affect education will surely have long-term effects that will certainly lead to another crisis – economic and social – when these less achieving kids get into the job market! They have to remember that schools are building engineers and simple workers! Any lost or bad times will certainly impact the future of the country!

    No teacher can teach the way he/she should while his/her salary is cut off! That has immediate effects on me, my kids and my future!

    Teachers are the least materialist – money-oriented – people as far as my experince has taught me. We get our salaries in the end of the month and still a part of it goes back to the kids we teach, especially in countries where no materials are available in schools. But, There are human needs that have to be fulfilled before I think of how I should be teaching tomorrow’s lesson; and one of those needs is my social and emotional safety and security!

    It’s true that the children we teach keep us alive and active all the time. But, we have to be true with ourselves and say that this cannot continue if our very survival as teachers is threatened, I think!

    Thanks Scott.

    1. Thank for the comment, Brahim. It seems that the lack of appreciation that is accorded teachers is a fairly universal phenomenon – and I wonder if that has something to do with the (mistaken) idea that teaching is a semi-skilled, service job, a bit like hairdressing or waiting tables.

      As I write, a new government has been elected in France, and it pledges to create 60,000 new teaching jobs, as part of a drive to invest in the future by prioritising education. It will be very interesting to see if it can achieve these worthy goals, especially in the present economic climate.

  4. Although I read it often in news articles, etc., I didn’t realize how true it was until I joined the teaching community myself. Since I made the transition from a culture that treated people in my position as experts and included them in decision-making, I had some serious culture-shock over the first year or so of teaching.

    I’m at a non-profit and many of the decisions come from much higher than our organization (state and federal), so I don’t take my immediate managers to task. But that situation can lead to a sense of helplessness … and that can lead to anger or depression. That’s why I especially appreciate your focus on what’s in the teacher’s control. That’s the healthy place to look.

    We experienced one of those pay decreases this year when our lessons were expanded from 2.5 to 3 hours without a change in compensation. This was a fait accompli, so there was nothing to be done about it (well, except to seek employment elsewhere!), but I really wanted to at least express my unhappiness to my manager. Not angrily, just to let her know that I wasn’t taking this meekly so she could use that to inform future discussions with her higher-ups. It may not seem like much, but it was something I could do and it did help me deal with the frustration. I believe that feedback like this does bubble up — if enough teachers do it (or leave 😉 ), so don’t be afraid to speak when things are on your mind. But don’t take it out on the person you’re talking to. He or she may be feeling the same sense of helplessness, actually.

    I also vote for extrinsic validation (sincere appreciation from others) as a motivator. In our annual performance feedback, we only have 2 categories: “meets expectations” or “needs improvement”. How demotivating is that?! Either you’re adequate or you’re scrambling to show you’re worth retaining. I was told by an HR person (not our current one) that there was concern that a person who “exceeds expectations” would want a raise and, given our company’s situation, such raises are not necessarily going to be available. That’s too bad, because I personally use the labels as motivators (set eyes on a “meets” category and try to raise it to “exceeds” in the coming year). It’s about personal improvement, regardless of the raise. Though the raise would be nice too, if available. What else can I do? I’ve spoken up about this and i signed up for the “performance feedback” committee this year.

    Meanwhile, in the absence of “exceeds expectations” in our formal feedback, I advocate for less formal ways of expressing these things on the part of program managers. My PM does this a lot, thank goodness! Actually, an email “attagirl” with specific details about what I did right and how I benefitted someone would be nice from anyone, including a peer. (Note to self: am I sending these myself?) I recommend email (or hand-written) because a teacher can look at it again later for inspiration if needed. Or use it when updating the resume, if it comes to that, ha ha!

    Thanks, as always, for inspiration!

  5. What motivates me?

    I had a chat with some of the foreign workers and domestic helpers that work in the same organisation as me. They are mainly from Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal. According to them, if they can speak some English, then they are able to find a job in a hotel or work for an expat back in their own country. They no longer need to be separated from family and children. Imagine just being able to see your child once every 3 years! My heart goes out to everyone of them 🙁

    This is what motivates me to give free English lessons as soon as I obtained my CELTA cert! At the end of each lesson, to see the gratefulness in their eyes. They know they cannot possibly afford any form of lessons and anything at all that I teach them is gratefully received. I made mistakes in my lessons as I fine tune my teaching but do they complain about it…no! I, too, am grateful to them for allowing me to teach them. How else can I find students to improve my skills on. It’s a win-win situation.

    Yeah, that’s what motivates me the most. The money helps but that’s not the main source of motivation.

    There are a lot of people whom, just by learning to speak English properly, will improve their living conditions by leaps and bounds. If helping them only takes an hour of our time each week, why not?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.