I frequently hear about high numbers of students who are not engaged in their learning, but I hear less about teachers who are not engaged in their work. However, a Gallup Poll found that 57% of teachers report that they are “not engaged” at work, with an additional 13% reporting that they are “actively disengaged.” This is alarming. How can we expect students to be engaged in their learning if their own teachers are not engaged?

As I consider what is causing teachers to be disengaged, I’m reminded of Daniel Pink’s Drive in which he explores human motivation. This book was a game changer for me as an educator. It challenged me to really think about what motivates my students and how to keep them interested and engaged in their learning. Pink identified three essential elements that drive human motivation:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

When I think about these three elements in the context of teaching, it becomes less shocking that so many teachers are unengaged.


Autonomy is the ability and desire to direct our own lives. It is the freedom and independence to make decisions and govern oneself. Yet, how many teachers feel autonomous in the current climate of standardization?

Many teachers are mandated to use a specific curriculum and follow rigid pacing guides that leave little time or space for autonomy and creativity. Teachers are creative beings; however, as soon as the ability to create is stripped away, many teachers lose the passion that led them into this profession.

I know if I was asked to teach a canned curriculum, like so many teachers are forced to do, I would no longer be in this profession. My favorite part of teaching is designing curriculum. It allows me to draw on my own passions and think outside the box to engage even my most reluctant learners. I’ve been fortunate to work on a campus where I have such a high degree of autonomy. I’m respected as a professional and given the space to draw on my own expertise and passions to design dynamic learning experiences for my students.



Mastery, as defined by Pink, is the desire to get better and better at something that matters to us. The art of teaching should matter to every educator, so it blows my mind when I see teachers who do not aggressively pursue their own learning. We are teaching in a time of unprecedented change. Technology is radically impacting the way students learn and, as a result, teachers are expected to adapt their teaching to engage a new era of students.

I’ve often said that [clickToTweet tweet=”The best teachers are the best learners.” quote=”the best teachers are the best learners.”] When I lead professional development, I can always spot the teachers who I would love to have if I was a student. They ask questions, experiment with new ideas, ask for more resources, and grab every opportunity to learn. On the flip side, I’ve worked with plenty of teachers who spend more time checking their email than engaging with new teaching techniques during professional development. During conversations, they focus on all of the “buts” or all of the reasons they cannot do something, instead of using the time to be creative problem solvers.

It’s heartbreaking to watch teachers actively choose not to engage in professional development, especially since my #1 goal as a trainer is to engage them. My trainings are hands-on and practice-based, which makes it even more obvious when a teacher is choosing not to engage. I want to scream, “This is time that’s been given to you so you can learn something new. Use it!” So, the question is, how to do we get teachers to want to continue learning?

I believe the only way to inspire teachers to want to continue learning is if a school culture celebrates learning at all levels. This can be achieved by building a robust professional learning infrastructure that provides ongoing support for teachers in the forms of coaching and PLCs (professional learning communities), instead of trying to cram learning into a handful of professional development days each year.



Pink defines purpose as “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” That definition screams teaching. Most of us enter this profession because we are committed to teaching and inspiring a new generation. However, this clarity of purpose can be easily clouded by years of feeling unsuccessful in our mission to teach and inspire. It’s understandable that this feeling of purpose may have waned for many educators.

The key to maintaining a clarity of purpose is to connect with other educators who are passionate and inspired. On the days when I leave my classroom feeling disillusioned or frustrated, I find solace in my own personal learning network on Twitter. It’s crucial that teachers find a space where they can connect with other inspired and inspiring educators to maintain a clear purpose. We all have tough days when we wonder, “Why did I enter this profession? What was I thinking?” On those days, we need a reminder about WHY we do this incredibly hard job. Building a network of educators who can serve to remind you of the why is key.

I know from experience that my level of excitement and engagement transfers directly to my students. When they see me giddy about something, they are immediately curious about it too. On the flip side, if I’m not excited or passionate about something, my students will be the first ones to pick up on that. Since one unengaged or actively disengaged teacher has contact with 150+ students, the effects of that disengagement can be catastrophic for those students.

Schools must focus on reigniting teacher passion and re-engaging those teachers who have become disengaged. If we cannot do that, we will continue to see the numbers of disengaged students skyrocket.

I welcome thoughts, insights, strategies, and suggestions for how we can help to motivate and re-engage teachers!

27 Responses

  1. Catlin, what a great post! I find myself thinking so many of the same things you expressed in this post. I struggle to figure out how to actively engage school leaders and policy makers even more than how to engage teachers. Leaders and policy makers are the ones pushing down the canned curriculum, and requirements that often prevent teachers from feeling like they have the time to learn a new skill or connect with a network. I agree with all of your comments here completely, but I wonder if we- the collective education community- need to aim more focus on changing the mindset of those at the top first to allow teachers a little more room for autonomy, mastery, and ultimately remind them of their purpose? Thanks so much for these thoughts!

    • Hi Katie,

      You make a great point about school leaders and policy makers. They are often the ones pushing requirements that rob teachers of autonomy or cloud their purpose. I wonder how we get these key decision makers to value teacher autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I frequently feel there is such a disconnect between the people making the decisions in education and those who are tasked with carrying them out. I feel like policy makers and school leaders need to get into more classrooms because it’s so easy to lose sight of what teaching actually entails.

      Thank you for your comment!


      • I was a science teacher for 37 years and taught 7-12. A math colleague and I used to integrate our classes of 7th grade we had in common. That went away when NCLB raised it’s ugly head. I spent the first 25 years learning to create deep rich lessons for my kids. When standards came about I was told to “cover” more but was unable to do the engaging things I used to do.

        We need more teachers at the table as policy is created.

  2. Catlin,

    I love this post! Thank you so much for thinking through all of these things. I love Dan Pink’s motivational theories from Drive, but up until now I only thought of them in terms of motivating my students. I’m so glad you reminded me to use these ideas to better myself and encourage my peers as educators. I have found that I put much more effort into my classes where I am handed more responsibility in developing curriculum, while it takes much more energy to be as interested when I am instructed to merely copy what teachers before me have done. I did not realize until now that it is because of my yearning for autonomy to be more motived. I wonder how to help newer teachers like myself utilize more autonomy even when we have little control over curriculum. Even if our administration does not change anything, we must be able to motivate ourselves in this area. Thanks again!

    • Hi Chloe,

      Just like you, I only thought of motivation in terms of my students when I first read Daniel Pink’s Drive. However, the more I train teachers, the more I see the same alarming trends in teachers who are unmotivated. I agree that teachers need autonomy to be creative and that is often taken from them. Another reader pointed out the lack of engagement at even higher levels of leadership, which means this is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

      I appreciate you sharing your perspective!


  3. My first thought when I got to the “mastery” heading was not lack of desire. I thought of my own professional experience. When every new program, initiative, movement, or requirement is given the same level of urgency and importance, it can be paralyzing. When something is introduced in my district, there is very little time to acclimate and perfect. In fact, there is very little accountability for these steps as we are soon off to the next “big thing.” These things are often characterized as “layers” to our current curriculum, not acknowledging the additional time, preparation, and comfort level required. I am with you 100% on autonomy and purpose. I spend some time throughout the school redefining my purpose as I have very little control over the other two.

    • I agree with you. I’ve been teaching for 25 years in high poverty areas. We recently hired a new superintendent. His first speech was on our “sense of urgency” to close learning gaps. Well, those learning gaps have been around my entire teaching career! Let’s just say, his speech left me deflated and unmotivated. So I’ve been a failure for most of my career? Gee, thanks for that! It’s hard to get on board “the next big thing” when you’ve lived through dozens. It’s not that I’m unmotivated. It’s just takes longer to be convinced that this new fad isn’t just a new fad.

    • I have had the same experience of new curricula and initiatives that are all given urgency and there is no time to learn or master them before the next urgent change arrives. I, too, spent much of my energy on my purpose. I am very blessed this year to be at a school where individuality and creativity is celebrated. We have common goals and share rigorous standards however I’ve also learned a ton of amazing teaching strategies for young children because differences and sharing is celebrated. Teachers feel valued and appreciated.

  4. Great post. Very timely worldwide, certainly here in Australia. I was pushed out for bucking the system and now find my autonomy, mastery and purpose drivers being met in my own tutoring business. It doesn’t give me the salary I had after 20 years, but neither does it give me the grief. New and exciting doors are opening and I get to do things I wasn’t able to in the classroom. I feel the pain of those still inside.

    • I’m sorry to hear that you were pushed out of a teaching position for bucking the system, Peter. Most of us know the system isn’t working for the majority of students and teachers. Fear of change is a powerful paralyzer.

      I’m glad to hear you are enjoying autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your new role tutoring. I believe if we do what we love, things tend to fall into place. I wish you luck!


  5. Really great post Catlin! You made such a powerful connection with “Drive” that I hadn’t really formalized. Thank you for that! I want to say so much more, but so many have already beat me to it! I have often referred to the policy makers as “The Lords of Curriculum” who rarely seemed to care for the teacher voice, ideas, or opinions. I guess the challenge is: Do we have the courage to challenge the system? or has the malaise that has set in, made us resigned to this fate? Your post may just be a tipping point.

  6. Thanks Caitlin for writing this,

    We are launching an new initiative on 4/19 – Demolish the BOX – stay tuned. So much of what impacts educators and youth is also in the language we use and the ‘weight’ it carries. One area of our offerings is focused on this issue of educator vitality and engagement. Happy to share more with you privately until launch when our website will go live. Fundamentally, we are asking the question: “What if we educate 100% of what it means to be human?”


    • Thank you for sharing your new initiative, Ellee.

      The idea of what it means to educate all parts of the human beings we serve is an interesting one. I feel like this year in my move away from teaching a single subject in isolation to integrating curriculum and co-teaching a group for 4.5 hours every other day that I am educating my students on so many different levels. The teaching and learning that happens in here far exceed any English, science or technology standards.


  7. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of teacher disengagement. I would also put forward the need for a focus of work/life balance. As a beginning teacher with few distractions away from my professional goals I was highly engaged and could easily filter negative influences like standardization, and more and more mandated curriculum pieces. I found the greatest dip in my motivation when I had my own children and felt burdened by irrelevant and ineffectual teaching demands used up any and all creativity I had left after much of my mental and emotional RAM was used up by my own people.

    • That’s such a great point about balance, Kate.

      It’s hard to be motivated to spend time on things that feel irrelevant when you are balancing work and a family.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective!


  8. Catlin,
    I agree that the policy makers can be part of the problem, but if you become autonomous, go to conferences and learn on your own time, come to the classroom, put what you learned in to use, and your administration sees that it works, they will leave you alone. What a lot of people are ignoring, and it’s probably because if they are reading this article and following your blog, it does not apply to them, but a lot of teachers, want a curriculum handed to them. They want to walk into the classroom, open their teacher’s manual, teach, and leave when the bell rings .at the end of the day. Those teachers want nothing to do with learning how to use technology to engage their students, and they are probably the teachers you have trouble engaging when you are training. So the real question is, how do you force these teachers to change their ways? I have seen administrator after administrator come and go from my school deflated. These teachers are the pillars of our community, so you don’t want to ruffle their feathers or the school board will come after you. As for me, I keep my head down, close my door, and have a blast teaching, because honestly…the Charlotte Daniels Framework actually fits the way we tech integrators and student motivators teach. Without writing TO the standards, every lesson we write meets way more standards than we ever intended.
    Anyway, this went off as quite a rant, but I really did want to point out that it’s more than just standards and administration that is disengaging teachers. In some cases, it really is the teachers.


    • Hi Marie,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! So much of what you said resonates with me. I, too, aggressively pursue my own learning, keep my head down, and do what I do without too much interruption. I also agree that there are many teachers who don’t necessarily want to learn how to use technology or experiment with new approaches to teaching and learning. I struggle with that. Our job is to cultivate life-long learners, so we should be modeling that for our students. If we don’t take risks, experiment, fail and learn, I don’t see how we can expect that from our students.


  9. Autonomy

    For those exact reasons I became disengaged. As a subject for your study, I could say it all started on the first year of teaching. And it is getting better but at a painfully slow rate.

    It is a circle: I don’t care about mastery except if the teaching has to do with my area of interest, and even then, I prefer to learn about it and not about how to teach it – hence, the best learners are the best teachers is a fallacy. I might know a lot about what I’m passionate about but I might fail to teach it to others. So I might decide not to. That doesn’t mean that I can’t keep on learning if it interests me, and learning quite well, too.

    Without mastery there is little autonomy and you have to keep on asking on other’s help for disruptive students, for example, instead of dealing with them in a more autonomous way (just like my mother did as a teacher).

    Without mastery and autonomy there is little purpose as well, all of which sums up to little motivation, and indeed I envisioned retirement in my first year of work. I simply hoped that I would feel at peace at last and that the money I would earn then would be enough to make up for all the bad moments that I was going through (sort of a ‘revenge’ against the system).

  10. What a wonderful post, in deed it is very discouraging when as a teacher coach or trainer, you prepare adequately for a training session, only to be met by an indifferent audience who develop a cold feet even for a hands on activity.

  11. I loved reading through everyone’s thoughts. This will be my 23rd year. Addressing the reason for disengagement, I would say that teachers are just tired. Teachers do not need more PD sessions. We need more rest, time to peruse Twitter, time alone to gather our thoughts.

  12. Hey Catlin,

    This post is a saving grace for me right now. I’m in my second year teaching, but in my first year at a new school where I have virtually zero autonomy, a sharp contrast from the school I was at in my first year of teaching. Alice Keeler was my professor as Fresno State and you and her and countless educators in our progressive PLC inform my teaching immensely. I’m not able to use the countless strategies and tools that will prepare students for our 21st century workforce, and I’m wondering what advice you might have. Thanks so much! You are amazing.

    • Hi Jenna,

      Autonomy is key to human motivation. I worry that if you stay in a situation where you do not have autonomy or the freedom to be creative that you will become frustrated and disillusioned with this profession. We need great teachers, and to be great teachers, we need the freedom to make key decisions about our work. Do you have colleagues you can collaborate with or leaders you can speak with? If not, I would definitely lean on your online professional learning network for solace and inspiration.

      Stay strong!


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