Engagement, School Community, Teaching

What Engages Teachers?

A view from the west coast

IN 2009, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) Research Department conducted a teacher worklife study[i] which offered some insights into the issue of teacher engagement. We asked teachers what gave them satisfaction in teaching. There was a huge outpouring of fascinating and emotional responses to this question, which showed not just satisfaction but passion for, and engagement in, teaching. From these and other data we have found that many teachers report both great satisfaction and significant stress in their work lives, both of which change at different times of the school year and at different career stages. 

What most satisfied teachers and engaged them most deeply? 

It’s the students, of course!

The top two areas of greatest satisfaction came from teachers’ engagement with students.

Our first and most dominant finding was that teachers want to engage students in learning, and gain considerable satisfaction when it occurs – especially the “Aha” moment when a student understands an idea or can solve a problem:

“I still get tremendous satisfaction working with the kids. I love when I get to experience their ‘ah-ha’ moments.”

This and many other comments spoke to teachers’ positive engagement when they saw themselves as instrumental in developing their students’ learning.

The second key finding was that teachers gain satisfaction when they feel that they are a positive influence on students’ development and lives. This reflects satisfaction over time, as they experience and support the growth of a young learner. Consider some of the following comments from BC teachers:

I love teaching and making a difference in the kids’ lives most of all.

The most satisfying aspect of my jobs is getting to interact with the students at my school and in particular to get to know my 30 students and create strong, trusting relationships with them where they feel free to talk to me about anything they need to and they know I am there to listen and support them no matter what the issue is.

Other teachers are important, too

A third finding revealed the importance of a community of adults, including interactions with peers, to teacher engagement. Teachers reported satisfaction when they had positive and productive relations with colleagues:

“I find the atmosphere of working and collaborating with colleagues to be an intense source of satisfaction. I take pride in being a member of a profession where members are strong in their convictions, vocal and self-assured. The dedication I see on a daily basis is very rewarding and inspirational.”

This finding suggests that when teaching is centred in a community where teachers give and feel respect, and when the community of peers engages in positive communication and collaboration, then teacher engagement is high. Hargreaves and Fullan made a similar argument when they stated: “Teachers who can sustain their commitment notice when they are surrounded by excellent colleagues . . . Primary or elementary teachers especially valued teamwork, someone to talk to when things went wrong, and a feeling that everyone was pulling in the same direction.”[ii]

Autonomy is crucial

Our study found that for many teachers, satisfaction comes from having autonomy. The desire for and the satisfaction with a significant degree of autonomy was highly valued by many respondents:

I have freedom to teach . . . with a great deal of autonomy in regard to subject and curriculum focus, lots of freedom in how to deliver, what to deliver within the curriculum, how to support students in need.

I greatly enjoy the variety of the work I do: working with principals, vice principals, teachers, students, parents, agencies . . . I have a lot of autonomy. I am glad that the work I do is with people, helping students and families. This is very satisfying. 

Teachers’ autonomy is a sensitive issue in British Columbia’s public education system, and is at the centre of a dispute between the BCTF and the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), with the BCTF advocating for strong levels of teacher autonomy and BCPSEA attempting to limit or curtail it. While this article is not the place for a major debate on autonomy, it seems from our Worklife data and from our review of the literature[iii] that autonomy contributes to teachers’ sense of professionalism and promotes greater engagement. The research also suggests that limiting teacher autonomy increases teacher attrition,[iv] as it removes one key factor (autonomy as a reflection of professionalism) which attracts people into teaching.

It’s not just a job

Many teachers who responded to our question about satisfaction in their work were incredibly passionate about teaching, so that teaching, for many respondents, was more about passion for their vocation than about satisfaction with work. 

“I love it every day, collaborating with my colleagues, knowing that what I do every day is important; constantly learning.”

“I love working with my students and can’t imagine doing anything else, even though it is a very challenging job. I love knowing that I have made a difference in my students’ lives and helped them to view themselves as capable and successful individuals.”

This repeated expression of passion is perhaps the most fundamental indication of engagement. While it clearly sustained many teachers, there is evidence that such passion can be lost if the work intensifies and becomes unmanageable. 

Why and when do teachers disengage?

While few Canadian studies have explored this in any depth, Clandinin et al in Alberta stated: “A problem of concern in Alberta is that a very large number of beginning teachers (approximately 40%) are leaving teaching within their first five years with the highest number leaving between years four and five.”[v]

Eight factors were considered as pertinent to why teachers disengaged, and at first sight at least one of those factors appear to contradict the ideas expressed by Hargreaves and Fullan in Professional Capital:

The teachers in the intentions study and the teachers who left had complex feelings of belonging with colleagues and administrators. As noted above, support from colleagues was not enough to sustain them. Relationships with colleagues were fraught as they often found themselves feeling unsure of who they were, and were becoming, in these landscapes. Mentoring and induction programs were often not seen as safe places to explore their more authentic concerns.[vi]

Achinstein also addressed this issue of conflict in school communities: “The study challenges current thinking on community by showing that conflict is not only central to community, but how teachers manage conflicts, whether they suppress or embrace their differences, defines the community borders and ultimately the potential for organizational learning and change.”[vii]

These different perceptions of community are not contradictory – where school staff interactions are positive, teacher engagement in both community and in teaching is high; but if there is greater conflict than collaboration, then disengagement is the more likely outcome. Simply put, for some teachers who disengaged, the community of school was not the supportive environment described by some in the BCTF Worklife study.

The Alberta study continues the discussion about finding balance between teachers’ work and private lives, suggesting that work-life balance is needed if teacher engagement is to be maintained. Teachers in this study spoke of how they struggled to not let teaching consume them as they tried to maintain health and relationships while facing the pressures of teaching. This and other studies remind us that it may be important to consider both working conditions and career stages when we think about teacher engagement – and especially to consider what Clandinin et al identified when considering the disengagement of new teachers:

There was a misalignment between the needs of the system and the schools in relation to the lives of the teachers. They frequently had to “do anything” in order to obtain contracts and teaching assignments. They frequently took on extra responsibilities at the expense of personal well being and familial needs in order to try to receive contracts and continuing assignments.[viii]

Final thoughts

Teachers are highly engaged in educative processes when they are instrumental to students’ learning and development. They enjoy and benefit from a positive and supportive community of peers. For many teachers, autonomy creates the space for them to find the right teaching approach and to feel that they are trusted as professionals. But for teachers to be optimally engaged and productive, workloads need to be manageable, interactions need to be positive and sustaining, and autonomy needs to be respected and maintained.

First published in Education Canada, September 2013

[i] C. Naylor and M. White, The Worklife of BC Teachers in 2009: A BCTF study of working and learning conditions (Vancouver, BC: BC Teachers‘ Federation, 2010). http://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Issues/WorklifeWorkload/2009/FullReport.pdf

[ii] A. Hargreaves, and M. Fullan, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school (New York: Teachers’ College Press, 2012), 60.

[iii] C. Naylor, The Rights and Responsibilities of Teacher Professional Autonomy: A BCTF discussion paper (Vancouver: B.C. Teachers‘ Federation, 2011). http://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Publications/ResearchReports/2011-EI-03.pdf 

[iv] R. M. Ingersoll, “Short on Power, Long on Responsibility,” Educational Leadership 65, no. 1 (2007): 20–25.

[v] D. J. Clandinin, L. Schaefer, J. S. Long, P. Steeves, S. McKenzie-Robblee, E. Pinnegar, S. Wnuk, Early Career Teacher Attrition: Problems, possibilities, potentials – final report (Edmonton: University of Alberta, April 2012), 3.

[vi] Clandenin et al., Early Career Teacher Attrition, 6.

[vii] B. Achinstein, Community, Diversity, and Conflict among Schoolteachers: The ties that bind (New York: Teachers’ College Press, Columbia University, 2002), 421.

[viii] Clandenin et al., Early Career Teacher Attrition, 6.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Charlie Naylor


Charlie Naylor is the Lead Advisor and B.C. Strategic Consultant in the EdCan Well at Work Advisors’ Team. He was formerly a Senior Researcher with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and is an Affiliated Scholar with Simon Fraser University.

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