Research Summary

What organizational factors motivate environmental educators to perform their best?

Environmental education organizations can facilitate a motivating workplace for educators

The Journal of Environmental Education
2021

Motivation is essential for all teachers and specifically for environmental educators. Research has concluded that motivation affects teaching quality and student outcomes in environmental education (EE). Research has also proved that organizational practices can affect an employee’s motivation and subsequent performance across sectors. Though many studies have been conducted on EE and professional development for environmental educators, not much is known about the organizational influences on a teacher’s motivation to perform at their peak level. Therefore, the researchers sought to discover what motivates EE instructors to perform their best, what organizational practices influence teacher motivation, and how those two dimensions differ between teachers in different levels of their career.

The study draws on two commonly cited theories on motivation. The first is self-determination theory, which explores extrinsic motivation (driven by external factors like rewards and consequences) and intrinsic motivation (driven by one’s own dedication and fulfilment of doing the work) through the variables of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to one’s freedom of choice in the workplace. Competence is the sense of expertise in work tasks. Relatedness is feeling secure and safe in the workplace and with co-workers. The second is the motivation-hygiene theory, which lists motivation factors (including achievement, advancement, recognition, and meaning in the workplace) and hygiene factors (including workplace policies, conditions, pay, and employee relationships). The researchers combined these theories to build a conceptual model that shows the relationships between these factors on lowered or elevated motivation levels in educators.

The researchers interviewed 68 environmental educators and 22 supervisors (for organizational context) that represented 40 government and non-governmental education organizations across 15 states in the United States. These education centers all had programming for fifth to eighth grade students. Among the organizations, 11 had fewer than 10 employees, 22 had between 10 and 50 employees, and 7 had between 50 and 249 employees. Interviews were conducted either on-site or over the phone, averaged 18 minutes in duration, and asked open-ended questions about what motivates educators to teach well. The interview data were recorded and analyzed with respect to the conceptual model created by the researchers.

The interviewee pool was divided into three categories of teachers. These included: 1) exploratory teachers, those unsure of their career path and just trying EE; 2) career teachers, those with a commitment to working in EE; and 3) transitional teachers, those who were working in EE but exploring other opportunities. In total, there were 24 exploratory teachers, 39 career teachers, and 5 transitional teachers. The exploratory teachers had just under 3 years of EE experience on average and averaged 25 years old, while the career teachers had an average of 14 years of EE experience and averaged 40 years old. Because there were few transitional teachers in the study, comparison of results focused on exploratory and career teachers.

Hygiene factors and recognition by supervisors did not significantly influence teacher motivation; however, the concept of novelty was revealed during the interviews. For example, one teacher commented that they loved to be outside, loved the outdoors, and being outside working was motivating in and of itself. This novelty was the opportunity to teach outside in interesting settings and uniqueness of their day-to-day job responsibilities. Autonomy was not explicitly identified by any of the interviewees as a motivating or demotivating factor, but it was made evident in their anecdotes. For instance, a career teacher shared they are provided a menu of teaching options that fit the curricular requirements, and they can pick and choose the materials and methods based on their own preference. The teachers enjoyed innovating and solving problems in their own way, developing their own programming. Competence, achievement, and advancement were identified as motivators in the interviews, and educators considered them key components for professional development for personal growth and career trajectory. Specifically, the exploratory teachers assigned a stronger motivation level for these factors. Teachers frequently noted relatedness in that sharing beliefs and values with coworkers and learning from each other was motivating. Finally, meaningfulness was cited by interviewees as an important motiving factor. For example, positive interactions with students and working with students made their work more meaningful and thus more fulfilling. There was also an increased level of meaning when the teacher had a strong alignment between their personal values and the organization’s values.

The common organizational practices that influenced teacher motivations which emerged from the data included a high level of autonomy, competence support (i.e. professional development opportunities), promotion of relatedness, fostering meaningfulness, and novelty across career stages. Though there were differing levels of autonomy across organizations, the teachers did not share that they felt constrained by their organization when it came to developing content and delivering lessons. In cases where organizations supported professional development, teachers were more motivated. However, more effective and frequent feedback was cited as a lacking component in some organizations and is an area of improvement. Some organizations led specific efforts to facilitate relatedness like hosting staff retreats, cookouts, and other team-building activities outside of the workplace. When organizations hosted regular meetings for staff to brainstorm, problem solve, and share information, teachers felt that it was motivating. Meaningfulness was brought to teachers in the nature of the work they did, though the lack of opportunities to move up in some organizations was slightly demotivating. Finally, though EE provides a novel work environment, career teachers cited routine or repetitive tasks became mundane and less motivating, while exploratory teachers felt the novelty more frequently. Overall, the most motivating factor was an alignment of shared values between the teacher and the organization.

There were some limitations in this study and the results are not generalizable. First, the sample was based on a larger study’s participant pool, so participants were selected out of convenience, and the sample is not representative of EE in the United States as a whole. Second, the interviews were very short and targeted, making it harder for teachers to elaborate during the interview with the researchers. Finally, the researchers chose to focus on the exploratory and career teacher data, though the five transitional teachers may have had informative insights.

Though there were some differences in motivation between early-stage (exploratory) and later-stage (career) teachers, organizations should be intentional with their policies and practices to foster a more motivating workplace so that teachers may feel empowered to teach at their peak level. Specifically, organizations may benefit from leading a values-based hiring and retention process so that teachers can have a stronger alignment with the organizations’ values. Further, the researchers identified ways EE organizations can improve their motivating environment by providing more valuable and frequent feedback through participatory evaluation, more and clearer professional development opportunities, and task diversification.

The Bottom Line

Motivation affects teaching quality and student outcomes in environmental education (EE), so this study aimed to reveal the organizational practices that impact teacher motivation through interviews with educators from 40 organizations across the United States. The common organizational practices that emerged from the data included a high level of autonomy, competence support, promotion of relatedness, fostering meaningfulness, and novelty across career stages. Ultimately, the most important motivating factor was the alignment of personal values with those of the organization. The researchers identified ways EE organizations can improve their workplace environment by providing more valuable and frequent feedback through participatory evaluation, more and clearer professional development opportunities, and task diversification to positively impact teaching quality and student outcomes. Organizations may also benefit from leading a values-based hiring and retention process so that teachers can have a stronger alignment to the organizations’ values.