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Recognition and motivation




Audience applaudingFiona Thomas is an EFL blogger and Director of Education at Net Languages, a large online language school. Here she considers the importance of recognition and motivation for teachers to excel at their jobs.

How appreciated do you feel in your job? It doesn’t matter what position you hold, everybody likes to feel that their colleagues, boss and people they are responsible for appreciate them when they work hard and do their job well. However, too many teachers and managers suffer from the frustration of feeling that what they do goes unrecognised and unappreciated.

Why is recognition so important? Frederick Herzberg spent much of his professional life researching what motivates people in the work place. His findings show that when a person is recognised for a high level of performance at work, this has a powerful effect on motivation (Herzberg, 1987).

He distinguished between what he classified as hygiene factors and motivational factors. Hygiene factors are those factors which need to be in place for us to be able to do our job.  If these factors are not satisfactorily covered, they will cause anxiety, distract us from our job and lead to demotivation and general dissatisfaction – e.g. if we do not earn enough money to cover our general needs and expenses, we will not be able to focus on our work. However, these factors do not actually motivate us – e.g. if we are given a pay increase (money is a hygiene factor), the effect of the pay rise on our motivation is, in theory, very short-lived. We soon get used to earning more money and as a consequence, its effectiveness in terms of motivation is soon lost.

Motivational factors, on the other hand, are factors which make a difference to how the worker feels about their job in a longer lasting way. Herzberg cited the following areas as motivational: achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement. These, therefore, are the areas that language schools need to focus on in order to motivate the people who work there. And of these factors recognition is arguably one of the easiest to apply.

Recognition needs to happen all the way down the hierarchical ladder of any organisation, from Directors to DOSs and other managers, to level coordinators and to teachers. If the person who is directly responsible for us does not seem to notice or care when we perform outstandingly, we understandably feel unappreciated. This in turn can affect our work performance to the detriment of the organisation we work for.

Recognition from colleagues or those higher up the ladder can also be very effective at motivating us. This, I believe, tends to happen most in a climate where there is a general sense of well-being and appreciation within an organisation. People who work in an environment where recognition is part of the institutional culture are much more likely to reciprocate in kind.

Interestingly, people often receive more recognition from their PLNs (personal learning networks) than from the place where they work. The growth in online PLN communities has helped to provide the support and recognition which helps teachers and managers to develop as professionals, especially when this is lacking in the institutions that employ them. It seems, however, such a wasted opportunity that this potential is not exploited positively by these organisations.

It is somewhat ironic that teachers are trained to give praise, recognition and encouragement to their students (sometimes in excess, according to Jim Scrivener, but this is part of a different debate). However, when these teachers are promoted to management positions, they tend to forget to apply the same good practice to the people they are now responsible for. Managers seem to have become so busy directing or managing in their new positions that they forget to apply the same basic effective principles they used when managing students in a class.

If we strive to have vibrant, high-quality language organisations, the motivation of students, teachers, managers, and all other staff is an essential part of good management practice. If we accept that taking the time to recognise good work can make a significant difference to people’s levels of motivation, then language organisations would be well advised to make sure that the recognition of people’s merits, initiatives and hard work becomes part of their institutional culture.


Herzberg, F.I. 1987, ‘One more time: How do you motivate employees?’, Harvard Business Review, Sep/Oct87, Vol. 65 Issue 5, p109-120

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  1. I’m from Argentina and I’ve been teaching since I was 19. I could work with bosses who either inspired me to work differently or to work harder. I have learnt that learning how to work, how to teach is a never ending task! As teachers are supposed to be motivated all the time, the heads of schools don’t think that motivating their employees should be part of their jobs! Thanks for sharing this interesting article.

    • Dear Vero, I totally agree with you and your words remind me a boss I had. She told me that if I learn very well what I have to do in my position, nobody can take that away from me and what it was more important, I would be gaining respect from others. I put that into practice and I have to recognized that she was right. Motivation not necessarily has to come from bosses, at the end of the they, they are employees, too and they need to comply with what they were asked for. However, we, like individual human beings, need to learn that not everybody works in the same way and therefore, we cannot expect others do the same things we do….
      Kind regards,
      Greetings from Hoduras.

  2. Hello, I am from Honduras and I do believe that motivation should come first from inside of us. No matter what we, as coordinators do, but if you do not feel intrinsically motivated then the rests does not matter. However, with this I am not saying that extrinsic motivation cannot help. Yes, of course, with the help of it, I can say that people might feel a bit better when doing a specific task.
    I have learned by my own experience that our bosses are more focused on what they get as an institution. They rarely see or recognize what we do but something that I can tell you for sure is that they do see how you do things and they at the end. Like I said before, If you are motivated and you fell satisfied with what you do but what it is more important, if you are please with doing what you like to do, then the outside motivation will implicit. Do what you like to do and you will see that you will feel motivated. By doing this, be sure that you will gain respect in your position.

    Kind regards,

    • Hi Gerardo,
      It’s great that you think that bosses do see what we do and know whether we work well even if they don’t say anything. And, you may well be right. However, the point I am trying to make is that if they do notice when teachers and managers work well, if they tell us that they see what we do and appreciate it, then surely this will make us feel good about ourselves and “more” motivated. We will be then more likely and more motivated to collaborate in doing things for the benefit of the institution where we work beyond the class level.

  3. Interesting, Fiona. I’d say from 30+ years of experience, that failure to motivate the teachers is a regretably common failing in ELT management.

    Think it’s also true, however, that staying motivated also has a lot to do with how your learners respond, whether or not they seem to be learning, and enjoying learning with you; which in turn is also influenced by whether or not you the teacher still seem to be learning.

    And in any case, as someone the other day posted on I don’t remember what social network, teachers “are in it for the outcome, not the income”

    • Hi Tom,
      Yes, I agree completely, but then surely motivation is despite the place which employs you and not because of it. And teachers who suffer from this will still teach well but will be less well-disposed to contribute to the development of the school as a whole. From a management point of view, it’s such a waste to not channel this enthusiasm and motivation in a direction which would benefit the school beyond the class level.

      • Yes, you’re totally right, Fiona, it is “despite” not “because of”. And yes, it’s such a waste, as you say.

        So the big question for the DoS or whatever s/he is called is HOW to channel that enthusiasm…

        I’m an ex-DoS myself and suspect I failed miserably on that one… :-)!

        • It’s difficult but as managers we need to get teachers to feel good about the place where they work. I think if we can start by taking the time to recognise the good work that teachers do (when it is good), if they feel that we appreciate it, they will, in turn, be more willing to let us channel this enthusiasm in some way to the benefit of the class, themselves and the school or organisation where they work.

  4. Hi Fiona
    you are bang on message here for the upcoming Brighton conference (today, in fact!) all about getting teachers and management to work together towards developing a learning organisation workplace. But then, you know that! There will be ‘proceedings’ which Adrian Underhill will no doubt circulate, at the very least they will be on IATEFL TD SIG website.
    See you there!

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