Support for Teachers

Lee Dieck (March 2024)

In our work with schools, the Heart of Character team generally prioritizes helping faculty understand the basic psychological needs that are the basis for self-determination theory and how to bring practices that support those needs to their work with students.  

While preparing for a recent school visit, my focus took a bit of a shift. This is a school and a faculty that I’ve gotten to know a bit through prior visits, and I really started to think about the needs of the adults who make such a difference in the lives of students. 

The reality is that teachers have needs, too. The greater the extent to which teachers have their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence met, and can pursue their personal values, interests, and goals, the more they will be intrinsically motivated and able to be more motivating for their students. Teachers have incredibly challenging jobs that require not only knowledge of subject matter, but also deep awareness of themselves and their students, empathy, adaptable communication skills, and nimbleness that enables them to respond to myriad challenges that appear in their classrooms every day. There are clear implications here as well for those who lead faculty. How can we best support our teachers in the critical work they do each day? 

As I shared this thought process with a group of faculty and staff on the afternoon of my visit, I suggested a process for teachers to  “check in” with themselves before they start their day and/or their classes. Here are some of the questions I posed:

  • What am I thinking about when I walk into a class (the lesson, the students, something else)?
  • What student am I looking forward to teaching?
  • What student am I worried about?
  • What student is really challenging for me? 
  • Who can I go to when my reserves are low?
  • What are my obstacles?
  • Who are my supporters? 

And, borrowing from the work of Johnmarshall Reeve and others in their book Supporting Students’ Motivation, I suggested two other questions that can help faculty support students in their classrooms:

Is what I’m about to teach INTERESTING? 

If you think your students may not think so, try to offer choice with activities and assignments and engage students through their personal interests.

Is what I’m about to teach IMPORTANT? 

To enhance the understanding of importance, share relevance and rationale. Acknowledge students’ negative reactions without judgment or defensiveness; try to be patient, and invite students into the process with you (using language that is not directive – “maybe try this” rather than “do it this way”).

To the extent that we can create a sense of belonging and trust in our classes, and foster an environment of “learning together,” everyone can become more engaged and supportive of each other in the learning process.