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Exploring Self Determination Theory (SDT) and meeting the psychological needs of school staff

What do people want? What do they need? We make choices every day that we think will generate happiness. We buy a coffee on the way to work because it provides a sense of gratification, and a perception that the handiwork of the barista, along with the caffeine, will see us through the morning unscathed. We don’t need it, but a desire has been fulfilled and, in turn, our morale may be safe for an hour or two.

But, in teaching, despite a profession-wide addiction to tea and coffee, it takes more than a short burst in the morning to provide for our needs. Of course, many define teaching as a vocation, an active career choice made to give back to society and to find meaning; but those ideals alone aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of those in danger of burnout due to accountability measures, high workload, or a number of other stressors.

A recent visit to the Relationships Foundation in Cambridge was a revelation for us. The think-tank aims to create a ‘better-connected society’ through more relational thinking and, among many other projects, they have experience in working with schools; we met with John Ashcroft, Director of Research, and Ben Gibbs, Head of Programmes.

Rachel and I quizzed them about healthy organizations and staff wellbeing, and they in turn threw back academic research, case studies, and decades of first-hand experience about how staff can be looked after, within and outside the education sector. One thing that became clear is that to champion improved self-efficacy among staff, one must begin by looking at organizational culture.

The first paper to truly grab our attention, recommend by John and Ben, was the work of Ryan and Deci (Ryan and Deci, 2000) and their Self Determination Theory (SDT), followed by many subsequent studies adopting a form of this model. SDT is not a recent phenomenon, or a fad doing the rounds, but perhaps its model hasn’t entered the world of teacher training just yet. It proposes that humans have three basic psychological needs: competence, relatedness and autonomy; in a workplace setting, those must be met for staff to thrive.

Autonomy encompasses the need to experience choice in the way tasks are carried out; relatedness is how workers perceive their relationships and connection with others within the organization, in addition to being part of a group and being supported by leadership; competence involves feeling challenged, accomplishing and performing well, and learning. Numerous studies suggest that these three basic psychological needs have a correlation with employee wellbeing, motivation, and perceptions about contentment at work.

Please check the bibliography for the full papers and links pertaining to SDT; in a bid to avoid a long read, I will now turn my attention to SDT applied to teachers and school settings. I hasten to add, the papers are fantastic reading and I do not do them justice in this short blog post, but rather provide a rudimentary summary of the principles.

The question we are asking now is: how are these needs potentially restricted for school staff, and what could we do to unlock them and help teachers to flourish?

Competence: do accountability measures, e.g. SATS, GCSEs, A-Levels, league tables, OFSTED, mean that staff only feel a sense of competency if their students achieve well in standardised tests? Are school leaders effective at praising their staff for their efforts and commitment, and not just test performance? Does the training and development in schools actually upskill teachers and staff? Do staff have control over, and engagement with, their development? Do teachers feel like they are achieving what they came into the profession to accomplish?

Autonomy: another potential victim of accountability measures; are staff given enough creativity regarding what they teach and how they teach? Are schools giving teachers enough say in curriculum development and delivery? Are teachers encouraged to take part in research and further learning so that they can improve their practice and take control of what they want to develop? Do staff feel they have a voice within the school to be part of change?

Relatedness: In most workplace settings, this would encompass how staff interact with their colleagues. However, teaching has a more unique edge to this factor given that teachers spend most of their day with students. Although relatedness with other staff is important, Klassen et al found that teachers value more their relationships with students, and in turn, students who had good relatedness with their teachers had higher intrinsic motivation (Klassen, et al, 2011) Do schools take seriously the importance of helping teachers build relationships with their students? In terms of staff relatedness, key questions amount to whether or not a culture of exists of sharing, collaborating, and valuing each other as staff, and whether building of relationships between staff is facilitated and promoted. Do leaders support and empathise with their staff at schools?

The purpose of our entire project is to work out how we can improve wellbeing for staff, and the Self Determination Theory has a valuable role to play in how we steer conversations and form ideas. For instance, we are looking at using the three psychological needs as the basis for three sections of a staff questionnaire, which his common practice among those adopting SDT as a way to assess staff contentment and motivation. We are also using competence, autonomy and relatedness as foci of focus groups we are running soon among school staff.

Any teacher can tell you that we want to feel more trusted as a profession and welcome the chance to be given more autonomy to exercise our professional expertise and skills. However, certain aspects of our education system provoke a restriction of independence, and it takes courageous school leaders to break away from established practices in how to run schools to give staff more autonomy. Standardised testing increases pressure on teachers, narrows what they can teach, and reduces time to build relationships with students, which simultaneously impacts perceptions of both relatedness and autonomy (Collie, et al, 2015); meanwhile, the ever-looming Ofsted presents leaders challenges over what they should prioritise, and it rarely seems to be how to empower staff.

Schools, therefore, need to spend more time asking themselves what they define as success. Are the aims of the school built around exam league tables and Ofsted ratings, or alternatively,  thriving staff and students who enjoy their learning environment and are motivated to keep learning? Clearly we need to have a balance; but children can receive a robust and diligent education within an environment that empowers staff needs.

As we continue to explore studies, meet experts, and conduct some primary research within school settings, our aim is to move onto solutions. How can we help school leaders meet the needs of their staff? How can we encourage and empower staff to take a lead with their development? What cultural and organisational shifts need to occur to make teachers feel valued? I’m aware that we are raising plenty of questions and few answers, but each step we take is providing new insights and ideas!

Next week we meet with Dr Kulvarn Atwal, author of The Thinking School, and then head to Ogilvy, one of the world’s largest advertising firms. Both visits will be hugely informative and inspirational and will be detailed in our following blog post.

Thank you for reading.

Sam and Rachel


Collie R, Martin A, Shapka J and Perry N (2015) ‘Teachers’ Psychological Functioning in the Workplace: Exploring the roles of contextual beliefs, Need Satisfaction and Personal Characteristics’. American Psychological Association.

Klassen R, Frenzel A, Perry N (2011) ‘Teachers‘ Relatedness with Students: An Underemphasized Component of Teachers’ Basic Psychological Needs’. American Psychological Association.

Ryan R & Deci E (2000) ‘Self Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and wellbeing’. American Psychologist.

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