Motivated leadership

Peps Mccrea’s Motivated teaching is a great guide for teachers to understand the levers that they can pull to influence children’s motivation. On picking up the book for the second time, I read it with school leadership in mind.

My position on school leadership is that it requires expertise in the form of well connected mental models. Those mental models are often built around common themes, regardless of the context, size and Ofsted grade of the schools we lead. They might be about curriculum leadership or behaviour or professional development or cultural leadership and they enable us to make good decisions. These mental models consist of knowledge and we can think of knowledge in different categories:

The content of Peps’ book certainly falls under the ‘formal knowledge’ category. A well connected mental model will include this formal knowledge as well as hidden knowledge relevant to the context in which we work or gathered from experience.

Firstly, a note from Peps on why we should know about motivation:

Motivation influences behaviour, learning and wellbeing.

Anything that helps school leaders to positively influence what staff know and do is clearly useful, particularly if it does the same for staff wellbeing. The framework that Peps uses explain how we can build motivation is:

  • Secure success
  • Run routines
  • Nudge norms
  • Build belonging
  • Boost buy in

Secure success

Peps describes how important feeling successful is to motivation. The more successful teachers have been in the past, the more likely they are to invest attention and effort to similar opportunities in the future.

So how can we get staff to be successful? Well, the obvious answer is in providing great CPD and there are far more knowledgeable people than me to elaborate on that. I’m more interested here on some of the ideas in Motivated teaching that we might be able to apply to our leadership practices.

The first is about framing success. Peps argues that we should not leave success open to interpretation. As leaders, we should define success by comparing current to past performance and not compare performance with that of peers. To be able to do this, leaders need a sound impressionistic knowledge of their teams’ strengths that can only come through regular discussion and immersion in their work. I’ve not called this observation because the term is loaded.

The second is about developing attribution. Peps argues that teachers need to stabilise the environment so that children are in control of outcomes. It may well hold then that leaders need to stabilise the environment so that staff are in control of outcomes. Good leadership would involve pointing out causes, emphasising that those causes were controllable to the individual and not down to circumstance. Many may humbly brush off a success as the cause of other factors but spotlighting improvement and narrating the cause as a result of actions taken seems to be a good way of ‘turning the dial’ on motivation, as Peps often says.

Let’s look at an example. All leaders will need teachers to write, implement and review SEND support plans. At best, they make a significant difference to the provision and outcomes for children with SEND. At worst, they are time consuming paperwork that is too far removed from day to day teaching. How they are perceived by teachers is important in fostering motivation to do them in the next cycle. What would success look like here? The clarity of targets would be one example, as would the time taken to write the plans and, of course, the difference that the work makes to the children that these plans are written for. Leaders should definitely invest time in conversations and recognition and also bring in the idea of attributing success to their actions:

  • The targets that you wrote for Stefan are really clear and even better than last time. The time you spent looking at good examples really paid off.
  • The plans that you wrote are great and you complete them in less time than last term. Your developing expertise has made you a lot more efficient.
  • The provision that you put in place based on the support plan made a real difference to Stefan’s reading. Stefan is lucky to have you working so hard for him.

Run routines

If we as leaders can promote clear routines, it seems that we are far more likely to influence motivation and therefore the fidelity to the strategies that we wish to establish. One way of running routines is to establish vivid, memorable rules of thumb and the complexity of doing so is a good addition to leaders’ formal knowledge.

Peps argues that routines are made up of chains (what to do) and cues (that start chains of action). For them to be vivid and memorable, they need to be simple, clear cut and the first step has to be easy for staff. Let’s return to the example of influencing motivation around teachers writing SEND support plans. The chain might be:

  • Assess progress towards targets.
  • Plan for the outcomes you want in the next cycle.
  • Map out the provision required to meet those targets.
  • Discuss and refine with the child / parents / SENDCo.

Making the first step simple could be something like making it part of standard pupil progress meetings. Teachers are already there talking about how children are progressing and it would not be an extra ‘thing’ to do. Chains need cues to start them off and Peps suggests that cues should be distinct, multi modal and punchy. I’m certainly guilty of using a cue that is none of those – an email reminding staff that it is time to review plans and set new targets, What could be a better cue? That email could be supplemented with some priming first. Small conversations in the build up to knowing that this email will be sent out can be influential. For example, in the days before, a leaders could ask ‘How is Stefan doing with his target on reading fluency?’


Nudge norms

Peps explains that desired social norms can be made more visible by increasing profusion (proportion of people complying) and prominence (how memorable our sightings of norm compliance are). In the example of increasing motivation around the completion of SEND support plans, leaders might initiate conversations about successful plans. ‘Have you seen the quality of provision in place for Stefan in Year 4? Go and ask Mrs Smith about his SEND support plan…’ This serves the purpose of filling the windscreen with stories of the culture that we’re striving for. This kind of leadership action can also do what Peps calls amplify approval – ensuring that many voices give the message rather coming from, for example, the SENDCo alone.


Build belonging

Belonging doesn’t just drive behaviour and learning, it boosts happiness and wellbeing too and so it is well worth leaders paying attention to ways in which we can make sure that staff feel that they belong. Peps writes that we can build belonging by signalling status and cultivating affinity by unifying our purpose. The example in the previous section does this too – we can signal Mrs Smith’s status by narrating her succes and good leaders will make sure that everyone is included, particularly those staff that find themselves on the periphery of the group. It also demonstrates our purpose – in this example, the education we provide for the least advantaged children matters a lot.


Boost buy in

It is so easy to get it wrong with buy in but there is some great advice in Motivated teaching that we can use as leaders. In particular, Peps talks about exposing the benefits and offering opt in. This is where impressionistic knowledge of individual colleagues is vital. Most might be motivated by the moral purpose of putting in top notch SEND support for children, Others might see that excelling in this area is great for their own career progression. Some might even be happy to be fulfilling statutory responsibilities. The point is that different staff will buy in for different reasons. Offering a micro choice can help to boost buy in. After exposing the benefits of writing SEND support plans, simple questions such as ‘Shall we crack on?’ can elicit such a boost.

An additional strategy from Motivated teaching is what Peps calls rationale elaboration. This would involve getting staff to explain the importance of a task such as writing SEND support plans in their own words. A brief discussion at the beginning of a staff meeting dedicated to writing them can provide this condition.


An understanding of motivation is certainly a useful addition to any leaders’ formal knowledge and their is far more wisdom Peps book which I highly recommend.

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