As the pandemic clearly highlighted, nearly everything in education hinges on teachers: their ability to connect with and motivate students; their skills at developing and implementing new instructional strategies in ways that ensure learning; and their willingness to be the critical communications pipeline between students, families, and the school community.

This reality creates a conundrum for education leaders and reformers. None of their ideas will succeed unless those ideas gain traction among the teachers who carry forward the work of education on a day-to-day basis. 

So, how can school leaders better understand teachers’ needs and motivations, and then communicate and align their new ideas toward successful adoption? 

Using a powerful theory and methodology called Jobs to Be Done—developed and validated through extensive research in many sectors—the Institute set out to uncover the factors that motivate teachers to use new practices (i.e., project-based or blended learning). Our findings show which events and circumstances cause teachers to change how they teach.

According to the theory, teachers change their practices when they have an unmet “Job” they need to fulfill. We call these Jobs because, just as people hire a contractor to help them build a house or a lawyer to help them build a case, teachers search for solutions they can “hire” to help them when moments of struggle crop up in their work. Jobs Theory cuts through the noise of what teachers say they want or what school leaders expect them to do, in order to identify the events and circumstances that actually cause them to make the decisions they make.

The circumstances that motivate change 

Through our interviews, we uncovered four Jobs that motivate teachers to change their instruction:

  • Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job were eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement efforts. They looked for promising, yet simple, practices that would be straightforward to share with their colleagues.
  • Job #2: Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable. Teachers with this Job were happy overall with the teaching and learning in their classrooms, but wanted practical strategies for reaching a few students who were slipping through the cracks.
  • Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Teachers with this Job taught in circumstances where few students were succeeding academically. They were eager for radical new approaches that would help them find a renewed sense of purpose as teachers.
  • Job #4: Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative. For these teachers, their schools’ initiatives didn’t seem to offer viable ways to reach their goals and, thereby, created compliance-oriented motivation. They focused on doing what they had to do to not disappoint their school leaders, colleagues, and students.

Reaching teachers where they are

At first glance, these Jobs may seem intuitive or even obvious to anyone who works in schools. But the nuances of the Jobs reveal key parameters that any new instructional program must meet to gain traction among teachers. School leaders can employ insights from these Jobs in two ways.

First, school leaders can design their programs to fulfill Jobs that are already relevant for their teachers. You can’t force a teacher to have a particular Job. But, when you appeal to a Job they already have, adoption happens organically.

For example, if a substantial portion of a school’s teaching staff finds motivation in fulfilling Job #2, school leaders should work with teachers to pinpoint the students that are particularly difficult to reach, and then select new instructional approaches designed to engage those students. Importantly, however, to fulfill Job #2, those new practices need to be straightforward complements to whatever teachers are already doing. If the new practices are not manageable additions to teachers’ current strategies, those new practices will be dead in the water. Teachers with Job #2 aren’t interested in “great ideas” that double their workload or require them to throw out their favorite lesson activities.

Second, if a program doesn’t line up well with existing Jobs, leaders can prime teachers for new initiatives by shaping the circumstances that activate latent Jobs.

For example, many of the teachers we interviewed with Job #3 only came to that Job after their experiences gave them a strong sense that far too many of their students were slipping through the cracks. One high school math teacher was routinely frustrated when his students just wanted to regurgitate steps without trying to understand mathematical concepts. Another teacher felt defeated by ongoing behavior issues from many disengaged students. Helping teachers reckon with such experiences can be a powerful catalyst for motivating them to set aside their long-standing approaches and seek something better. 

When school leaders work as trusted partners with teachers to help them wrestle with the challenges they already recognize in their classrooms, those experiences can activate dormant Jobs for teachers and lead them to seek new approaches to teaching proactively.

Understanding teachers’ Jobs is the key to shifting from coercive to inspiring forms of management. 

When school leaders use Jobs to shape their school improvement programs, they create the circumstances for those programs to flourish organically across their schools. For more insights into the Jobs that motivate teachers and the strategies for activating and leveraging those Jobs, check out, “The teacher’s quest for progress: How school leaders can motivate instructional innovation.”


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.