Nearly everything in education hinges on teachers. Higher standards only raise achievement levels if teachers teach to those standards. Better curriculum only improves outcomes if teachers plan their lessons using that curriculum. And new strategies—such as project-based learning or blended learning—only enhance student learning if teachers put them into action. Because children’s minds and hearts are complicated, we need teachers’ intuition and expertise to figure out the best ways to engage, motivate, and inspire them.

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. Many promising programs, reforms, and innovations fall flat because school leaders can’t get teachers to buy what they’re selling.

So, what’s the key to getting teachers on board with new approaches to instruction?

Using a powerful theory and methodology called Jobs to be Done—developed and validated through extensive research in other sectors—we set out to uncover the factors that motivate teachers to use new practices in their classrooms. Specifically, we interviewed teachers who had recently pivoted to blended or project-based teaching to identify the events and circumstances that prompted them to bring these new practices into their classrooms.

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 contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, teachers search for something they can “hire” to help them with a particular issue. 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.

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.

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 should 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 a large proportion of 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 highlight the shortcomings in a classroom in ways that help teachers realize for themselves that the status quo needs to change, those experiences can activate dormant Jobs for teachers and lead them to proactively seek new approaches to teaching.

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 our recently published paper, “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.