Team motivation: Hitting the ground running in September

Written by: HTU | Published:

Today, team motivation is seen as a key responsibility of modern headship, and it is especially important that as the new school year begins the whole-school team hits the ground running. Nick Bannister looks at the experiences of one primary headteacher

Minerva Primary Academy was facing the latest in a series of tough knocks in September 2011.

The primary – in a deprived area of Bristol – had received a notice to improve after an Ofsted inspection in the spring.

Gemma Jackson joined as headteacher that autumn. It seemed a tough challenge but she was convinced that the school could make great strides.

“I knew that despite the reputation of the school, there was good practice here,” she explained. “It was about encouraging that to bring it to the fore. It was about nurturing skills more and giving staff a clear purpose and direction so we could move forward.”

Ms Jackson launched an array of initiatives aimed at improving the motivation and morale of staff, including giving staff real involvement in teaching, learning and leadership. And she is convinced that the approach is helping the school improve.

According to the National College for Teaching and Leadership, team motivation is an important aspect of a leader’s role and one that requires continuous attention. The National College has recently launched a set of online guides to help leaders develop their skills in staff motivation.

“Your team members’ motivation levels can have an impact on their productivity, the quality of their work, their engagement, morale and their relationships with others,” it says. “It is vital, therefore, to create the conditions for motivation to thrive within your team.”

The resources highlight a range of motivational approaches that it says leaders should adopt, including communicating openly and honestly, seeking involvement and gaining buy-in and helping team members to grow and develop.

The National College’s advice on team motivation chimes with Ms Jackson’s approach at Minerva. Soon after she joined the school she put motivation at the heart of her leadership strategy. 

A starting point was to involve everyone in a brain-storming session in which she encouraged colleagues to use the supermarket analogy to think about what sort of school they wanted Minerva to be.

“I asked them what was great about the school. I asked them what sort of supermarket they would want the school to be most like. Were we a Lidl or a Waitrose or somewhere in between? They decided against the Waitrose analogy which they saw as too exclusive and elitist. They wanted the school to be seen as far more diverse and inclusive than that.

“A lot of work was also on developing an expression of our core values and aims. We wanted to make sure we had a shared language of moving forward.”

Another key consideration for Ms Jackson was to ensure that she promoted an open culture in which all staff members were valued for the different contributions and perspectives they could offer in a collective effort to achieve success.

“I wanted to phase out inequality and get rid of any hint of a faces fit thing,” she said. “All our faces can fit in our team. We are all different and all have something to offer.

Giving colleagues a meaningful involvement – and leadership role – in school improvement was crucial in her efforts to achieve a collective ownership of the school. 

“We set up development teams – each concentrating on one of the four Ofsted priority areas of leadership and management, teaching and learning, standards and progress, and conditions of learning. For example, a teaching and learning team was asked to think about what we could do to improve what we do in that area. 

“They suggested an approach to interactive learning in which all children were actively involved in their learning and in the peer review of their work. That came from the team rather than me and that was very powerful.”

Ms Jackson also places great emphasis on the need to speak up for her staff and to back them up when the going gets tough: “I think moral courage is an important part of leadership – I will back up staff decisions on children and parents.”

Staff at Minerva speak of the impact that the motivational approach has had on their own professional development. Inclusion leader Kay Harrison says she received “unstinting support” from Ms Jackson when guiding parents or resolving conflict. “She’s also challenged me in performing to my best and trusted me to use my specialist experience as SENCO,” she said.

“As part of my performance management I’ve developed new record-keeping and information-sharing procedures through personal research. I have then been able to train learning support assistants through their performance management cycle, in becoming more efficient in the monitoring and evaluation of interventions.”

Minerva faced its first test since Ms Jackson became head when Ofsted made a short notice inspection visit in March 2012. 

“They rang at 8:20am and they were in school by 8:55am,” she recalled. “I got the staff together and reassured them that we were ready, that we were making good progress and that we would come out with a good judgement.”

The school was indeed given a judgement that it was making good progress. Another inspection is due in the autumn and Minerva’s target is to achieve a rating of good.

Two-way, clear and open communication is central to increasing staff motivation – the National College’s advice places great emphasis in this area, as does Ms Jackson.

“The first thing I would recommend heads to do is to set that clarity of expectation,” she added. “They also need to give staff the opportunity to feedback where they think they are and what they need to do to move forward.”

Her “communications is key” approach was put to the test when Minerva converted to an academy in September 2012. The school is now one of five primaries in the 11-school Cabot Learning Federation.

“It went through okay because of regular communication,” said Ms Jackson. “I updated staff when I had the information. And I updated them when I did not have information as well. If they had thought that things were going on that they weren’t privy to then this would cause greater anxiety.” 

Motivation skills are a key part of the school leadership armoury, but they are nothing if staff care little about what they are working in the school in the first place. This isn’t likely to be a problem in any primary school in the country but it is worth leaders and their staff taking some time to remind themselves why they are doing the job in the first place, says Ms Jackson.

“We always try to bring everything that we do back to having high expectations for the children – helping them be the best they can be,” she said. “My headteacher in my last job said to me that the children do not choose to be here but we do – and that’s a massive motivator.”

Gemma Jackson’s advice on how to effectively motivate your team

  • Don’t pre-judge on any reputation or any judgement that’s not your own – explain that you will make your own judgements
  • Work together to develop a shared language of core values and aims
  • Identify the golden nuggets of talent and good practice.
  • Talk to staff and find out their aims and their thoughts – be seen to put this into practice – develop each as an individual in terms of interests and skill levels
  • Set clear expectations so that the team knows how to succeed and how to impress
  • Set challenging expectations and praise good practice – recognise people’s hard work
  • Phase out “inequality” by establishing working practices based on clarity, consistency and communication
  • Always “talk up” the school and your team in public. Support staff publicly when they’re challenged – don’t be afraid to say that it’s not acceptable to treat a team member in a certain way.
  • Encourage progression – create development opportunities and make them accessible to all staff
  • Be challenging and forward-thinking – communicate the excitement of being on the move
  • Explain the destination and what the journey looks like – acknowledge the past and take positives from it and celebrate and challenge “in the moment” 
  • Open your door to all – encourage colleagues to share their concerns and their ideas
  • Be openly collaborative but equally be able to make and take responsibility for decision-making
  • Show determination and credibility so people have faith to come “with you”
  • Share your moral purpose and keep to it – explain the reasoning behind decisions
  • Keep people in the loop of developments
  • Trust people to do their job. Think the best of people, unless they prove otherwise. Then give them a chance to improve and develop within clear expectation frameworks
  • Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.


  • For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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