How self-determination theory can assist our understanding of teaching and wellbeing

The following article comes from Alex David Wright, Lead Practitioner in English in Northampton, UK.

I hate the word ‘well-being’. It sits there, neutered and docile, a blank euphemism for the crisis facing teachers. Since the advent of the pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on well-being, with many schools putting various policies and initiatives in place, but the cauldron has been bubbling for years. A recent TES report into teacher well-being, which draws together data from 4,379 global responses (including 2,995 from the UK), makes for sobering reading. More than 75% of those surveyed self-reported symptoms of poor mental health. 67% said their workload was unmanageable. The previous year’s survey saw 22% say their workload was unmanageable.

But, for me, these aren’t the most worrying figures. They deal with symptoms, not causes. More useful, if we’re to get a sense of what’s going wrong, are the figures about staff self-belief and internal communication: in the UK, staff confidence is down 41 percentage points from last year.

Less than 40% said they felt confident performing in their roles at the current time, despite 60% reporting that they felt skilful. Staff know they’re capable: they just don’t feel they can be. An Oxford Review of Education Study found that the problem isn’t about hours or pay, it’s about the intensity of the job. This intensiveness means that teachers have little time to develop themselves, little time to regenerate, little time to communicate, and little time to reflect.

Some of this seems linked to feelings about communication. Almost half of staff say they don’t feel listened to (compared to 79% who said they did feel listened to in the 2020 survey), and only 16% say they think information is communicated effectively in schools. I’d argue that be interrogating these figures we can start to figure out how we might, to paraphrase Desmond Tutu, go upstream and stop people falling into the river.

In this very simple analogy, the river is burnout, depression, anxiety, and its ghoulish ilk. One of the first issues with these stress reactions is that we tend to individualise them; we think about the person being depressed. In our attempt at empathy, we create a spotlight that becomes an interrogator’s torch. We forget to focus on the external structures that have caused this burnout. Just see the way so many schools deal with well-being. It’s the equivalent of distracting a child with sweets so they don’t see the mangled bodies and steel of a four-car pile-up as you drive by. It’s cakes at lunchtime; it’s mental health first-aiders; it’s practising breathing in the middle of an inset day because somebody can’t stop saying ‘mindfulness’ and gazing wistfully into the middle distance, as though they’re in a knitwear catalogue. What needs to change is structural.

If structural change sounds horribly complicated, then the reasons for it aren’t. In fact, they’re almost child-like in their simplicity. Happy people do better. They’re more productive. They’re nicer to other people. They contribute more to group efforts. They model positivity to others. They create and innovate more. This happiness comes from motivation, and this motivation comes from happiness. More specifically, we are motivated by doing well (or at least feeling as though we’re doing well); we do well because we’re motivated. It’s a cycle. This motivation, and the well-being that comes from it, according to Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (2000), has three strands:

  1. Competence: feeling as though you can do something well
  2. Autonomy: feeling as though you can act of your own volition, free from unnecessary pressures from others
  3. Relatedness: feeling a sense that everything is working together purposefully.

But, if we apply these to the findings from the TES Report and the ORE study, we find that teachers’ chronic lack of self-image, exhaustion and stress stems from basic human needs not being met:

  1. Competence: teachers are being made to feel they aren’t capable of doing the job
  2. Autonomy: teachers don’t feel as though they have sufficient control or voice
  3. Relatedness: being asked to do too many things that aren’t relevant or don’t adhere to goals / personal values. There is a disconnect between the self and the work.

It follows, then, that if we are to improve well-being, we need to start by fulfilling these three basic needs. According to Ryan & Deci, humans skew good –– we are curiously happy creatures from the off. Humans prototypically tend towards creativity and learning. But needs not being met can put us in crisis mode:

By our definition, a basic need, whether it be a physiological need (Hull, 1943) or a psychological need, is an energizing state that, if satisfied, conduces toward health and well-being but, if not satisfied, contributes to pathology and ill-being. We have thus proposed that the basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness must be satisfied across the life span for an individual to experience an ongoing sense of integrity and well-being or “Eudaimonia” (Ryan & Frederick, 1997; Waterman, 1993). (Ryan & Deci, 2000)

I like this conception of met needs as an ‘energising state’. And this energising state is one of creativity and learning, twinned. It’s called play.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” — Desmond Tutu

Play is vital, and we’re ashamed of it. We’ve all but surgically removed it from secondary school. But play is a generative act of discovery; play engenders self-knowing and the knowing of others. Both Richard and Joan Feynman discussed the importance of play as generative learning experience:

But my father, you see, interested me in patterns at the very beginning, and then later in things, like we would turn over stones and watch the ants carry the little white babies down deeper into the holes. We would look at worms. All the time playing — when we’d go for walks, we’d look at things all the time, and then he’d tell me about things of every kind. The stars, the bugs, geometry things, and so on. He was always telling me interesting things — the way birds fly, the way ocean waves work, or something, you see, the weather. I don’t know why, any more, but there was always talking about the world, from every angle. Not just mathematics or anything like that, but the whole business he was interested in, and he was always telling me things. So he therefore developed somehow, inside me, more or less naturally, an interest in anything rational and scientific.

What has this to do with well-being? I argue that if we want teachers to feel motivated, empowered, and respected, if we want to effect real change, we have to change the mindset. Teaching and learning must become more generative. Teachers must be given opportunities to be heard. I read recently about a school that chose not to have heads of department because it meant staff could generatively run projects. Hierarchies have a habit of sending all sorts of effluvia down onto the heads of those at the bottom. Play dismantles hierarchies. Give teachers time, space, and resources to really develop their subject knowledge. Let teachers run projects and initiatives. Decentralise power and listen. And by listen, I don’t mean decide what somebody is going to and watch their mouth move while you think about soup or something. I mean give people autonomy, and the means to be autonomous.

Every day, teachers are falling into the river. They don’t all get fished out. DfE figures confirm that around 1/3 of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. 1/6 leaves the profession within just one year.

It’s time to stop talking about well-being. It’s time to start talking about doing things quite radically differently. It’s time to stop people falling into the river.



Bellet, Clement, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, and George Ward. 2019. “Does Employee Happiness Have an Impact on Productivity?” SSRN Electronic Journal, October.

Morrison, Nick. 2021. “Record One In Six Teachers In England Quit After Just A Year In The Classroom.” Forbes Magazine, June.


Ryan, R. M., and E. L. Deci. 2000. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” The American Psychologist 55 (1): 68–78.

Times Educational Supplement. 2022. “DS44224 Wellbeing Report 2021.” January 2022.

Author: Alex David Wright

Lead practitioner in English Northampton, UK

Alex Wright is a Lead Practitioner in English, currently working in Northamptonshire.  Since starting with edu-blogging last year, Alex has written prolifically online in a number of forms.  You can follow him on Twitter @curtaindsleep, read his work on, and subscribe to his mailing list at

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