Self Determination Theory and the Teacher: The Power of the Personal Learning Network


The issue of teacher retention in education is a compelling one: The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years (Kopkowski, 2008). Various entities have attempted to get at the root of teacher burnout–the usual list of suspects includes issues such as lack of adequate preparation, lack of autonomy, difficult student behavior, lack of support and interpersonal conflict, and boredom (Cherniss, 1995). Based on my own experience and the work of researchers, I would also add professional isolation (Schlichte, Yssel, & Merbler, 2005). Teaching is a highly social profession–interaction with students obviously dominates a teacher’s time–but when it comes to the intellectual pursuit of providing nuanced instruction, designing differentiated curriculum, and the like, the work is often done largely in isolation.

The issues listed above as negatively impacting teacher retention are wide-ranging and also highly context-dependent, but there are three that I see as perhaps the most universal: lack of adequate preparation, lack of autonomy, and professional isolation. In looking at these three challenges, Self Determination Theory is particularly illuminating as to why these realities may be so detrimental to teacher motivation and therefore retention. Self Determination Theory posits that in order to foster motivation and engagement, conditions must exist that support an individual’s sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Competence refers to a perceived self-belief in one’s ability to perform well in an activity. Autonomy is the universal urge to be the causal agent of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self. Lastly, relatedness refers to a need to interact with and be connected to others. According to Self Determination Theory, then, when conditions exist to support a teacher’s experience of these three things, motivation and engagement result. This mindset supports persistence–an outcome that has positive ramifications for the problem of teacher burnout.

In an ideal world, policy makers, politicians, and school administrators would be working hard to ensure that every school cultivated a culture that addressed the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness within its own walls. At present, however, this is not the reality. Knowing this, I think the most successful teachers are creating this space for themselves–in the form of a personal learning network (PLN). Sometimes, it’s possible to build a support network within one’s own school community, but again, that is not always the possible. The idea of extending one’s PLN beyond the walls of the school can often seem a daunting task for an educator. In the past, it was nearly impossible. Today, however, in a world of social media, connective technologies, and digital open learning resources, it is much more easily accomplished. Although there are a multitude of resources available, I have chosen to focus on Edcamp and Twitter in order to in some way demonstrate the breadth of options available.



Edcamp is a user-generated “unconference” aimed predominantly at educators in the K-12 space. Edcamps usually meet for one weekend day in a space without vendors, keynote speakers, or pre-planned content scheduling. On the day of the event, participants volunteer to facilitate individual sessions. These facilitators initiate and sometimes help guide the discussion, but do not deliver content in a top-down manner. If a particular session is for whatever reason not meeting the needs of a participant in attendance, that participant may move to a more relevant session taking place in another space. The general idea is for sessions to more directly address the needs and interests of the participants in the room, and for educators to learn directly from one another as practitioners (Swanson, 2013). I recently attended Edcamp Boston, and attended sessions around topics such as makerspaces, building capacity for 1:1 iPad technology, teaching through movement, and wireframing in the classroom. More information on upcoming conferences is available at:

The following is a sample of actual participant takeaways from a variety of Edcamps (Swanson, 2013).

  • “I learned ways to flip my faculty meeting, spending less time on announcements and more time on PD, relationship building and modeling a maximization of time with my staff.” – Joe Mazza
  • “I absolutely loved hearing about Lauren’s experience with a school-wide topic of study, and would love to bring this practice to our school. She described a school whose study topic was ‘India,’ and every grade level, across all content areas, sought to plan experiences that helped students engage with that topic in some way.” – Lyn Hilt
  • “In one Edcamp I learned about all the cool things you can do with Evernote and how you can save everything there!” – Joy Kirr

Click here for a quick video that succinctly explains the concept of Edcamp:


Here’s another more visual representation:




“Beyond its entertainment uses, [Twitter] has been a major boon to educators, who use it to connect with colleagues, share resources, communicate with experts, and personalize their professional learning” (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014).

Many educators use Twitter as a place where they can connect with others who have similar professional interests. While one’s initial interaction may be limited to 140 characters, the relationships often expand through Twitter chats, email, blogging, and face-to-face meetings at conferences and the like. In Twitter chats, which are moderated and guided by discussion questions, educators not only share opinions, but also provide links to lesson plans, videos, articles, blogs, and other such teaching resources. These Chats are run under hashtags that indicate the intended audience, which is usually based on topic, content area, grade level, job type, or geographical region. Some popular ones include #aplitchat (for those teaching AP Literature), #mathchat (for anyone involved with mathematics), #kinderchat (for kindergarten teachers) and the more general #edchat (one of the original education-related chats in the Twittersphere). In a recent survey of 755 educators who use Twitter, 73% of respondents reported they had participated in a chat (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014). Chats are usually the best way for new teacher users to get involved and get a sense of the players in the landscape. Individual users can then be contacted or “followed” as a way to stay connected. For those that are new to the platform, it does take some getting used to. One article put the challenge well: “Twitter has been compared to a waterfall: Users can hold out their cups to collect the water they need but shouldn’t worry about everything that passes by.” In my personal experience, this statement very accurately captures the initial experience, especially if one attempts to follow a large number of people and organizations. Add-on tools like HootSuite and TweetDeck can be used to help manage the flow of information as one becomes a more adept and involved user, but aren’t required. In addition, it’s worth considering the benefits of the waterfall situation–sometimes you catch something unexpected but thoroughly edifying in your cup.

The following is a listing of some of the more popular chats curated by Carpenter & Krutka (2014).

General Education Chats

#edchat: This popular chat, moderated by Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby), Steven Anderson (@web20classroom), and Shelly Terrell (@ShellTerrell), hosts two discussions on a pre-arranged education topic every Tuesday at 9 a.m. PT/noon ET and 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET. Find out more at

#satchat: This chat gets its name from its regularly scheduled time, Saturday mornings. Billed as a “global discussion for current and emerging school leaders,” the chat, co-founded by Brad Currie (@bcurrie5) and Scott Rocco (@ScottRRocco), happens every Saturday at 7:30 a.m. PT/10:30 a.m. ET. Learn more at

Content-Area Chats

#engchat: This chat for English teachers to connect and share ideas, resources, and inspiration happens every Monday at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET. Find out more at

#mathchat: This UK-based chat is for anyone involved in mathematics, including students as well as teachers. It happens twice a week, at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on most Thursday nights and 5:30 p.m./8:30 p.m. on Mondays. You can also follow @mathchat and visit the wiki at

#sschat: This weekly chat for social studies educators happens Mondays at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET. You can follow chat leaders Dan Krutka (@dankrutka), Melissa Seiderman (@melissaseideman), and Michael Milton (@42thinkdeep) for updates or visit for archives of #sschat and other social studies chats, including #wrldchat and #hsgovchat.

Job Type/Role Chats

#cpchat: The “cp” stands for connected principals, and the chat is moderated by a different team of moderators in that role each Wednesday at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET.

#ntchat: This chat for new teachers founded by ed tech blogger Lisa Dabbs (@teachingwthsoul) takes place on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. Read all about it at

Grade-Level Chats

#kinderchat: As its name suggests, this chat is for anyone involved or interested in kindergarten and early-childhood education, including teachers, administrators, parents, and organizations. It was founded by kindergarten teachers Heidi Echternacht (@hechternacht) and Amy Murray (@happycampergirl) and takes place every Monday at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET.

#1stchat: This chat about first grade teaching, facilitated by Valarie Ruckes (@valruckes) and Laura Comos (@lauracomos), happens on Sundays at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. Learn more at

#mschat: My Middle School Chat, founded by seventh grade science teacher Todd Bloch (@blocht574), covers a variety of topics of interest to middle school educators. Check it out on Thursdays at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET and read about it on Bloch’s blog.

Topical Chats

#pblchat: Project-based learning fans, unite and discuss on this chat moderated by Geoff Krall (@emergentmath), Theresa Shafer (@TheresaShafer), Mike Kaechele (@mikekaechele), and Andrew Miller (@betamiller). Tune in to tweet on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET. Contribute a topic idea at, or see a chat archive.

#sbgchat: This chat, founded by Tom Murray (@thomascmurray), connects educators interested in standards-based grading every Wednesday at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET.

State Chats

#CAedchat: California educators are invited to discuss education topics relevant to the West Coast on Sundays at 8 p.m. PT.

#NCed: This chat connects educators across North Carolina on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET.

In addition, the following Googledoc is regularly updated to include as many education-related chats as the curator is able to track:


In summary…

To recap, by building a PLN, a teacher is actively engaging each of the three elements that Self Determination Theory identifies as critical to motivation:

  1. Competence: The purpose of a PLN is to actively share and seek new knowledge, a process that naturally increases competence. A major issue with most teacher preparation programs is that the learning about teaching is decontextualized, or at best, specific to one context–the practicum site. Once a teacher gets an actual job, it’s unlikely the school culture, student body, and professional community will match that of the practicum. New teaching competencies must be built in order to thrive in a new school community. Both Twitter and Edcamp allow a teacher to actively seek out applicable content knowledge or colleagues in analagous contexts in order to build those competencies.
  2. Autonomy*: When a teacher engages as a learner and actively seeks out new information or connections, no matter what the context, he or she is acting with autonomy. Personalizing one’s own learning can be enormously empowering, and autonomy is at the heart of that empowerment.
  3. Relatedness: Both Twitter and Edcamp are highly social platforms. Each encourages the sharing of resources in two very different contexts. While Twitter is focused on digital interaction, Edcamp is an all-day, face-to-face meeting of curious teacher minds. In this way, both provide a means for building one’s sense of being a member of a larger community.

*On the topic of autonomy: while I think Twitter and Edcamp in themselves promote a feeling autonomy, the reality remains that in some schools, teachers simply do not feel they have any autonomy in terms of their instruction. They are not trusted to make curricular decisions and discouraged from experimenting with new approaches to better meet the needs of their students. I don’t have a quick fix for this, but I will say that Self Determination Theory at least illuminates the threat this type of controlled approach poses to teacher motivation and efficacy, and ultimately, retention.

Lastly, on a personal note: all of this is new to me. I joined Twitter a little over a month ago, and attended my first official Edcamp last week. I am still determining how best to use Twitter, and definitely still searching out those that I feel deliver the most high-quality content. I’m also still figuring out how to effectively contribute to this community. The creation of this blog is a first step, and one that I hope I can build on as I leave academia and head back into the classroom. Hopefully, once I’m there, I can be mindful about building a professional experience that nourishes my sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness and carries me successfully into the future.


Carpenter, J.P. & Krutka, D.G. (2014). Chat it up: Everything you ever wanted to know about twitter chats but were afraid to ask. Learning & Leading with Technology. Retrieved from

Cherniss, C. (1995). Beyond burnout: Helping teachers, nurses, therapists, and lawyers recover from stress and disillusionment. New York: Routledge.

Kopkowski, C. (2008). Why they leave. NEA Today, 26(7), 21-25. Retrieved from

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Schlichte, J., Yssel, N., & Merbler, J. (2005). Pathways to burnout: Case studies in teacher isolation and alienation. Preventing School Failure, 50(1), 35-40.

Swanson, K. (2013). Why edcamp? Edutopia, Retrieved from