Revisiting Maslow

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

When thinking about staff needs and school-development, sometimes it can be useful to go back to basics.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which many of us learnt about in Education 101 and have since largely ignored, provides a simple tool which can be used to assess the needs, wants and aims of staff at a particular point in time.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

Maslow tells us that if a lower level need is not being met, higher-order aims such as mastery, self-actualisation, and action for the greater good will be nigh-impossible to achieve. In other words, it’s no use trying to help your staff flourish as creative, self-actualising individuals if they are working in fear for their livelihood, or if their need to feel that they belong is not being met. 

But does a school need its staff to be working at the upper levels of the hierarchy of needs? Isn’t it enough that they come in and do their job?

We would suggest that it is not. Most of the schools that we talk to don't see themselves as places of work or as producers of exam results, but as places of growth, development and of love. At their best, schools help children to work at the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: they provide an environment which is safe and secure, and which meets their physical needs; they help children to feel loved and valued, and support them to take risks and gain esteem from peers and adults; and they help them to move beyond the basics, going on a journey through which they find their own voice, take joy in creating their own understanding, and take pride in helping others. The best way for children to learn at these higher levels is if they have models to aspire to – teachers who embody self-actualisation in their enthusiasm and passion for what they are doing.

If you’re still not convinced, picture your perfect staff group – the staff that would enable the school to be outstanding, in every sense of the word – which level are they working at?

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.

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3. Belongingness and Love needs - work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.

4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.

5. Cognitive needs* - knowledge, meaning, etc.

6. Aesthetic needs* - appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Self-Actualization needs - realising personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

8. Transcendence needs* - helping others to achieve self-actualization.

[* Levels 5, 6 and 8 are part of the updated (1990 & 2000) versions of Maslow’s Hierarchy.]

It is important not to aim for higher-level goals if the lower-level needs are not yet being met. But equally it is important for a school which is meeting these needs to be ambitious in moving beyond them. Teaching with Heart can help in both instances, but what might these needs look like in practical terms?

Level 1 and 2: Biological and safety needs

While managerial structures will address most of the lower-level needs – ensuring that teachers are safe and secure, and that their physical needs are catered for – it is often the case that a fear about safety and security (whether or not such a fear may be rational) can be debilitating for a teacher. Think, for example, of an NQT’s who has received some negative feedback and spirals into a series of anxious thoughts about their future financial security if they fail to pass their NQT year. Or of a teaching assistant who experienced aggression in the classroom and was unable to connect with their students in the same way. Both of these individuals could be supported to understand their own responses and take action on them in a way that would help them once again to feel safe a secure. 

Teachers with unmet level 1 & 2 needs might typically say:

“I’m worried I’ll not be wanted when the new budget starts to bite”

“If we don't meet benchmark, I'll be out of my job and the school will be under threat, and that's something I can't bear to think about”

“I don’t feel safe around him – he’s made accusations before and I’m really worried it’ll happen with me if I put in place the behaviour policy, so I’ll just avoid upsetting him”

Level 3: Belongingness and Love Needs

Similarly, while level 3 needs will be actively addressed and monitored by middle- and senior-leaders (through team-building and monitoring), Teaching with Heart can support teachers to explore difficulties around issues of belonging which impact on their work. For example, a middle-leader may be struggling with the transition from being a part of a team to being a team leader, and need to understand their feelings and actions in this new role. Or a learning mentor might want to unpick their role within the broader school context, and understand why it is that they feel under-appreciated for their work.

In both of these instances, group work has a particularly strong role to play, as this not only enables teachers to talk about belonging, but to enact and experiment with belonging.

At level 3, teachers might typically say:

“Everyone works ‘til 6:30 at the earliest, and I’ve got other priorities so I have to leave earlier, but I feel I’m being judged for that”

“I don’t fit in here – I find myself eating my lunch in my room rather than go into the staffroom”

“I don’t know if I want to be a part of a system I don’t believe in – should I even be a teacher?”

Level 4 – Esteem Needs

Questions around esteem and professional approval are a large part of the Bring a Child to Therapy process. On an every-day practical level, level-4 needs are addressed by teachers who want to improve their conduct in a certain area – for example, in addressing a gap in their ability to manage disruptive behaviour, which leaves them feeling foolish or weak. 

As they build a working relationship with their therapist, teachers are challenged and supported to engage deeply with how they get a sense of 'doing the job well' – whose opinion do they value, and why? What actually motivates them, and how to they receive feedback? This is also an opportunity for teachers to reassess their own sources of self-esteem, through activities and discussions which tease apart what they believe a ‘good teacher’ looks like. Fundamentally, the aim at level 4 is to help teachers accept praise and criticism with equanimity and engagement, and to take more ownership for evaluating and valuing themselves.

At level 4, teachers might say:

“I know what to do, but I don’t feel I can do it unless I’ve passed it by Angela first – it’s like I need her approval. And I know she gets frustrated by that but I just don’t feel I can stop!”

“No matter how many ‘goods’ and ‘outstandings’ I get, I still don’t really believe that I’m any good”

“I know other people value me for my energy and enthusiasm, and I know my children learn really well, but I still feel terrified when someone walks into my room and finds the kids talking as much as they do. I know I’m not like other teachers and I wish I could accept that!”

Levels 5-8 – higher-level needs

All subsequent levels are addressed as teachers develop a stronger foundation from which to explore their understanding of themselves and their students. From such a solid grounding, teachers can begin to pursue their own self-actualisation, whether this is through a collaborative search for new knowledge, a renewed vigour in finding out how best to help others (children and/or colleagues) to self-actualise, or the pursuit of new learning experiences or career progression.

Teachers working at these levels might say:

“Now I’ve got over the problems I was having with Jane, I feel like I can focus on what I actually want, which is to find that eager, wide-eyed teacher I was when I started out. I need that, but more importantly my children need that teacher back”

“I realise now that I do want to take on more responsibility, but I need to know why I’m doing it, and it’s got to be to help the new teachers coming into the school – that’s  where I can make a difference”

“What I really want to do now is start my own research – there’s a lot of great stuff that happens in this school but we keep it to ourselves. I want to get it all out in the open”

“I know now how much of a toll the extra-curricular stuff takes on me, but I don’t want to drop it all like I said in our first session – I want to concentrate on the ones that mean the most to me, so I’m going to see about setting up the photography group again, but this time do it properly…”

One of the difficulties in supporting staff to develop is that everyone is at a different place on the hierarchy of needs at different times. It is difficult to provide tailored support for individuals when there are so many with such various needs. Teaching with Heart can support individuals and groups to understand and explore the needs that are not being met in their professional lives, and help them to find ways to overcome their barriers, regardless of which level they are currently working at.