A January 12, 2012 Education Week chat hosted by reporter Sean Cavanagh including Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Alan Ginsburg, former director of policy and program studies at the U.S. Department of Education, examined What U.S. Schools Can Learn from High-Performing Countries. One of the most interesting sections of this chat was the discussion of the societal status of teachers in these high-performing countries and the support that they receive in providing excellence in education to their students. In sharp contrast to this support, a May 30, 2012 article in WalesOnline discussed the impending teaching crisis in the U.K. in which thousands of teachers are considering quitting the profession because of the lack of respect they receive. A similar crisis looms here in the U.S. Many of the same symptoms plague U.S. educators who also do not get the respect or compensation that they deserve. Here is a look at the rigors of teaching and why teachers don’t get the credit due for providing a vital social service.
A Tough Job
"Teaching is a unique combination of art, science and skill – as well as natural talent which involves planning to develop pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills; assessing them effectively; and motivating and having high expectations of them" (Evans, 30 May, 2012).
Teaching is a hard, often thankless, stressful, and emotionally taxing job – so much so that many of new teachers quit within the first five years of their first appointment. Recent survey data from the Gates Foundation and Scholastic found that the average teacher works 10 hours and 40 minutes per day, or 53 hours per week. This time includes approximately 7.5 hours a day in the classroom, often serving more than 100 students in that duration, and three more hours in meetings, prep, grading, and other related tasks (Strauss, 16 March, 2012).
Teachers also have to deal with the reality of their students’ lives. The same survey indicated that more than half of all teachers teach students who live in poverty and come to school hungry (Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Primary Sources: 2012). While the cold hearted out there may not think that this is an emotional strain on teachers, it is. These are individuals who enter the profession because they love children and want to help make their lives better. Seeing those very kids suffering is heartbreaking. Imagine having your heart broken every day for 30+ years, voluntarily. Teachers are saints, not just hard workers.
"The countries which consistently achieve highest scores in educational attainment are those where teaching is held in highest esteem and is the career of choice for the brightest and best. Finland, South Korea, and China have all placed teaching among the most respected professions. Teachers’ status is high, and competition for places in teacher training institutions is intense. In Finland, only one in ten applicants actually secures a place" (Evans, 30 May, 2012).
Why is it that other countries have such higher esteem for the teaching profession than the U.S.? They understand that the core of having a wealthier, safer, more secure and productive society is in having an educated population. Here are some of the ways in which teachers add value to society.
- Wealth – It is simple math that having more educated individuals, who on average earn higher wages than their less-educated peers, would produce a society with greater overall wealth (Marquis, 20 Sept., 2011).
- Safety – There is an inverse relationship between education and crime according to a recent study (Machin, Marie & Vujić, 2010). As the rate of education in an area rises, the rate of crime decreases. What more is there to say? A more educated population is one less inclined to criminal behavior.
- Democracy – The basic principles of democracy indicate that it relies on the creativity and independent thinking of its members to function (America.gov). Teachers provide the support necessary for all members of society to be full and informed participants in the system. Our social norms and practices as well as the basic principles of living in a democratic society are taught in schools.
- Global Competitiveness – Teachers are the front line in an increasingly competitive global economy. They socialize and train children to be participants in this economic network. Without them, we would have a very small number of contributors to our ability to be competitive on a global scale (Marquis, 17 Jan., 2012).
These are just a few of the benefits that teachers provide to society. They offer much of the foundational support for the ways in which the U.S. functions, and their role in doing so has increased dramatically over the course of our history.
De-professionalizing the Field
What is most disheartening about the current lack of respect for the teaching profession in America is the discrepancy between the ways the profession is viewed in other high-performing countries and here. Some examples of this difference were on display at the International Summit on Teaching in 2011. Here is an excerpt from Stanford University Education professor Linda Darling-Hammond’s reaction to the event:
"The contrasts to the American attitude toward teachers and teaching could not have been more stark. Officials from countries like Finland and Singapore described how they have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all of their teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, where they receive a salary while they prepare. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools attached to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession – in Singapore earning as much as beginning doctors — where they are supported by mentor teachers and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together – engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials" (23 March, 2011).
There is much that we could do to make teaching a respected profession in this country, starting with acknowledging that those who teach are actually professionals.
Giving Teachers Their Due
Public acknowledgement and praise for educators and their profession is a good place to start when considering how to improve our education system. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently stated that he believes that teachers and our education system have become complacent (Marquis, 29 May, 2012). In actuality it is not the teachers themselves who have become complacent, but rather our society as a whole. There is no broad-based movement in the U.S. to make education a national priority. Quite the contrary, it is often viewed as an expensive burden and teachers feel the effect of that attitude on a daily basis.
The most important thing that we can do to give teachers the credit that they deserve is to value education in all facets of our lives. Demonstrating that we understand the value of education would lead to increased funding for schools, increased parental involvement in education, better early education options for all children, support for learning outside of schools, and most importantly, an elevation of the status of teachers to where it should be as key contributors to the social, political, and economic future of the country.