Improving the status of teachers through intelligent professionalism
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The status of teachers remains a perennial concern for unions and governments. There is a common adage that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. It is time to redefine this adage - the quality of an education system cannot exceed the extent to which it supports, sustains, and invests in the ongoing status of its teachers.
The 2021 Global Report on the Status of Teachers (summary here), commissioned by Education International, asked unions around the world what the status of teachers was like in their jurisdictions.
The responses identified that status is affected by teacher pay and working conditions, is related to workplace stress, influences the attractiveness of teaching as a career for young people and impacts whether qualified teachers want to remain in the classroom. Status is influenced by the messages that governments and media choose to tell about teachers, policy settings that governments choose to mandate, and the extent to which governments are prepared to fund the quality education that they purport to desire.
Overall, the status of teachers has not improved significantly since the publication of the previous edition of the Report in 2018. The cautions reported then, regarding pay, conditions, privatisation, accountability pressures, and the representations of teachers in the media remain issues of concern for unions in 2021.
A vital opportunity has been missed to raise the status of teachers. Most unions report frustration with the negative portrayal of teachers by the media and governments. More and more teachers are precariously employed as systems use more short term and causal contracts. Unions continue to report that teacher pay is too low, working conditions are deteriorating, spending on infrastructure to support teaching and learning is not a priority for governments and that in many jurisdictions it is not an attractive career for young people.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be underestimated. Unions reported, inter alia, significant teacher stress caused by worry about the health and safety of their students, the complexity of shifting to online teaching, dealing with inequitable student access to online learning, fears for the status of their employment and ongoing fears for their health and safety when schools returned to face-to-face lessons. The pandemic dramatically increased workload, as curricula and learning were redesigned to enable online schooling. Budget cuts, staff layoffs, and the need to try to catch up on missed learning time and missed assessments caused by the pandemic has meant that work stress has continued as countries reopened. The impact of COVID-19 exacerbated inequalities already evident in education systems, caused by lack of funding, the pernicious effects of poorly thought through policy settings, and the lack of meaningful engagement with the profession in many jurisdictions.
During the pandemic, however, many unions reported teachers were more positively represented by the media and governments, partly because of the sacrifices made to continue teaching during the pandemic, and partly because parents experiencing at home learning came to appreciate the skill and knowledge it takes to manage students and their learning. However, this did not correspond with improved status, particularly as pay, conditions and workload deteriorated.
This indicates that the status of teachers is not just multi-faceted, each facet is dependent on the other facets. Improving status can’t just be about improving pay OR improving conditions OR telling a positive story about teachers in the media once in a while. It must be about pay AND conditions AND media representation AND funding AND employment conditions AND education policy AND Continuous Professional Development and so on.
This is the challenge with improving status, it requires a multi-faceted intervention that has to include unions, governments, bureaucracies and other stakeholders. Without it, there is a danger in some jurisdictions of critical teacher shortages and attrition.
The challenge is to rethink how to approach the status of teachers so that, in three years’ time, we don’t continue to find the same things. One possibility is for unions and their memberships to advocate for a professionalism that recognises the unique skills and expertise that educational professionals have and that should be better utilised in education systems.
Intelligent professionalism posits that teachers, principals, and their elected association/union representatives should always be ‘insiders’ in the various processes and mechanisms that systems argue are improving education. Education (at all levels) will always be a state-mediated profession, but there are opportunities for more meaningful incorporation of the profession into education decision-making. Intelligent professionalism recognises that many jurisdictions have unique structural issues that require consultation and profession-led decision-making. It is a collective approach, recognising that for too long individuals have been made responsible for systemic issues, increasing workload and stress while diminishing enjoyment and satisfaction.
Intelligent professionalism, if seen as an ethic for relationships between stakeholders, could improve the status of the profession across education systems without the need to adopt standardised and standardising policy solutions.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.