The state of the teaching profession
We demand a lot from our teachers. We expect them to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning.
And there are aspects that make the job of teachers much more challenging and different from that of other professionals. Teachers need to be experts at multitasking and they do their job in a classroom dynamic that leaves them no second to think about how to react.
And whatever a teacher does, even with just a single student, will be witnessed by many and can frame the way in which both the student and the teacher are perceived in the school from that day forward.
But we expect much more from teachers than what appears in their job description. We also expect them to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond to students from different backgrounds with different needs; to provide continual assessment and feedback to students; and to ensure that students feel valued and included.
Not least, most people remember at least one of their teachers who took a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helped them understand who they are and discover their passions, and who taught them how to love learning.
The professional views of teachers
It is precisely these aspects that motivate the vast majority of people to become teachers. According to the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), nine out of 10 teachers in the 48 participating education systems consider the opportunity to influence children’s development and contribute to society a major motivation to join the profession.
It seems many school systems can do better to support teachers in achieving that mission. Just two-thirds of the teachers made teaching their first career choice – although this ranges from less than 50 per cent in South Africa to more than 90 per cent in Viet Nam (Australia 58 per cent) – and too many leave the profession after a few years.
To meet a growing demand for high-quality teachers, countries will need to work harder, not just to make teaching financially more attractive, but most importantly, intellectually more attractive by better supporting a teaching profession of advanced knowledge workers who operate with a high level of professional autonomy and within a collaborative culture.
For a start, school systems should take a greater interest in the professional views of teachers as experts on teaching and learning. The laws, regulations, structures and institutions that education policy tends to focus on are just like the small visible tip of a huge iceberg. The reason it is so hard to move education systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline.
This invisible part is composed of the beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved, parents and teachers included. This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part tends to evade the radar of public policy.
Policy makers are rarely successful with education reform unless they help people recognise what needs to change, and build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change; unless they focus resources, build capacity, and create the right policy climate with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation and development, rather than compliance; and unless they tackle institutional structures that, too often, are built around the interests and habits of systems rather than learners.
Where teachers are not engaged in the design of educational reform, they will not be well positioned to help with the implementation of reform.
What did teachers say in TALIS?
So what did teachers say in TALIS? Almost all teachers – 95 per cent of them – agreed that their school and classroom climate is generally good, and that teachers and students get along well with each other, which is an improvement over the last 10 years in many of the countries we looked at.
But teachers also said that they spend on average around 20 per cent of their time (22 per cent in Australia) during a typical lesson keeping order or doing classroom admin. That’s actually an increase from what they told us five years ago, which means they’re now spending less time on actual teaching and learning.
Nine out of 10 teachers said that they participated in some kind of professional development in the last year or so, and 80 per cent of teachers said that their training had a positive impact on their teaching. But the makeup of classrooms is changing, and teachers stressed that they need further training for teaching in multicultural and multilingual settings, and teaching students with special needs.
Teachers also said they felt more comfortable with traditional instruction – things like providing alternative explanations or crafting good questions and varying instructional strategies – than with motivating students who show low interest in school work, to value learning and to think critically.
Moreover, only around half of teachers said that the use of technologies for teaching was actually included in their initial training, and developing advanced ICT skills is one of the key areas that teachers say they still need more training in. In fact, less than half of the teachers feel well prepared for using technology when they join the profession. Contrast this with the view of two-thirds of teachers who report that the most impactful professional development they participated in focused on innovation in their teaching.
Teachers told us about how they see the future of teaching: nearly 80 per cent said that their colleagues strive to develop new ideas and help each other road test new approaches, and also that they’re using more information technologies for schoolwork than when TALIS was administered five years before.
However, while around 90 per cent of the teachers in Georgia, Viet Nam and Shanghai agreed that most teachers in the school are open to change, that percentage was lower than 60 per cent in Portugal.
The roles and responsibilities of teachers
The TALIS data also show that the roles and responsibilities of teachers varies widely across countries. For example, while Japanese and American teachers both work long hours, in the US teachers spend most of that time in the classroom, allowing them to engage much less in what Japanese teachers spend most of their time on, namely to work with individual students including on social projects and to collaborate with their colleagues on the development of effective instructional practice.
The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers. So, attracting, developing and retaining the best teachers is a formidable challenge for education systems.
To address that challenge and to encourage teacher professionalism, education policy needs to inspire and enable innovation, and identify and share best practice.
That shift in policy will need to be built on trust: trust in education, in educational institutions, in schools and teachers, in students and communities. In all public services, trust is an essential part of good governance.
Successful schools will always be places where great people want to work, and where their ideas can be best realised, where they are trusted and where they can put their trust.
Visit the OECD website to read the Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners report.