Teachers in our society aren’t viewed as professionals.
This really hit home for me when I first saw myself through the eyes of a 14-year old boy.
Let me take you into one of my classes a few years ago. I was giving a career-guidance lesson to my 9th graders and somehow university entrance came up. I had just finished explaining about my own Oxford interview experience and acceptance when Charlie, one of the most polite and definitely one of the brightest student I have ever had the privilege of teaching, raised his hand.
“Isn’t Oxford one of the best universities in the world?” he asks, a hint of confusion in his voice. I confirm that it is indeed a prestigious institution and return to what I was saying. “But miss,” Charlie interjects, “that means you’re like … really clever.” He looks perplexed.
“Well, yes Charlie, I like to think so,” I reply with a smile. I’m slightly embarrassed by this statement but also a little amused that I have been teaching this boy for three years and yet he seems totally astonished by this possibility.
Then, with sincere bewilderment and not a hint of malice, Charlie asks: “But then … why are you a teacher?”
I wasn’t offended by Charlie; he is a lovely young man and truly never meant to insult. But there it was. Society’s perceptions of teaching summed up in one little question. Charlie’s surprise stemmed from the fact that an insidious notion – so prevalent in our society – had already, at age 14, infiltrated his consciousness: those who can, do and those who can’t, teach.
In the discussion that followed, Charlie explained his confusion at why I would choose to be a teacher when I had the skills and intellect to make a lot more money in another profession. Here was the second uncomfortable (yet not shocking) realization: we are conditioned to value people by the amount of money they earn.
The truth is, in many countries, we undervalue teachers and fail to view them as professionals. I see it all the time: parents telling me how their child should be educated (I wonder if they would tell their doctor how to treat them); people joking about becoming teachers just to get the holidays (never mind the fact that if you calculate the overtime, the long evenings and weekends worked during term time, we certainly earn those holidays); people believing they’re education specialists simply because they’ve been a student.
What would truly valuing teachers achieve? Well, we only have to look at countries like Finland, South Korea and Japan – countries which repeatedly top the charts in terms of best-performing education systems. In these countries, teaching is a valued profession. In fact, becoming a teacher in Finland is highly competitive; Dr Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author even commented that, in Finland, “it’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine.” Finnish teachers are respected as professionals, required to have at least a master’s degree, given a large amount of autonomy, and are not over-worked (they are only in front of students for 3-4 hours a day, the rest of their time is given to preparation and professional development). In Japan, their appreciation of teachers is summed up in a Japanese proverb: better than a thousand days of study is one day with a great teacher.
I am not so naïve as to think that the great educational systems in these countries are due simply to the fact that their teachers are valued, but I certainly think that it would be a good place to start when trying to correct the failing education systems of many other countries.
My conversation with Charlie took place years ago and yet it’s always stayed with me because the implications of this inherent undervaluing are staggering: our jobs are made harder because we are not given the autonomy to implement our skills effectively; the best and brightest graduates do not go on to become teachers; we are painfully overworked; many great teachers opt out of the profession because of the stress and lack of regard; and teachers are not consulted as education specialists.
But personally, what’s even more frightening than all of that is the troubling doubt that creeps into my own head: how can I expect my students to truly value learning from me, if they don’t really respect me?