A new vision: Transforming the teacher image

Written by: Harry Hudson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Too many people still view teaching as a ‘fall-back’ profession that anyone can do. Harry Hudson says it is time to change the narrative and sell a new vision to the public of education in the 21st century

Covid has at last opened people’s eyes to two inescapable facts. First, teaching is a challenging and highly skilled job (it turns out that it is not as simple as “anyone can do it”); and second, when there aren’t enough teachers, the whole of the rest of society feels it.

Of course, neither of these will come as news to anyone already in education. But that’s not the point. Rather, as millions of people have come unprecedentedly up close and personal with education in the last two years, these realisations have the potential to be game-changers for how teaching is perceived by society more broadly.

The widespread interest and involvement in education during the pandemic presents us with the opportunity to sell a new vision for teaching in the 21st century to the non-teaching public and create a fresh new image for our profession.

And with applications to initial teacher training still heading in the wrong direction despite the Covid bounce (SecEd, 2021), this is more needed than ever. Because as a society we continue to undervalue the teaching profession, and as a result many potentially excellent teachers are put off from even considering becoming a teacher.

We don’t give teaching the same kudos as law, medicine, architecture or engineering; it’s the poor relation of the so-called graduate careers, a fall-back option if your chosen career doesn’t work. Unless you join through Teach First – before going off to get a proper job, naturally – becoming a teacher is a tacit admission that you haven’t quite made it.

And yes, this is an age-old problem. For decades, there has been the distinct sense of “de haut en bas” in society’s relationship with teaching. Arthur Christopher Benson wrote in his seminal 1902 book The Schoolmaster that there “clings about the profession of schoolmastering a certain slight social disability ... it is not a profession which, to use a vile phrase, ‘leads to’ anything ... it is not held to be a profession for a very capable or ambitious man”.

Scroll forward 120 years, and how much has changed? Not enough.

Time to think big

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and there’s nothing inevitable about perceptions of teaching – not all countries view teaching as we do. It’s true that change will require big thinking: as with the vexed question of the long-term funding of the NHS and social care, society needs to fundamentally reassess the extent to which it values education and how it is going to reflect that in the way it views its educators.

The training and recruitment of teachers was looked at in depth in 1974 (the Houghton Report led to teachers’ salaries rising by an average of 27%) and also in 1944. The time has come for another such moment, and so here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.

First, we can’t avoid talking about pay. While it’s true that teachers’ starting salaries are now comparable with many entry-level graduate jobs (if, in many instances, not actually better, particularly when seen alongside holiday allowance and pensions), higher up the pay-scale salaries continue to stagnate.

“Teachers demand higher pay” is never a good look, but there’s no doubt that in teaching as in anything we’ll get what we pay for. If we’re serious about attracting and retaining the best talent, we need to be prepared to pay more. Pay should be benchmarked internationally, so that we will look back in 20 years and marvel that there was ever a time when this wasn’t the case.

Second, if teachers want to be regarded like other professionals, then they need to be given the opportunity to train like other professionals – and that means throughout their careers. That would mean teachers’ contracts including the obligation to take part in a set number of days’ certificated CPD, with space being made in the calendar to accommodate this.

At a time when developments in cognitive psychology and neuroscience allow us to know more about the science of learning than at any point in history, and when teachers are more open than ever to sharing good practice both online and in print, teachers should be seen to take pride in constantly seeking self-improvement.

Third, the voices of front-line teachers must be heard much more prominently alongside those of the teaching unions, so that the public gets a more representative view of what teachers are actually thinking. Many teachers have been frustrated by unions’ at times excessively negative stance during the last two years.

Fourth, we should do a better job at opening up to the wider world, and exhibiting the exciting reality of what is actually going in 21st century schools. Modern teaching is worlds away from that of 1970s, but the image hasn’t caught up.

Schools need to be proud to show off what they do on a daily basis. Some schools already do this brilliantly, but more need to follow suit.

And finally, there should be a concerted push in the media to focus on the value of the teacher to a successful society.

At the moment, stories in the national media about schools are almost all negative, and this distorts the life-changing reality of what thousands of teachers are doing every day. The publicity given to the role played in the life of ex-England footballer Ian Wright by one of his primary school teachers – as heard on Desert Island Discs – has already done more for the image of teaching than decades of ad campaigns. There are many such stories out there.

These are just suggestions to get the conversation going. But it’s vital that we have that conversation now, because until we do seriously rethink our attitudes towards teaching and recast it as a socially respected profession, there’s the real risk that recent disruption to children’s learning will only be a portent of things to come.

  • Harry Hudson is a history teacher at the West London Free School in Hammersmith and co-author of Must Do Better: How to improve the image of teaching and why it matters (2022)

Further information

  • Hudson & Blatchford: Must Do Better: How to improve the image of teaching and why it matters, John Catt Publishers, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3KfQqUP
  • SecEd: The missing 3,659: Troubling decline in teacher training recruits, December 2021: https://bit.ly/3jbJU5t

SecEd Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in SecEd's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every secondary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.sec-ed.co.uk/digital-editions/


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