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If you can read this, thank a teacher

In recognition of World Teachers’ Day, today’s blog was intended to celebrate teachers and how important they are to each and every one of us.

A great reinforcement of the often unrecognised influence teachers have is the fact you’re reading this – be it a classroom teacher, mum, dad, sibling or caregiver, someone taught you how to do that. Imagine how much smaller the world would be without such an incredible skill and it’s clear the impact that teachers have on our lives.

Recently in the UK, however, celebrating teachers wasn’t so high on the education agenda, as two major studies highlighted a number of distressing issues:

The first, by the National Union of Teachers, highlighted that over half of teachers are considering quitting the profession within the next two years.

The second, by YouGov, was slightly more positive, showing that teaching is considered one of the top professions in terms of contributing to the wellbeing of society, but highlighting too that respect for teachers as professionals is far less widespread.

It’s a strange catch-22 to recognise how important teachers are to society and yet to withhold respect for teachers as individuals. There seem to be a number of reasons behind this, and status is certainly one of them.

Teaching generally hits the news in a negative frame, with the same issues raised time and time again such as: workload, bureaucracy, work-life balance, low-pay, responsibilities which stretch far beyond teaching and increasingly rigid government policies.

In a statement to TheSchoolBus, one former teacher outlined that: “Teaching takes over your life. You are unable to leave the job at work and you can’t switch off, even when on holiday – the majority of which I spent marking or preparing lessons.” These issues combined are leading to what is being dubbed a “recruitment crisis”, with subjects like maths and physics, as well as schools in rural areas, the worst hit.

There seem to be mixed messages coming from the UK government around this issue. On the one hand, tens of thousands of pounds are being offered to high-quality graduates to train to become teachers in high priority areas. On the other hand, Nicky Morgan has said that the recovering economy is partly to blame, citing greater opportunities in the jobs market as something which detracts graduates from teaching.

It’s a comment that’s likely to incense many teachers, and it’s out of touch for Ms Morgan to suggest that teaching is a “scrape the barrel” profession which people revert to in difficult economic times. The reality; however, is that far from being some kind of fall back job, teaching is an incredibly demanding profession. As one teacher commented to TheSchoolBus: “I took my responsibility of being ‘in loco parentis’ to heart. Despite not being a parent myself, I found that as a childless young woman, I was under pressure to dedicate increasingly overwhelming amounts of time outside of working hours to preparation, marking, responding to emails, and attending evening events.”

As commentators have rightly pointed out, teaching needs to be valued in order to attract top graduates, and this value should be reflected monetarily as well as through the rhetoric around it. Discussing programmes to attract more teachers while at the same time suggesting it’s not an attractive profession during good economic times is confusing at best, and insulting to teachers at worst.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned for the government in the number of teachers who are leaving the country but continuing with their chosen profession. In 2014, more teachers left Britain to teach English overseas than qualified to become a teacher via the PGCE route. Far from suggesting that the teaching profession is in and of itself an unattractive prospect during times of economic growth, it instead reveals that British teachers are committed to their profession, but seek to be valued for their work and are prepared to head overseas where this is the case.

The figures lay the blame for the teaching shortage directly at the feet of current government policies. They show that the desire to educate remains undiminished, but the opportunity to make this a rewarding profession is forcing many to go elsewhere.

It is arguably the government’s ever-growing demands on teachers, evidenced by new requirements such as the Prevent duty, along with the lack of value given to the profession, which has also fuelled what some are calling “professional martyrdom”.

As one teacher commented: “Much of the profession depends solely on the goodwill and sacrifice of teachers to constantly go “above and beyond”, to forgo evenings and weekends with family and friends to mark essays in the name of duty and to be responsible for their pupils, regardless of personal cost.”

Another added that: “Professional martyrdom and teaching seem to be inextricably linked due to the perception that teaching is not just a profession. It is a vocation. A calling.”

It was Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s landmark play, Death of a Salesman, who famously exclaimed: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!” It could be argued that teachers were viewed as expendable, due to the fact that, until recent years, there have always been fresh-faced recruits ready to fill the positions of those too exhausted to continue.

Teaching is a vocation as well as a profession, and teachers provide a wonderful service to society, but their contribution shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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