A side-effect of coronavirus is parents’ renewed appreciation of what teachers do. This was apparent in the social media postings of exhausted and exasperated parents as they struggled to support their children to learn from home.
When children return to their schools next term, no doubt they be dropped off by grateful parents who are unlikely to ever again take teachers for granted, myself included.
Parents’ appreciation was greatest for those teachers who went the extra mile to support their children to learn online. In quality online learning environments, the role of teachers was enhanced, not diminished. Teachers who shone online put extra thought into digital pedagogies to enhance learnings, worked deliberately to motivate their students, interacted frequently with their students, and facilitated students’ interactions with each other.
Not only did they ensure that learning continued, they supported the wellbeing of students, and took pressure off parents, many of who will, like me, have been juggling working from home while supporting their children.
It has long been known that Australia needs to better recognise its good teachers. (As an aside, while the focus of this article is on teachers, I feel compelled to mention that the same is also true for early childhood educators, who have been on the frontline throughout this pandemic). In this time of crisis, it is not enough to merely know this, it is time to do something about it. Starting with acknowledging the insufficiency of teacher recognition, and ending with rewarding good teachers.
Insufficiency of teacher recognition
In November last year, prior to the global pandemic, the Futurity Investment Group conducted the fifth in a series of surveys of its membership, which comprises predominantly of parents. They were asked for the first time to share their views on the sufficiency of teacher recognition. The Futurity Parents Report Card 2020, which was compiled from the survey responses of 1800 parents in Australia, revealed that almost two-thirds viewed that teachers are less than sufficiently recognised. Most of the rest felt that they are sufficiently recognised. Only a handful felt otherwise.
When asked a similar question as part of the OECD’s last (2018) Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), Australian teachers held a slightly rosier view than parents. Nonetheless, when only 45% are of the view that the teaching profession is valued in society, that means that well over half think otherwise.
What is teacher recognition
When questioning parents, Futurity was deliberately silent on what is meant by ‘teacher recognition’. Many interpreted this as financial recognition and deplored the low levels of pay received for the important roles teachers play and the hard work they do. Large numbers viewed it as status recognition and contrasted it with the high regard that people in other professions, such as doctors and lawyers, are held, or teachers in other countries, repeatedly Finland. Certainly, the results of the TALIS survey indicate that well over half (58%) of teachers in Finland feel that their profession is valued in society. In Singapore 72% of teachers feel this way.
Respondents to the Futurity survey often referred to both status and pay. Indeed, the TALIS survey found a positive correlation between teachers feeling valued in society and satisfaction with their salaries. While there are other ways of recognising and rewarding good teachers, the two go hand in hand. We need only compare the salaries of the different professions to see this. Conveniently, the Grattan Institute has already done this for us. This chart elects the comparator professions prevalent in the comments of parents. The gaps apparent when starting out widen significantly over careers.
Rewarding good teachers
While teaching is a labour of love, that does not justify paying teachers at the lower end of the pay scale. Parents responding to Futurity’s survey were of the strong view that good teachers should be paid well. The important qualifier in the last sentence is the word ‘good’.
Significant numbers of parents argued the need to follow the lead of other countries and raise standards to attract the very best into teaching. This is the case argued by the Grattan Institute. It observes that high-performing countries get many high-achieving students to apply, and then select the most promising candidates.
In Australia, by way of contrast, the low status of teaching has become self-reinforcing, putting off high achievers who might otherwise want to teach. In a survey of high achievers, while the ‘ability to make a difference’ was judged most important when choosing their occupations, their collective judgment that teaching outscored their chosen profession on this front was insufficient to outweigh the positives of the alternatives. Of note, relatively ‘high earnings’ and ‘a career to be proud of’ weighed heavily in favour of their chosen profession.
While the focus of the Grattan Institute’s work was on ATAR scores, it is important not to lose sight of other non-academic attributes that make teachers great, including a love of children and a passion for teaching.
Parents also argued that more needs to be done to retain good teachers. Teachers have the greatest in-school influence on student engagement and achievement. Parents know this. Which is why when responding to Futurity’s survey many called for teachers to be held to high standards throughout their careers, including doing more to address under-performance. Some advocated for greater investment in teachers’ development.
Mentoring is an important part of the equation. There are good examples across schools and systems of mentoring programs supporting different stages of teachers’ development, from early career to emerging leaders.
Parents supported rewarding good teachers. This is critical in light of the slow creep in teachers’ pay evident in the earlier chart, relative to other degree qualified workers. At the last Census (2016) over half (53%) of qualified teachers were working in other occupations, suggesting significant leakages from the profession. Leakages that are occurring in the context of expected teacher shortages over the next three to four years. While it will take more than better pay to retain good teachers, it is an important start.
The jury is out on whether performance pay is the best means to this end, and I won’t attempt to weigh in on the debate. The practical reality is that this is unlikely to occur outside of independent schools anytime soon.
A more pragmatic approach would be to lift salaries for highly accomplished and lead teachers under the Australian professional standards for teachers. This could be complemented by other non-monetary forms of recognition. The National Excellence in Teaching Awards (NEiTA), for instance, is a community-centred awards program that has recognised outstanding teachers for over a quarter of a century.
COVID-19 has reinforced what many already knew: teachers are the best teachers. It is high time to reform how they are recognised and rewarded in order to attract and retain only the very best.
About the author
Mary Clarke is the founder and principal of DXP Consulting, and the lead author of the 2018/19 Parents Report Card. She has headed the education policy function for a professional body, and executive and senior public service economic and policy roles. Mary holds an Executive Masters in Public Administration and an Honours degree in Economics.