By Sunny Varkey, founder and trustee of the Varkey GEMS Foundation, is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for education partnerships
I am immensely proud that my parents were teachers. I recently asked my mother what she believed they had achieved by becoming teachers. She spoke fondly about the goodwill that they enjoyed locally. Teachers were often the most educated people in a community, so were turned to for advice and guidance.
Sadly, times have changed. In many countries, teachers’ status has fallen. This decline is profoundly damaging for the life chances of the next generation. If teachers aren’t respected in society, children won’t listen to them in class, parents won’t reinforce the messages that are coming from school and the most talented graduates will continue to disregard teaching as a profession.
To draw attention to the importance of how society sees teachers, the Varkey GEMS Foundation created the Global Teacher Status Index, published this month, which measures the level of respect for teachers in different countries.
My personal ambition for teachers is that they are treated with as much respect as other highly skilled professionals with the most important jobs in society, such as doctors. However, out of 21 countries surveyed in the index, only in China did people see teachers as having an equal status with doctors. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, fewer than 5% of people thought that teachers had an equivalent status.
We also asked a question that gets to the heart of whether teaching is a respected profession: would you encourage your own child to become a teacher? While 50% of parents in China would provide positive encouragement, only 8% would do so in Israel. Equally worrying is the report’s finding that in many countries, particularly across Europe, more people believe that pupils do not respect teachers than believe that they do.
But the index is not a counsel of despair. East Asian countries such as China and South Korea show that teaching retains its respected position in some parts of the world.
If we want future generations to have the right values and the best life chances, then part of the answer is simple: we need to recruit the best and brightest candidates into the profession, and look at how we can retain them. Finland, which comes top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, has made teaching so well regarded that the best graduates compete for the job — all of whom have master’s degrees.
Research shows that if teachers are paid more, their students learn more. The Global Teacher Status Index indicates that in many countries people think that teachers deserve to be paid more — even in countries like Finland that already have excellent results. There was also overwhelming support for teachers to be paid according to their performance in all 21 countries surveyed. Given such public demand, governments should consider this as a step.
But improving pay and conditions alone won’t restore teachers’ status. Teaching also needs to be valued culturally. There are many fictional representations on television of heroic doctors saving lives, but few stories that show how good teachers can turn lives around.
Every year the United Kingdom celebrates International Nurses’ Day with a service in Westminster Abbey. President Ronald Reagan introduced National Nurses’ Day in the United States, which is an opportunity for the media to highlight the achievements of nurses. Teachers should be honoured in similar ways. We need to think harder, push further, and dream bigger, if we are to find ways of truly celebrating the ‘noble’ profession.