Friday, 5 April 2013

What the public really thinks of teachers

Over the past few decades insights from behavioural economics have become commonplace. The age of the rational actor is dead; everyone knows now that we're all afflicted with cognitive biases. We are "predictably irrational".

One highly predictable bit of irrationality is the "negativity bias". Our propensity to give significant additional weight to negative information or experiences is now well documented. It seems innate. Even three month olds seem to give extra weight to negative social interactions.

This negativity bias can make can make us overly defensive and prone to missing positive opportunities.

(I'm getting to my point now)

One of the most common themes in edu-land at the moment is the "denigration" of teachers by the media - sometimes on their own; sometimes reporting the views of politicians. It dominated the recent teacher conference season and is something that worries many of the teachers I talk to; they feel as if the regular stream of invective - especially from the misnamed "middle-market" tabloids but also from supposedly higher-brow outlets - must be diminishing them and their profession in the eyes of their friends and the wider public.

The tendency to accentuate the negative though means the big picture is easily missed. Take the following:

  • A YouGov poll last Sunday found that teachers were the second most trusted group in the country - behind doctors but ahead of judges and policeman. 74% said they trusted teachers (with no difference between Conservative and Labour voters). This compares to 25% for trade unionists; 19% for politicians and 17% for Mail journalists.
  • Last year the Teaching Agency's annual survey of undergraduates found that 81% agreed that teaching had real status and kudos – up 4 per cent since 2010. 72% thought their friends and family would react positively to them becoming a teacher – up 6 per cent since 2010. And 71% thought the image of teaching is improving.
  • Last week Teach First (who I work for) came third in the Sunday Times Top 100 graduate recruiters. For undergraduates teaching for two years in a challenging school is now more attractive than almost any other career option.

It seems to me that the status of the teaching profession amongst the public is growing not diminishing and that tabloid "denigration" is having no meaningful impact on popular opinion.

I'm not suggesting that some of the rubbish written by Britain's lazier columnists isn't challenged (yes I mean you Kelvin) but I am suggesting a sense of perspective is needed. There is a real risk that by emphasising "denigration" rather than pointing to the positive we could needlessly damage morale in the profession.

Moreover the defensiveness that feeling under attack creates can lead to a refusal to acknowledge genuine issues that need to be resolved (this is a huge issue in politics too - people think U-turns will be far more damaging than they usually are so don't make enough of them).

And perhaps most importantly there's a risk of getting caught on the back-foot - worrying too much about challenges to make a positive case for change. I am hopeful though that initiatives such as the Royal College of Teachers and ResearchED will help the profession get on the front foot.

A couple of people have said I should mention there is an existing College of Teachers who hold a Royal Charter. Happy to do so. I believe they're involved in discussions about the new Royal College initiative.


  1. I totally agree with all you have said here. There is however a strange double speak that seems to go on. Whilst everyone I meet(almost) says that the teachers in their experience are Ok they often 'know' that there are 'many' bad ones out there, whom they havent met. Maybe if the politicians would be more direct and public in praising and teachers a bit less whingy, particularly in conference season, we could all get on with the never ending business of trying to get even better at what we do. When I come home and am about to sit down to a couple of hours lesson prep and marking and foolishly follow a links to a news story on education I frequently get so anngry or depressed or both that I just cant face the work.

    1. You're certainly not alone in your thinking, Curlyman; I am also prone to bouts of depression after reading so-called quality papers such as the DT, with its usual bile. What I find helps is the knowledge that my peers, pupils and ex-pupils know (I hope!) that I work(ed) hard for them and that this counts far more than the guff that comes out from the press and, sadly, also the teacher conferences. We may not be famous, but we are important and the article suppports this. All the very best.

  2. I have several friends who maintain they would never become a teacher -not because of the negativity peddled by the press, but because they appreciate how much work it involves and how much of a thankless task teaching can be. They have nothing but respect for the teachers they know and I'd agree that the denigration is affecting those already in the profession more than it's affecting the opinion of those considering joining the profession.

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