‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’
– George Bernard Shaw
‘Why on earth are you a teacher? I still don’t understand. You could’ve done so many things and you chose to become a teacher.’
– Multiple pupils
Respect in a profession is not the most important thing. Take rubbish collectors and lawyers, for example. Many jobs are not particularly respected – they may even be looked down upon – yet they nonetheless play an important part in society. They may even be relatively well compensated.
Nonetheless, respect is important. A respected profession is one which attracts high quality applicants. Given the teacher recruitment problems in the UK, it’s worth thinking about respect for the profession.
It’s also worth thinking about respect for the sake of well-being. Teachers are demotivated. While there are a huge variety of causes for this, a sense of general respect in teaching would undoubtedly help.
So, how respected are teachers?
In my short career so far, I have had multiple pupils from across key stages question my career choice. I went to an academic university and have solid academic credentials. When students hear about these, they inevitably ask: ‘so why on earth are you teacher?’ Usually there is an explicit ‘you could do another, better job given your credentials!’ tacked onto that; but either way, it’s at least implicit in the very question. Beyond my own experience, the very existence of Bernard Shaw’s quote ‘those who can’t, teach’ says it all. Taylor Mali’s inspiring spoken word on teachers is great and rightly popular – but again, implicit in it is the need to justify and expound the virtues of teachers. Contrast that to Chinese culture: here’s a page featuring over 60 Chinese idioms and proverbs for praising a teacher. For example, you could describe a teacher as 诲人不倦 – ‘instructing with tireless zeal’ – a phrase dating back to Confucius’s Analects.
This is a particularly strange state of affairs given the nature of teaching. It is not poorly-compensated; it is purposeful, meaningful and clearly beneficial to those we interact with; teaching itself is highly enjoyable; it is also engaging and challenging on numerous levels. Most days, whilst teaching, I find myself in a state of ‘flow‘ – one of the key markers of a satisfying job. Undoubtedly there are significant challenges with workload and behaviour, but if you can get through, it is undoubtedly a great job. Indeed, given the description above, teachers share huge similarities with doctors. Interestingly, back in China, teachers are indeed respected on the same level as doctors. Yet we’re nowhere close to that level of respect in the UK.
I’m also struck by my pupils’ incredulity at teaching as an attractive career path. Firstly, I teach at an excellent school, results-wise. Secondly, I have a lot of respect for my colleagues whom I interact with and have observed – the school is full of good, enthusiastic, often inspiring teachers. This even shows itself in thank you cards and presents that are coming at this time of year. These are the teachers my pupils have interacted with, on a daily basis, during their formative years. Yet they often cannot really understand someone getting a good degree and then becoming a teacher. Contrast that with my experiences living in China, where upon discovering I was to become a teacher, peers – and even superiors! – would look upon me with admiration, often verging on reverence.
What’s going on here? Another part of my experience is also on my mind. Firstly, I myself swore I would never become a teacher shortly after I left school. I myself reacted to highly-qualified teachers with the same incredulity at that I see in lots of my pupils now. (Mr Aicken, I understand now!). Indeed, before I got married to my wife, I had to ask her: ‘do you mind that I’m a teacher?’ My own lack of respect carried itself all the way through my subconscious even whilst I was teaching and enjoying it. But secondly: the really interesting thing was that my wife could not understand my meekness towards my career. Now, she grew up in Hong Kong, so cultural factors could be part of it. But a similar experience: I was discussing this very issue teacher respect with a close friend. This friend – as well as my wife – went to an elite private school, before going onto an elite university, whilst I went to a state school. And neither my wife nor my close friend had my same subconscious bias against teachers.
This, alongside other bits of reflection, has made me think about the following hypothesis:
Teachers are not respected in society, because people learn not to respect teachers at school.
To clarify, I’m using respect in two different senses, but which (naturally) are tightly linked. In ‘teachers are not respected in society’ – I mean ‘respect’ in the sense of ‘looked up to’, ‘well-regarded’, ‘admired’, ‘set as an example’. In ‘people do not respect teachers at school’, I mean ‘respect’ in the sense of ‘obey’, ‘submit to’, ‘comply with’. How are these linked in practise? Well, from my own experience, if you spend your time frequently disobeying someone’s wishes, that betrays a fundamental lack of practical regard for that person. If we regard someone well, or respect them, then we listen to them when they are talking, or we do what they ask us to do. If we admire someone, there’s no question – we value and thus listen to what they say. Now I might’ve acknowledged the hard work a teacher put in for me, but if that doesn’t even rise to the level of consistently listening to a teacher and doing what they say, it’s not really worthy of the term ‘respect’. And even if most pupils were fairly well behaved, they will nonetheless develop this same lack of respect by proxy, through witnessing the way other pupils treat teachers. So if people go through the education system without ever developing an expectation of needing to listen to teachers or doing what they say, is it any wonder that they become adults – they become a society – who don’t respect teachers in the sense of regarding them highly?
In short, my thesis from another angle: the toleration of poor behaviour in schools, and the often-mild consequences that poor behaviour meets, leads to a lack of respect for teachers in general. And so, if teachers are to be rightly respected more widely, then teachers should be properly respected by their pupils in their own classrooms.
One might object: isn’t this a chicken and egg scenario? Don’t students fail to listen to teachers because of a wider lack of respect for teachers, rather than the other way round? Undoubtedly there is a vicious cycle effect to it. But either way, continuing to tolerate poor behaviour in the classroom is no way to redress this situation.
So, what do I mean by tolerating poor behaviour? And does it really exist in UK schools?
A comparison with China, again, may be instructive. Many of us watched Chinese School on the BBC last summer. Among the many things I found fascinating, this stood out: the Chinese teachers had absolutely no behaviour management techniques whatsoever. Any NQT from the UK would’ve done a better job quietening down their rowdy classes. But this is because in China there is absolutely no NEED for behaviour management techniques. That whole area which takes up so much CPD and ITT in the UK – in China, it doesn’t even exist! Pupils listen as soon as you want them to. Pupils pay attention to your every word. Pupils do exactly what you say. Pupils thank you for your lesson. Pupils act towards their teachers, just how most of us act towards our doctors. In other words, in China, pupils respect their teachers. (NB none of this is to say that China’s education system is perfect. I am simply highlighting the issue of respect.) Similarly, to take away many of the cultural variables any comparison with China provokes, my friend & my wife tell me of totally different behavioural expectations at their private schools – in short, teachers were listened to, obeyed, and thus respected in their own schools, and so their pupils then go on to respect teachers in their later lives.
Let’s contrast this state of affairs with advice from Bill Rogers, whose behaviour management tips are highly and widely praised. ‘Take up time’: after giving an instruction to an off-task student, divert attention from them and give them some time to obey your instruction. Or ‘partial agreement’: after a student disputes something with you, agree partially with their sentiment and give them the benefit of the doubt, and then redirect them to the task they should be focused upon. Or ‘focus on the primary behaviour’: if a student reacts badly to a correction or a warning, don’t react to this ‘secondary’ behaviour, but instead divert focus back to the primary behaviour.
Please note: I pick Bill Rogers because I regularly use his behaviour management techniques. In many ways, they work well in my classes. They are techniques which are designed to work in places where pupils do not intrinsically respect their teachers, without ever challenging the deep & entrenched root of disrespect that is there. Indeed, they are techniques presupposed upon a lack of deep respect for teachers. We are effectively advised: ignore disrespectful behaviour such as a pupil lying to your face about what they were just doing (“no, you WERE talking just now”). Ignore disrespectful behaviour such as a pupil sullenly waiting several seconds to comply with your reasonable request. Ignore disrespectful behaviour such as a student disputing your judgement or answering back defiantly. In short: ignore disrespect, and don’t make it an issue. Indeed, they work BY ignoring the lack of respect.
This is what I mean by toleration of bad behaviour – or more specifically, tolerating disrespect. The very nature of Rogers’ advice proves its widespread existence, too: we wouldn’t need to be told to ignore disrespectful secondary behaviours, if pupils weren’t commonly exhibiting them, and if they weren’t disrespectful (because then we’d naturally ignore them). While these methods may work in the short term in getting students to spend time learning and working, over time, they undermine respect for teachers in their schools and in society at large.
What’s the alternative? It seems clear to me: either we expect students to listen to us instantly, to follow our instructions, and we back that expectation up, or we don’t expect it. Either we expect respect for teachers, or we allow students to talk back, challenge, lie to our faces, or follow instructions only after a sullen delay. In other words: zero tolerance. That’s not to say that such expectations are authoritarian, or bullying, or require shouting – sanctioning can be done calmly, with narration, to explain clearly that such disrespect is not appropriate towards a teacher. But if we’re not doing that? If we’re continually tolerating disrespect? Well, the message soon becomes clear to pupils and thus (as they become adults) to society: teachers don’t need respect.