What teachers tell us about their work

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

We demand a lot from our teachers. We expect them to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning. And there are aspects of teaching that make it much more challenging and different from other professions. Teachers need to be experts at multitasking, and classroom dynamics leave them no second to think about how to react. And whatever a teacher does – even  with just a single student – will be witnessed by many, and can frame the way in which both the student and teacher are perceived in the school from that day forward.

But our expectations of teachers go beyond what appears in their job description. We also expect them to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond to students from different backgrounds with different needs; to provide students with continual assessment and feedback; and to ensure that students feel valued and included. Above all, most people remember at least one teacher who took a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helped them understand who they are and discover their passions, and who taught them how to love learning.

It is precisely these aspects of the profession that motivate the vast majority of people to become teachers. According to the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), nine out of 10 teachers in the 48 participating education systems cited the opportunity to influence children’s development and contribute to society as major reasons for joining the profession.

It seems many school systems can do more to support teachers in achieving that mission. Just two-thirds of  surveyed teachers made teaching their first career choice – although this ranges from less than 50% in South Africa to more than 90% in Viet Nam – and too many leave the profession after just a few years. To meet a growing demand for high-quality teachers, countries will need to work harder to make teaching more attractive – both financially and especially intellectually – by better supporting a teaching profession of advanced knowledge workers who operate with a high level of professional autonomy within a collaborative culture.

For a start, school systems should take a greater interest in the professional views of teachers as experts on teaching and learning. The laws, regulations, structures and institutions that education policy tends to focus on are just the tip of a huge iceberg. The reason it is so hard to move education systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline. This invisible part is composed of the beliefs, motivations and fears of the people involved, including parents and teachers. This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part tends to evade the radar of public policy.

Policy makers are rarely successful with education reform unless they help people recognise what needs to change, and build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change; unless they focus resources, build capacity, and create the right policy climate with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation and development, rather than compliance; and unless they tackle institutional structures that are too often built around the interests and habits of systems, rather than learners. If teachers are not engaged in the design of educational reform, they will not be well positioned to help with its implementation.

So, what did teachers say in TALIS? Almost all teachers (96%) agreed that their school and classroom climate is generally good, and that teachers and students get along well with one another, which is an improvement over the last ten years in many of the countries we looked at. But teachers also said that they spend, on average, around 20% of a typical lesson keeping order or doing classroom administration. That’s actually an increase from what they told us five years ago, which means they’re now spending less time on actual teaching and learning.

The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers.

Nine out of 10 teachers said they participated in some kind of professional development in the last year, and 82% of teachers said their training had a positive impact on their teaching. But the makeup of classrooms is changing, and teachers stressed the need for further training for teaching in multicultural and multilingual settings, and for teaching students with special needs. Teachers also said they felt a bit more comfortable with traditional instruction – things like providing alternative explanations, or crafting good questions and summarising recently learned content – than with motivating students who show low interest in schoolwork to value learning and think critically.

Moreover, only around half of teachers said that the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for teaching was actually included in their initial training; and many said they still need more training to develop advanced ICT skills. In fact, less than half of teachers felt well prepared for using technology when they joined the profession. Contrast this with the two-thirds of teachers who said that the most impactful professional development they participated in focused on innovation in their teaching.

Teachers also told us about how they see the future of teaching. Nearly 80% said that their colleagues strive to develop new ideas and help each other road test new approaches, and that they’re using more information technologies for schoolwork than they did five years ago, when TALIS was last administered. However, while around 90% of teachers in Georgia, Viet Nam and Shanghai agreed that most teachers in their schools are open to change, that percentage was lower than 60% in Portugal.

The TALIS data also show that the roles and responsibilities of teachers vary widely across countries. For example, while both Japanese and American teachers work long hours, teachers in the US spend most of that time in the classroom. This means that they engage much less in what Japanese teacher spend most of their time on:  working with individual students (including on social projects) and collaborating with their colleagues to develop effective instructional practice.

The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers; and attracting, developing and retaining the best teachers remains a formidable challenge for education systems. To address that challenge and encourage teacher professionalism, education policy needs to inspire and enable innovation, and identify and share best practice. This shift in policy will need to be built on trust: trust in education, in educational institutions, in schools and teachers, and in students and communities. Trust is an essential part of good governance in all public services. Successful schools will always be places where great people want to work – places where their ideas can be fully realised, where they feel trusted and where they can put their trust.

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