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date: 19 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Internationally, the status of teachers is fraught with ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. Status, simply defined as one’s “standing in society,” has undergone many redefinitions as lives and societies have become more nuanced and complex. Status, historically ascribed through inheritance and wealth, has been largely replaced by status achieved through individual effort, study, and achievement. The medical, legal, and clerical professions have traditionally enjoyed high status for their specialist qualifications and social responsibility, although the correlation between academic success and the comfortable family socioeconomic circumstances in which many aspiring to these professions also lends them a large element of ascribed status. Teachers experience a status paradox. For many, teaching has been a route out of the working class toward a more professional status. Teachers, in many countries but not universally, are highly trained, well qualified, dedicated, and trusted in their communities. Relative to the medical profession, however, teachers are poorly paid, and experience poor working conditions, limited professional autonomy, and high accountability. Their participation in trade union activities prompts debate as to whether teaching should be classed as a “profession.” Yet, despite the 1966 UNESCO and the International Labour Organization’s strong recommendation that teaching should be recognized as a profession and accorded high status, it remains at best a semiprofessional occupation. There is great variation across the globe in public respect and government treatment of teachers. International comparative surveys lack overall consensus but suggest that teachers in Taiwan, major Chinese cities, and Finland enjoy high status as compared with those in Brazil, Israel, and Italy, for example.

Classic theories of status include those of Karl Marx and Max Weber. For Marx it is determined by socioeconomic status, but for Weber cultural and social affiliations can outweigh economic factors. Teaching straddles the two. Twentieth-century theorists, such as Talcott Parsons in the United States, have linked status to educational achievement. Pierre Bourdieu relates status to social reproduction of social class-related “habitus” in taste and consumption and Anthony Giddens to individual lifestyle choices not necessarily related to status. Recent research in England supports Weber’s cultural determinants, but international surveys reveal complex and debatable relationships between pay, student performance, and status. High percentages of the public think teachers deserve higher salaries that are linked to performance. Teaching as a lifestyle choice still appears to be motivated at least as much by intrinsic, “psychic” rewards as by well as extrinsic ones. Teachers rate their own status lower than do those who work with them. A recent international survey of teachers found over two-thirds in general, and over 95% in Sweden, France, and the Slovak Republic, thought teaching was not valued in society. The portrayal of teachers in the media may be relevant here. While this has become more positive in tone and prominence in England since the 1990s, there are wide cultural differences internationally. Improving teacher status is a complex challenge. Potential contributory factors include higher entry standards and competition to join; the creation of professional associations, as opposed to unions; improved and safe conditions of work; higher pay linked to performance; professional autonomy and involvement in decision-making; and teachers themselves rating their status more highly. The UNESCO Global Sustainable Development Goals for Education 2030 provide a set of overarching aims for the future of teacher status, envisaging teachers not as adults in a child’s world, but as orchestrators of national sustainable development.

Keywords: teacher status, occupational prestige, professionalism, teachers’ pay, media portrayals

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