If You Disrespect Teachers, You Disrespect Learning

By Shlomo Maital


  Once, long ago, becoming a school teacher was a worthy and socially respected goal.  Norman Rockwell’s wonderful portrait of “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones” was the cover of the Saturday Evening Post,  March 17, 1956 issue.  That was almost 60 years ago.   The reason Rockwell’s portrait is out-of-date is not the blackboard, now replaced by whiteboards – but the love shown by students for their teacher.  It’s largely gone. 

   A new study by the OECD, known as TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) questioned over 100,000 lower secondary school teachers and 6,500 principals, from 34 countries. A Google search on “TALIS OECD” will bring you to it.

   Here are the main results: 

  • Society no longer values the work of teachers, in the perception of the teachers themselves. Only about 5 per cent of French and Swedish teachers said “society valued their work”. In the U.S., the proportion was only about one-third. This contrasts with 68 per cent in Singapore.   The head of the schools division at OECD, normally understated, said the results were ‘shocking’.    


    •      Why do Singaporean kids score so high on international tests in math, science and literacy? Smaller classes? Better methods? Sure … but also, because in Singapore, teachers are respected and valued, hence bright people choose teaching as a profession. Who wants to pick a profession that nobody values? Teaching then becomes a last-choice default, rather than a first-choice priority.
  • For a majority of surveyed countries, “few attract the most experienced teachers to the most challenging schools [more than 30 per cent of the students are from low socioeconomic backgrounds]”, said one of the study’s authors Julie Belanger. In other words, as a teacher gains seniority, he or she uses it to teach in a ‘desired’ school rather than in a tough one. That leaves the younger less experienced teachers to deal with the tougher schools. It should be the opposite.
  • Large numbers of teachers face imminent retirement; teachers’ average age is 43.  Teachers have an average of 16 years teaching experience.
  • 68% of all teachers are women, but 51% of principals are men.  Why??? What makes a man qualified to be principal, just because of his gender??? In our capitalist business-model approach to schools, where productivity is measured by test scores, teachers become trainers, rather than educators. No wonder we don’t respect them.   According to the TALIS study, 93% of teachers report “students should be allowed to think of solutions to a problem themselves before teachers show them the solution”.   Nearly half of all teachers report they frequently have their students work in small groups.     Do we truly value how teachers spur creativity in our kids, rather than how they train them to excel in tests?        If Norman Rockwell were to draw “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones” today – it would look a whole lot different. And a whole lot worse.   


  •    The TALIS study should ring alarm bells. Quality education is NOT principally about resources, budgets, or even class size. It is about teachers – finding motivated, creative people who choose education as a first choice, and who thrive because they are respected and valued.   If society were to highly value teaching, that alone would partly compensate for current low salaries.   But low respect, and low salaries, together are lethal.
  •    Despite the fact that society does not seem to value what they do, most teachers do love their jobs and would choose teaching again as a career, if they had to.