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Teaching and Learning – Study Reveals “How Teachers See the Profession Today”

For those in the business of setting educational policy, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today by Jean Johnson, Andrew Yarrow, Jonathan Rochkind and Amber Ott reveals some remarkable insights from current practitioners.

iStock_000000275835XSmallConducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan and nonprofit agency that seeks to bridge “the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues,” the research raises a few eyebrows regarding the way it categorizes those interviewed. However, once one gets by the language chosen for the three broad, but distinct categories of teachers, there is some extremely important data regarding the role of the principal, the current testing practices in vogue, and the push towards merit pay for teachers.

Categorizing Respondents – Disheartened, Contented and Idealists

Using the phrase “three distinct sensibilities” as a subheader, the researchers cluster analyzed the “unique individual characteristics” and “attitudes about the profession” of more than 900 teacher respondents. Based on those two criteria, the researchers indicated that teachers naturally fell into three broad categories: the “Disheartened,” the “Contented,” and the “Idealists.”

Those categorized as Disheartened (about 40% of all teachers) tended to agree with the notion that teaching was “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out.” The report indicated that “members of that group tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists.” They also noted that most members of this group were concerned with their working conditions (more than half of this group taught in low-income schools).

Those in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) offered a more positive overall view. The majority indicated their schools were “orderly, safe, and respectful.” They also indicated they were satisfied with their administrators. Like the disheartened group, the contented teachers tended to be veterans – 94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years. But in direct contrast to the disheartened, about two-thirds of those deemed contented taught in middle-income or affluent schools.

As one might expect from the word chosen to describe the third group, the Idealists (23% overall) voiced the most positive viewpoints regarding the profession. In fact, “nearly 9 in 10 idealists believe that ‘good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.'” Perhaps not too surprisingly, more than half of this group were 32 years-of-age or younger. At the same time, instead of viewing their current role as lifelong, more than one third of idealists indicated they would eventually leave the classroom for other jobs in the field.

iStock_000007246008XSmallAny teacher reading the report, including this one, would no doubt take some time to try and place themselves in one of the selected categories. But it is important to recognize that the researchers went on to clarify their categories did not insinuate a rating of teacher effectiveness. Instead, their three sensibilities represented only the respondents’ attitudes towards the profession.

Common Themes for Policy Makers

As the Obama administration gets ready to pump billions into education, it is important to see the commonalities that emerge when one examines viewpoints. While many will no doubt write about the disheartened group and whether or not these individuals should still be leading classrooms, the research is far more important in revealing the shared views of each of the disparate groups. It would also be the best place for policymakers to gather some direct insight regarding the profession from those in the trenches.

Increasing Number of Teacher Candidates

For those wanting to create greater interest in the profession and somehow bring our best and brightest into the classroom, it is clear that one catalyst comes from the profession itself. When asked as to what were the important factors leading to the decision to go into teaching, the respondents indicated that the most powerful influence was a teacher who inspired them. Specifically, 68% of the contented, 64% of the disheartened and 66% of the idealists indicated that an inspirational teacher was a major or one of the most important factors for their choice of profession.

And while most tend to think of families of teachers, that teachers raise future educators, more than 60% from each group indicated that having a parent of family member who was a teacher played no role in their selecting the profession.

As for those thinking of extending the school year, it should be noted that roughly 50% of each of the three teacher groups indicated that the practical job benefits (summers off and more time with family) were a major factor or one of the most important factors in their choice of the profession.

And the real catalyst for each group centered upon the desire to teach a subject that he or she loved and to subsequently get kids excited about it. Ninety percent of contented, 91% of disheartened and 87% of idealists called this one of the most important factors for selecting the profession.

Issue of Teacher Pay

Classroom SeriesAs for drawbacks to entering the profession, teacher pay was clearly a problem for all groups. Seventy-six percent of contented teachers and 78% of idealists called it at least a minor drawback. But as one might expect, pay was a greater issue for the disheartened. More than half saw it as a major drawback and 96% saw it as at least a minor issue.

“Increasing teacher salaries to levels similar to other professional jobs such as lawyers and doctors” was definitely seen as a step towards improving teacher effectiveness by all three groups. Surprisingly, even 84% of contented teachers and 90% of idealists saw the step as either very or somewhat effective in improving teacher quality.

Lack of prestige was also an issue, at least to a certain extent for all three groups. But it was here that the variations were more pronounced. For contented, 53% called the lack of prestige at least a minor drawback. Idealists saw it as less of an issue with 45% calling it a minor or major problem. But for the disheartened, this was a real issue; 77% called it a major or minor drawback.

Those focused on increased accountability and the testing push that forms the fundamental component of NCLB should note that a major drawback for all three groups was the amount of testing going on in schools today. The issue was seen as at least a minor drawback by 90% of all idealists and was deemed a major issue by 70% of the disheartened.

Only one-quarter of each group thought it was “very important to use test scores to monitor student progress.” Roughly three-quarters of each group called test scores less important than a lot of other assessment measures.

Improving the Classroom Environment

Student discipline issues were a major concern for all in the profession. While 70% of the disheartened called kids with discipline and behavior issues a major drawback, 86% of contented and 70% of idealists called the issue at least a minor problem. At least 93% of each group thought that if students “who are severe discipline problems” were to be “removed from the classroom and placed in alternative programs more suited to them” the action would prove either very or somewhat effective in improving teacher effectiveness.

What was very interesting to note is that the disheartened strongly agreed with the statement, “teaching is so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” (73%). However, it should be noted that contented teachers indicated they at least somewhat agreed with the statement at an 84% rate (and idealists at a 77% rate).

At the same time, 90% of both contented and idealists agreed with the statement “teaching is exactly what I wanted.”

As to what they would rank as the most difficult thing about being a teacher, the disheartened indicated lack of support from administrators was nearly as significant an issue as lack of effort from students. In direct contrast, the contented and the idealists saw the lack of support from parents and lack of effort from students as more of an issue than administrative support. Nearly one-third of each group indicated that one of the most difficult things about being a teacher was “unreasonable pressure to raise student achievement.”

Writing leadership on a blackboard.Clearly one disparate view came from how each teacher group rated their current principal. When it came to supporting them as teachers, 95% of contented and 92% of idealists rated their principals as either good or excellent. In contrast, only 41% of the disheartened saw their principal’s support as good or excellent.

And whereas nearly 80% of the contented and idealist groups would categorize their current principal as providing good or excellent instructional feedback, just 32% of the disheartened rated their principals in a similar manner. Perhaps most telling, more than half of contented and idealist teachers rated their current principal as excellent; but just 8% of the disheartened rated their principal excellent.

A last disparate element was the varied viewpoints on two relatively interesting components of achievement. Less than a quarter of idealists thought “the effort students make is mainly determined by the level of motivation they bring to the classroom” yet nearly half of all disheartened teachers felt effort was more a function of what the students brought to the classroom. But all thought teachers mattered and “what teachers do to motivate them once they get there” was seen as the most important element by all three groups.

General Noteworthy Elements

Policy makers would likely be pleased to see that one third of each teacher group thought that “making it easier to terminate ineffective teachers” could prove to be a very effective step “in terms of improving teacher effectiveness.” In addition, when it comes to teacher attitudes, school safety served as enormous correlate with a positive view of the profession. More than half of all disheartened teachers called it a major or minor drawback while less than a third of the other two teacher categories called it a problem.

And contented and idealists offered a more positive view regarding room for growth in the profession. Only 29% of disheartened said it was not a drawback. In contrast, 70% of the contented insisted it was not a problem.

School Reform Measures

With all the evidence related to student achievement correlating to the quality of instruction in the classroom, How Teachers See the Profession Today offers some strong insights for policy makers. And while it is easy to be critical of the teachers categorized as disheartened, it is clear that the majority of these individuals work in school environments all would see negatively.

More importantly, as one would expect from the study of successful businesses, leadership is the place to start. But reformers should note the changing perception of teachers regarding pay and the need for feeling a greater sense of prestige.

Add to that the concern for classrooms that may have too many discipline issues and disappointment over the ever-growing emphasis on testing and we have a clear view of the current issues facing those in the profession.


1 Joseph Thibault { 12.08.09 at 3:46 pm }

More disconcerting I think, this this report’s affect on the perspective of prospective teachers. I have/am considering a future in the teaching profession, but seeing that over 1/3 of teachers are disheartened is pretty daunting. I want to love my work (I currently do love working on the web for an education based company)…

That report really drives home the point that there are major issues to overcome in education reform (including perception).

2 Bobby { 12.14.09 at 8:58 pm }

Thank you for your ideas on teaching and learning. Having the administration rally behind their teachers makes such a huge difference. Many teachers feel the effects of burn out after years of teaching because it is an interactive process that can be draining. Especially with difficult students. The report really is informative and highlights some of the issues that really need to be addressed. Again, teachers need all the support they can get.

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