Who do they think you are?

To create a portrait of the `typical' teacher, you could analyse reams of data – or you could ask children to draw one. So we did just that. What do their pictures reveal about the perceptions – and the reality – of the profession? Helen Ward takes a look
30th January 2015, 12:00am


Who do they think you are?


With 450,000 teachers in England and 50,000 in Scotland, you are unlikely to be very far away from one. But can you spot them? It's a safe bet that the person taking a box of exercise books out of their car at 7pm is a teacher, but without such obvious clues, even fellow educators can struggle to identify their own.

For children, it is much easier: teachers are young women with large necklaces. Or bald men with three pens in their shirt pocket. Sometimes they wear monocles.

At least, that was the general consensus when TES asked 84 children, aged 8-12, to draw "a teacher". The aim was to find out how these children viewed teachers and to investigate where their ideas came from. What we discovered in our small study was that perceptions of the profession are more complicated than you might have imagined.

Evie, 11, a pupil at Norton College in Malton, North Yorkshire, drew a woman with long dark hair, dark blue eyes and a picture of a beach behind her (page 28, bottom left).

"My French teacher is the sort of person I imagine as a typical teacher, so I based it on her," Evie says. "But I changed her hair - she usually wears it in a bun."

Evie's picture was typical: 62 per cent of the portraits were of women. The teachers were almost all white (or not coloured in) and 40 per cent were smiling. The most common hair colour was brown (42 per cent), although four teachers were bald and one had pink hair. A third of the teachers wore glasses, two had mortar boards, one wore a superhero costume and one had a pierced lip (opposite).

Drawing connections

Government statistics show that 74 per cent of teachers are women, 88 per cent are white and around a quarter are under 30. So the pictures largely reflect reality.

Is this a fluke? The children certainly didn't dig up the statistics before embarking on their drawings. What they are likely to have done is tap into a stereotype that has a grounding in reality.

"We all have a strong sense of what jobs are appropriate for different people," explains social psychologist Dr Gary Wood. "This may have arisen as a result of sexism, but it is perpetuated because it becomes fact. There are very few men working in primary schools, so we get these traditional male and female stereotypes that become perpetuating cycles.

"Stereotypes are a by-product of the need for cognitive economy. We can't process every sign and symbol that comes our way - our heads would have to be huge to take in the information - so we use a number of cognitive tricks. Stereotypes allow us to process the world without making decisions from scratch every time."

We tend to hold on to those stereotypes even when they contradict our own experiences - if we have, for example, a male teacher and a female doctor - because our knowledge can be outweighed by images in the media, Wood adds.

"The truth is stranger than fiction," he says. "Fictional representation, unless the story is about the difference, does go with the easy option. It goes with what we expect."

This has ramifications in wider society. If boys grow up believing that a typical teacher is a woman, what hope is there for a recruitment campaign aimed at men? And if students think of teaching as women's work, what impact does that have on their perception of male teachers?

True to life

Science also struggles with an image problem. Jobs in the field are often assumed to be better suited to men, and battling that perception has been the aim of many school-based interventions. Numerous studies have looked into the issue and many have found similar results to our project.

Thousands of children have been asked to draw scientists in dozens of studies, and they have generally depicted them as white, middle-aged and relatively unattractive men - and sometimes even as monsters. Such research concludes that a possible reason for the under-representation of women and ethnic minority groups in science is because children internalise the image of scientists as white and male at a young age.

But Dr Susan Losh, from Florida State University in the US, takes issue with this. In a 2008 paper co-written with Ryan Wilke and Margareta Pop ("Some methodological issues with `draw a scientist tests' among young children", bit.lyDrawAScientist), Losh points out that researchers only ever ask students to sketch scientists. So how do they know that young children don't draw every profession in the same way?

Her team decided to answer this question by asking 206 children aged 6, 8 and 10 to draw a teacher, a vet and a scientist. They were each given 10 crayons and 30 minutes. The children did see teachers and scientists differently. About 70 per cent of the portraits of teachers were female, compared with 31 per cent of scientists. Teachers were more likely to smile and only 3 per cent were "colourful and imaginative" monsters, compared with 7 per cent of scientists.

The study concludes that science does suffer from an "image problem". But it adds that although drawings can highlight assumptions about the adult world, they do not necessarily say much about whether the children have internalised those feelings.

For a start, a child's gender affected what they drew. Boys were more likely to draw men in every profession. Girls were more likely to draw women. No girls drew monsters.

About three-quarters of all figures drawn were "white" but, unlike gender, this did not seem to be affected by the child's own ethnicity. It was, however, influenced by the people who were around when the children were drawing. Two African-American women came into the room during the test, and the children sitting nearest to them were significantly more likely to draw non-white figures.

The study finds that although children's drawings do appear to be affected by stereotypes, they are also influenced by what children like drawing, how skilled they are, and what they see around them when they are searching for inspiration. In short, there is the potential to change children's attitudes - nothing is set in stone.

The same could be said for the results of our own study. And, according to teachers, other factors are at play in addition to those highlighted by Losh's research. Jude Alexander, a Year 4 teacher at Beckley CofE Primary School in Oxfordshire, asked 20 of her pupils to take part in our experiment.

"I was surprised at the number of boys who drew men, because we don't have much of a male presence here," she says. "But I don't know if that is because they think a teacher can be a man or if they just thought, `I don't want to draw a girl'.

"Boys don't tend to draw people so much anyway," Alexander adds. "If they were doodling, they would not draw women. They might draw a superhero. The girls want to do hair and experiment with drawing techniques - they get more of an opportunity to do that with women than men. If they draw a man, they tend to think of short hair and a tie; they can't be adventurous."

Hebe, 9, says that when she was asked to draw a teacher, the first person she thought of was her mother, so she drew her "with a book in her hand and not wearing party clothes".

Finley, 8, decided to create Mr Books, a 55-year-old man with glasses. "He really likes reading books," Finley says. "Teachers are like that."

His classmate Ewan, 9, drew a woman, aged 40, with long brown hair and bright green shoes, whom he named Miss Leeb. "She is walking and carrying a box with a book on top because sometimes teachers carry boxes into class," he explains.

Back at Norton College, James, 11, confesses that his male teacher is bald for pragmatic reasons. "I found it hard deciding what hair a teacher would have," he says. "So in the end I didn't draw any hair."

And although our sample reveals, on average, a workforce that is female, white and rather slim, when you sift through the pictures what you actually see is the breadth of children's imaginations - from a teacher with zigzags for hair to one standing in a graveyard (page 28, top right).

Flashes of imagination

And the richness of children's imaginations isn't just confined to the appearance of imaginary staff. When the teachers at Mill Field Primary School in Leeds decided to update their pictures on the school website, they asked the pupils to draw them.

"None of us wanted photographs," says Carol Milburn, the deputy headteacher. "Photographs date so quickly and we'd rather have the children's interpretations of us than a stuffy photo. But no, I don't wear a beret - although that may be an attempt at silver flecks - and Mrs Morigi does not have bright purple hair."

Interestingly, this creative licence became less common in our sample as the age of the children increased. The variation diminished and the stereotypes began to shine through.

Wood says that this may be because our ideas of what the world is like become more and more fixed as we grow older. "Four-year-old boys see playing at being the Frozen princesses as make-believe, but at a certain point they start thinking that it is not appropriate for a boy to be a female hero.

"Stereotypes are not necessarily harmful but they are a by-product of how we process the world and it requires dialogue to unpack that. Some children don't have that talk, so by the time they get to secondary school these ideas have become embedded."

Perhaps, then, children are being taught to see teaching as a female profession. At the very least, we are not doing enough to tackle that perception. Rather than confronting the stereotypes that children are presented with, adults tend to reinforce them.

Sculpting reality

We may all be aware of the dangers of stereotyping, but when your job involves drawing and writing about teachers - as is the case for Liz Pichon, author of the award-winning Tom Gates books - there is a fine line between avoiding a stereotype and drawing someone so unusual that their appearance distracts from their role.

"When you're telling a story, you don't want [the characters] to be all that unusual unless it's part of the story," she says. "I've tried to keep everyone bland and simple in terms of their clothes, because if you have a character who is covered in tattoos and piercings it becomes part of the story."

Pichon reaches this balance by basing her characters on teachers she has known. "A lot of teachers have long, wafty dresses and beads and big necklaces, like Mrs Nap, who was based on a teacher at my daughter's school. She is a typical teacher: jolly, smiling, full of energy.

"Mr Fullerman is based on my maths teacher from primary, Mr Jones. He was terrifying. He was bald and had rectangular glasses. I used to get a stomach ache every day that we had maths until my mum sussed out why and we went to talk to Mr Jones.

"Then I found that he was really nice, actually. In the books Mr Fullerman is stern but friendly. But I gave him these big, staring eyes to spot everything that is going on in the classroom - that's how I remember Mr Jones."

Representations of teachers in the media and fiction may be less a wilful adherence to stereotypes and more a depiction of experience. Yet the two are closely intertwined. Stereotypes breed reality and reality hardens stereotypes. To remedy that situation, you either need the reality to change, or the media and fiction to take more risks and vary the model of a typical teacher.

Neither problem should be insurmountable, and the good news is that our small study suggests younger children seem more than willing to adopt different narratives. We just have to be willing to provide them with real-world alternatives. If we do, there will be no such thing as a typical teacher. That might make teachers harder to spot, but the profession will be a much better - and more diverse - place as a result.

Meet the schools

Beckley Church of England Primary School, Oxfordshire

Beckley is a rural primary with 151 pupils. Of its eight teachers, one is a man; the headteacher is a woman. The students taking part in the project were aged 8-9.

Western Community Primary School, North Tyneside

Western has 463 pupils and 19 teachers. The school's headteacher is a woman. The children taking part in the project were aged 9-11.

Norton College, Malton, North Yorkshire

Norton is a small, semi-rural school for 11- to 19-year-olds. It has 57 staff, 21 of whom are male. The headteacher is a man. The pupils taking part were aged 11-12.

Win art supplies

Like these portraits? Reckon your students can do better? Submit a picture of you created by a pupil to win a box of art supplies for your class.

To enter, send us a picture on Facebook (www.facebook.comTESConnect) or Twitter (@tes) tagged with #MyPupilPortrait. The 10 best pictures will be featured in a blog and on our Pinterest board; one winner will receive a box of art materials.

The deadline for entries is Friday 6 February.

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