To some, they are mavericks who pull dramatic classroom stunts that stay in the memory for decades. To others, they are "crowd controllers" and "curriculum slaves". But teachers are more likely to be seen simply as "boring" and "unremarkable", new research says.
This negative perception can be attributed to an antagonistic media, a celebrity-dominated culture and worsening classroom behaviour, according to members of the public.
An academic from the University of Sussex in the UK surveyed people of all ages, from teenagers to pensioners, on their attitudes towards schools, teachers and students. Opinions on teachers tended to be polarised. "Attributes like dedication, caring, brilliance, knowledge and fun contrasted starkly with failure, incompetence, militancy, laziness and too trendy," study author Simon Thompson writes in the report.
Most respondents recognised that teachers worked hard and had little free time. "You're either a teacher or you have a life," one commentator said. Another said that a teacher might be better described as a "psychologist, presenter, social worker, curriculum slave, crowd controller".
And many respondents used the survey as an opportunity to recall their own school experiences. One talked about a history teacher who tore up a #163;5 note to demonstrate that money has symbolic, rather than inherent, value. This led to a discussion about hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. "I went on to do a history degree after being taught by her," the respondent said.
But others recalled indifferent teachers, including one "so boring it makes it a crime to be so". Indeed, a lack of respect for teachers, and education in general, was a repeated refrain in the study, which surveyed 189 people in the UK.
One contributor said that teaching was a profession "full of unremarkable men and women, trying their best to do a job that is, by turns, dull and difficult".
But it was acknowledged that this was rarely the fault of teachers themselves. Respondents pointed out that attitudes towards teachers merely reflected the broader attitudes of society. "Unrealistic aspirations, a celebrity-dominated culture, the need to be seen to be cool and the non-parenting preoccupations of parents mean that teachers are fighting an uphill struggle," one said.
Others recognised that ongoing criticism by successive governments had eroded teachers' standing in the public eye.
Equally, Mr Thompson said, respondents blamed "a poorly informed or deliberately antagonistic media, who seem to despise teachers and describe them as lazy and money-grabbing".
Contributors did acknowledge that teachers had to face increasingly challenging behaviour from students. One elderly respondent bemoaned the fact that "children are allowed to do what they like in class", adding: "Some children are actually using mobiles in class. Total loss of control. You cannot blame the teachers - their hands are tied."
Mr Thompson, a senior lecturer at the university, pointed out that these might have been dismissed as the typical comments of an out-of-touch pensioner, were they not strikingly close to remarks made by a respondent almost 70 years younger.
"We quickly realised that teachers couldn't really discipline us," the teenager said. "Mobile phones became part of our young lives. Schoolwork came in at number nine on the 10 most important things in my life, just above 'being bothered'."
These latest insights into the public perception of teachers come just weeks after TES reported that research had found no clear link between teachers' standing in society and the performance of their students ("Raise teacher pay, not status, to boost results", 4 October).
The comparative survey of 21 countries - also conducted at the University of Sussex in collaboration with the University of Malaga in Spain - did, however, reveal that there is a correlation between how highly teachers are paid and how well their students perform.
Respondents in the international study were asked how much they trusted teachers to "deliver a good education" on a scale of 1 to 10. The lowest average rating was Israel at 5.19; Brazil was the highest at 7.12. Teachers in China have by far the highest status, according to the research - on a par with doctors'.