We don’t become teachers to achieve ‘status’

Handwringing over teachers’ status should not obscure the profession's appeal, says Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns

We don’t become teachers to achieve ‘status’

A generally ignored aspect of teaching has been gaining a bit of attention recently as a barrier to recruitment: our status in society.

Firstly, Lucy Kellaway, a former Financial Times journalist and co-founder of the Now Teach charity, complained she had trouble persuading other professionals into changing career owing to the perceived low status of the teaching profession.

Then, poet, writer and teacher Kate Clanchy described how people she met became more captivated by her conversation after she had written her first book: "I realised I was accustomed, when I talked about my work [as a teacher], to hardly being listened to at all."

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Clanchy didn't ascribe this rise up the social standing tables to new-found wealth –first-time writers usually earn even less than teachers – while Kellaway describes her role as a part-time teacher as “post-status”. What I find most surprising about the debate around status is that it's happening at all; I would be surprised if anyone enters teaching to boost their social standing (other than, perhaps, former traffic wardens or politicians).

Like Clanchy, I have the experience of not being listened to when talking about my work unless it's to another teacher, and, to be fair, there is little more boring than someone banging on about how they earn a living. Civilians tend to get a little wide-eyed when finding out what I do, murmuring something about how it must be rewarding (while feeling a slight sense of guilt about all that money they have been earning compared to my vow of poverty). Meanwhile, they silently pray that I don't launch into a teaching anecdote.

Yet, teaching has never been about status. What other workforce has to cope with a withering putdown – traceable to George Bernard Shaw over a century ago, but which exists in myriad versions – which goes something like: “Those who can do, those who can't teach”, yet can still attract thousands of new recruits every year?

And while our status compared with other professions has, in football parlance, been fairly consistently marked down as “relegation fodder” since even before the time of Shaw, one change has been the reduced level of respect from pupils – especially among those from middle-class backgrounds as the children pick up on the negative attitude of their parents.

What surprises me more is the colleagues who don't recognise our post-status role. These are the classroom teachers who love what they do but doggedly pursue any promotion opportunity even if the new position takes them away from the classroom to undertake admin duties for only slightly more money and a lot more stress.

Status does matter to some, however, and being promoted above someone else moves their professional standing slightly above the baseline. (At which point It might be worth issuing a reminder that we are allowed to countersign passports along with those other high-status professionals: lawyers, doctors and accountants.)

The dictionary definition of vocation is “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular job or occupation”. If you are lucky enough to have this connection with your work, remember that this is far more valuable than any nebulous concept of status.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland

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