Teacher Status; Are they More Like Social Workers, Doctors, Football Coaches?

image of a teacher

An educational system is often described as a black box. We can identify inputs and outcomes, but the complicated interaction of factors, what happens inside the box, remains something of a mystery. In trying to unravel the enduring mystery of what makes for a great educational system one of the few identifiable key factors is the social status of teachers. In cultures where educators enjoy a prestigious social status (though not necessarily a prodigious income; income, it seems, is only important insofar as it is linked to prestige) education outcomes tend to be better than in those cultures where teachers’ social status is low. No one is quite sure how this works. It may be that the prestige awarded the teaching profession in some cultures reflects a more general attitude that values education. It may be that the prestige attracts better and brighter teachers and allows them to ply their trade more effectively. It may be all those things and more. At any rate it is an indicator that correlates with educational outcomes.  So, how do various countries see their teachers, and where does America stand? Gauging teacher status is not a straightforward thing, but the Economist published an interesting chart recently that can give us a good idea of where we stand.

Teachers' Social Status

The chart displays the results of a survey conducted by the Varkey Gems Foundation in which people were asked with what other profession they associate teachers. Choices include social worker, nurse, librarian, government manager, and doctor. In seven of the 15 countries surveyed people associated teachers more with social workers than the other options. Not surprising. Try a quick experiment; Do a Google-search for images of “teacher.” Your browser will quickly be populated by pictures of pleasant-looking, smiling young adults, mostly women, working closely with youngsters. Now do a Google image-search of “social worker.” The people and context will look much the same: smiling young women working with young people. According to Google at least teachers and social workers are pretty much the same people doing the same sort of thing.  However, the United States and Brazil leaned closest to librarian, indicating perhaps a slightly higher perceived status. (The popular image of the librarian of course will be a slightly older, somewhat more dignified and serious woman, still often enough working with kids.)In the highly politicized climate of Japan’s educational system the majority of surveyed Japanese saw their teachers as being like government managers. Interestingly, only the Chinese saw their teachers as closest in prestige to doctors: highly educated, prestigious professionals.

Highest-paid public employees, by state highest paid public employee by state


The comments section of the Economist post is fairly rife with animosity toward teachers. It’s pretty clear this animosity stems from a perception that public school teachers are coddled and protected bureaucrats, government employees growing fat and lazy on the public dime. Given what we know about prestige of the profession and educational outcomes these attitudes don’t bode well. Add to that toxic attitude the implicit acceptance by the general public of the fact that the highest paid public employee in most states is either the football or basketball coach of the largest state school; we might have a considerable way to go in developing the profession.

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