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Publications:Focus on: The perfect life of teachers

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Focus on: The perfect life of teachers

Date of publication: 22 November 2013

Stereotypes and reality combined can make teachers' lives a little less than perfect

'Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach' – George Bernard Shaw

Being a teacher is easy, isn't it? After all, teachers enjoy generous holidays, few contact hours at school, flexible working conditions, an enviable work/life balance and they get additional benefits, incentives and rewards. On top of that, teachers’ salaries are quite good compared to other professions. At least, that's a common stereotype held by people who are not teachers. But if a teacher’s life were so perfect, why are many European countries facing enormous teacher shortages? And why are so few higher education students enrolling in teacher education programmes?

Rhetoric about the vital role that teachers play in society is never difficult to find. Who doesn't agree on the importance of high quality education, and who would question that educational quality is directly linked to excellent teaching? Yet in recent years, the education and training field in Europe has recorded the most significant fall in tertiary graduate rates compared to other disciplines according to Eurydice’s Key Data on Education in Europe. Why is this? Could it be that salary prospects do not reflect the 'vital' role of teachers? And are other factors negatively affecting the attraction of teaching careers?

While teachers' salaries vary greatly across European countries, the new Eurydice Teacher’s and School Heads’ Salaries report shows that primary and secondary teachers' entrance level statutory salaries are lower than national per capita GDP in most European countries. In other words, salaries rank low when taking into account the general standard of living – a fact that can hardly attract young people to the profession.

Yet, salary prospects are almost certainly not the only criterion in play. Salaries in Germany, for example, are rather high compared to other EU countries, yet the graduation rate in education remains low. This reality combined with a rapidly ageing teacher workforce puts the country at risk of teacher shortages in the future.

However, there are countries where graduation rates in education are high despite poor salary prospects for teachers. Poland is a good example, with over 16 % education graduates in 2009 compared to the 9.5 % European average. What factors, then, attract students into teacher education? Perhaps it is the amount of time teachers spend in the classroom? Contact time in Poland is indeed at the lower end compared to other countries. And perhaps the benefits package acts as a strong incentive, enabling teachers in Poland to earn more than the maximum statutory salary stipulates.

Attracting prospective teachers is only one part of the story. Another major challenge is keeping teachers in service. In the United Kingdom (England), for example, initial teacher salaries are above the EU average and the maximum salaries can already be reached after only 10 years. Yet, between 18-20 % of teachers leave the profession within the first three years in service according to a report in the Journal of Educational Change. This so-called 'revolving-door' phenomenon can also be seen in other countries such as France and the United States.

While factors like salaries, work time and benefits certainly play a large role when it comes to attracting teachers and keeping them in their jobs, other less tangible factors are also at work. Research in France, for example, shows that both beginning and experienced teachers join the profession primarily for altruistic reasons - a wish to teach, a desire to work with children and to play a constructive, educational role in society. In short, teachers seem to view their profession as a vocation.

What happens to this idealism that, much more than the stereotypical prospect of an 'easy life', motivates teachers to follow their vocation? Perhaps the reality of teaching today cannot match the image held by prospective teachers. Administration and bureaucracy are on the increase; children are believed to be more difficult to manage; and teachers are also more and more subject to judgment and evaluation – all factors that may make teachers question their capacity to deal with the modern-day challenges of a demanding profession. In addition, existing degrading stereotypes can only harm a teacher’s self-perception and social status. Seen from that angle, could those be the reasons, rather than financial compensation alone, that keep teachers from proudly saying that 'only those who can, should teach!'? Seems not so perfect after all, that life of teachers.

Authors: David Crosier and Andrea Puhl