A temporary vocation

Is teaching just another job - and should it be?

Helen Groom

Topics Politics

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Teachers no longer regard their profession as a career for life. What was once seen as a vocation has now been reduced to one job among many.

The TV recruitment campaign claims: ‘Those who can, teach.’ Well, they might teach, but they won’t do so for long.

Carol Adams, chief executive of the General Teaching Council, recently described the £13,000 spent on training every teacher as ‘not good value for money’, because a third of new teachers quickly leave the profession (1). Meanwhile, a Guardian/MORI survey, reported on 7 January 2003, showed that one in three teachers expected to leave the profession within the next five years. Low pay, lack of respect, increasing workloads and pupil behaviour were all cited as reasons for the increasingly low morale among teachers (2).

Retention is thus the new key word in debates about education in Britain. The almost unrelentingly bad press that the education system receives has created the impression of schools and colleges limping from one crisis to another. It almost begs the question of why anyone would want to go into the profession in the first place.

The offer of £6000 for each person completing a post-graduate certificate of education (PGCE) is certainly one reason, as is the virtual guarantee of being able to find a job at the end of it. The Guardian/MORI survey, however, suggested that these perks soon wore off, leading to the large number of teachers moving on to other careers.

But a report published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) last week gives a different impression of the teaching profession. Linda Sturman, author of the report, said: ‘Teachers are relatively positive. That’s perhaps surprising given the recent media coverage in terms of recruitment and retention. The image is that teachers are unhappy, but there are definitely aspects of the job that still motivate them.’ (3)

Job satisfaction, job security and positive working relationships were all factors identified by teachers as positive aspects of their profession. Job satisfaction among teachers was shown to be higher than among the general population (4).

How can these two impressions of teaching be reconciled? The Guardian/MORI poll does indicate that a third of teachers expect to move on to other careers or to retire within the next five years. Why is there a retention problem if teachers enjoy comparatively high job satisfaction? Of course, surveys conducted for different purposes often throw up different results. But it is also the case that job satisfaction does not necessarily mean job commitment. You can be quite happy in your job, yet still keen to move on.

The apparent lack of commitment to teaching today relates to changes in the way the profession is regarded. There are still people entering teaching who do have a vocation, those who have always wanted to be teachers. But many who train as teachers do not have a vocation. Teaching is simply another job, and as is often said, there is no such thing as a job for life anymore.

During their working life, it is expected that the average person will have one or more career changes. In this sense, the fact that a number of teachers are anticipating doing the same thing could be viewed less as a crisis in retention than simply as the infiltration of normal working practices into the profession.

But teaching never used to be just another job, with normal working practices. It is a career where traditionally people have given more than they are asked for. Lunch-time clubs, extra tutoring, hours of marking and preparation, all match the impression of vocation: something that people do for love more than money, because they see it as important. The presentation of teaching as a job like any other, which people dip into and move on, destroys the traditional idea of what motivates teachers.

However, teaching is gradually being reformed. High-flying new teachers are encouraged to take on more management responsibilities. Paperwork and scrutiny have increased dramatically. Education is becoming more and more like a business. All of which leaves teachers stuck in the middle. With the certainty of vocation removed from teaching, what is left? Should people entering teaching try to discover a vocation for it or should they take a more pragmatic view, and see it as a job for a few years?

Perhaps the problem in retaining teachers could be seen as an indication of the lack of direction in education today. The current retention crisis seems to be less a cause of the problems facing the teaching profession in the UK, than a symptom of the broader confusion surrounding what teaching is about, and what teachers are supposed to do.

There is a need to make the nature of teaching clear. Until it is understood how we are to regard teaching there will continue to be a large number of teachers changing profession – regardless of the high levels of job satisfaction that they may report.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Teaching head highlights cost of retention problem, Polly Curtis, Guardian, 7 January 2003

(2) A third of teachers plan to quit. Biggest-ever survey cites workload, pupil behaviour and ‘meddling’ for low morale, Will Woodward, Guardian, 7 January 2003

(3) Teachers’ satisfaction is high but commitment low, Polly Curtis, Guardian, 13 January 2003

(4) Contented and Committed? A survey of quality of working life amongst teachers, Linda Sturman, National Foundation for Educational Research, 2002

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Topics Politics


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