Chapter 4 - Perceptions of teachers' status
This Chapter considers the perceptions of teachers' status:
- in the general community
- among parents
- among students
among teachers themselves.
Community attitudes to schools and teachers are difficult to
categorise. They are not uniform. As a generalisation, those most familiar with
teachers' work are most supportive of them. However, many do not appear to
translate their positive views of individual teachers known to them to the
profession as a whole. A number of recent surveys have illustrated the paradox
whereby members of the public can speak highly of their local school and
teachers while at the same time disparaging schools and teachers in
We found that our sample [of community members in rural and
regional areas of central western NSW] consistently suggested that most
teachers are incredibly hardworking and highly skilled professionals. However,
they claimed that the community perception of teachers was still one which saw
teachers working 'short hours' and having 'long holidays'. The local scene it
seemed was generally viewed positively while the broader system was not
necessarily seen in this light.
Witnesses from Tasmania discussed recent work there which
had reached similar conclusions.
The most important finding from this group of questions is the
trend that the closer the respondent is to the schools, the higher the rating.
There is an interesting distinction that is made in people's
minds that when they are asked about the quality of schools and of teachers and
they are asked about their local school, they speak very highly of it. If they
are asked about government schools in Australia as a whole then that rating
drops in the order of 25 or 30 per cent.
The discrepancy between public perceptions of individual
teachers and public perceptions of teachers in general was attributed by many
Inquiry participants to negative reporting and stereotyping by the media. The
following excerpt is typical of the sentiments expressed on this issue.
Teachers and schools receive mostly negative publicity. Rarely
are media representatives witness to the caring, commitment, dedication and
long hours put into the job by teachers, much of which takes place in their
leisure time and all of which goes virtually unseen by the community as a
whole. Yet let there be a whisper of industrial action, or let some teacher
commit an offence, and the media are on the spot, and the profession as a whole
is publicly denigrated.
The adverse impact of the media on community perceptions of
the status of teachers, and especially media coverage of industrial disputes,
was an issue of great concern to Inquiry participants. It will be discussed in
more detail in the next Chapter.
Community perceptions of teachers and the teaching
profession were also considered to have been negatively affected by the
increasing politicisation of education and the scapegoating of teachers by
politicians for short term political advantage. The following excerpt is again
included to provide a flavour of the views expressed to the Committee. The
impact of the politicisation of education on the status of teachers will also
be discussed in the following Chapter.
If Ministers of Education were prepared to adopt a less
adversarial role in their public pronouncements, and if they were prepared to
learn - and acknowledge - what the roles teachers perform in the schools of
this decade actually are, and how hard they are required to work,
perhaps the public perception of teachers would improve.
The ambiguity in community attitudes to schools and
education may in part reflect a lack of clarity or consensus on their role, and
on the boundary between parental and school responsibility for children's
education. Some people believe the primary (or perhaps sole) purpose of schools
is to provide an academic education. Others think it is to develop
well-rounded, well-socialised individuals. In recent years there has been an
increased focus on vocational education and the role of schools in equipping
students for jobs in later life. Another recent phenomenon is the perception of
schools as welfare centres with teachers providing health and welfare services
as well as education, in the absence of adequate provision by parents and
cutbacks to community support services.
One consequence of the lack of community consensus on the
role of schools has been to require schools to do more of everything without a
commensurate increase in resources and support. Indeed, in most cases these
have been reduced rather than increased. Nor have teachers been able to delete
existing subjects or activities from the curriculum in order to accommodate the
new ones. (More detailed consideration of the issue of the 'crowded curriculum'
is included in Chapter 6.)
Inevitably when community expectations are so great, and
often so unrealistic, teachers are not always able to fulfil them. This causes
stress and frustration for teachers and strengthens community perceptions,
fostered by the media, that teachers are failing our young people.
To some extent, teachers have been handed an impossible task,
being expected to be the miracle workers of modern society, an unrealistic
expectation which ultimately results in guilt and strain when teachers and
schools cannot deliver all that is demanded of them.
Another factor contributing to a lessening of respect for
teachers is the increasing demands of their task with unrealistic expectations.
No longer are teachers just expected to teach students academic subjects. We
expect schools to be the agents for solving all the ills of society. Sex
education, drug education, road safety, fitness, nutrition, interpersonal
relationships, socio-economic disadvantage, unemployment are all seen as the
responsibility of schools. When teachers fail to solve the problems associated
with these - as fail they must because education is only one part of the
solution - society is quick to blame the teachers. 
Another factor affecting the low status of teachers among
some sectors of the community was thought by many witnesses to be people's lack
of understanding and appreciation of the complexity of teaching in the 1990s.
I believe that in dealing with the issue of the status of
teaching we are dealing with the challenge of managing perceptions. In trying
to manage those perceptions we need to look particularly at informing the
community about what the nature of teaching and learning is in classrooms
... The community, by and large, still tends to view teaching
and learning as being similar to their experience of 30 or 40 years ago when
the teacher was the expert who delivered the content. Now it has dramatically
The fact that everyone has been to school encourages firm
opinions from most people on education and teachers. Many such views, however,
are based on conditions of a bygone era; society has changed, schools have
changed and teaching has changed. Related to this is a relatively low level of
appreciation of the demands and complexity of teaching...
A number of witnesses suggested that the misconceptions
persist because the community is not aware of teachers' contributions outside
This view [of teaching as a job requiring minimal training, with
many holidays and short working hours] is compounded by the situation where the
teachers' preparation and evaluation is done at home, out of community view.
The community perceives only the actual class teaching time, but not the time
outside the children's attendance, as 'teaching'.
Whatever the reason for the persistence of this view it is
certainly undermining of the status of the profession. Yet, as a number of
submissions pointed out, one must question the sincerity with which such
critical views are held given that rarely do these critics ever feel tempted
into the profession to enjoy the benefits about which they wax so lyrical.
Despite the commonly voiced opinion that teaching is a breeze,
working 8am-3pm with 12 weeks holiday a year, few people are rushing to join
...within our (NT) public service, people are encouraged to gain
experience in areas other than their normal one. To date, although many
teachers have applied for work experience outside of teaching, not one person
from the public service has sought out teaching as an alternative to their
normal work area.
One reason suggested for the low status accorded to the
teaching profession is that it lacks the mystique associated with professions
with which people are less familiar. After all, everybody has been to school so
they think they know what teaching is all about.
Teaching is a mass profession not an elite profession as with
medical practitioners or lawyers. As well the teaching profession suffers from
the fact that everyone has been to school and therefore has an opinion about
what they think schools should be like - albeit an opinion based on childhood
and adolescent experiences from a past era.
Teachers' status is also likely to suffer, in comparison
with that of some other professions, because of the relatively large number of
teachers. They lack 'scarcity' value. Their work is also much more open to
public scrutiny than is that of many professionals.
Unlike some high status professionals, teachers are also
particularly numerous, there being approximately 250,000 Australia-wide. There
is a perception that the visibility of teaching practice (since everyone has
been through school) tends to render teaching knowledge and skills
"knowable" and therefore, to many in the community, less
Over the past thirty years the number of teachers in the
community has dramatically increased... Teachers are a very visible part of
almost all communities and it is a profession which is seen as within reach of
very many within society. Society as a whole is now considerably better
educated than it was thirty or forty years ago and teachers are not so revered
by the rest of the community as they used to be.
The Victorian Council of Deans sees the size of the teaching
force as a cause for celebration, reflecting the success of our education
system, just as our ageing population reflects the success of our health
The lessening of the status of the teaching profession in the
latter part of this century is a consequence, in part, of the success of the
education system. Teachers no longer stand out in the community as educated
professionals, as there are now many and diverse professionals in the community
who compare favourably with teachers in terms of education, salaries and
The decline in university entrance requirements for
intending teachers may, to the extent that the community is aware of it,
strengthen or confirm their view of the low status of teachers compared with
that of other professions with higher entrance requirements. This issue is
discussed in Chapter 7.
The general view expressed in evidence to the Committee and
in the literature is that the status of teachers in rural areas tends to be
higher than it is in urban areas, although it has also declined over time, as a
result of many of the same factors referred to above, which affect rural as well
as urban schools.
The following extracts from submissions point to the factors
contributing to the higher status of rural teachers. They also indicate factors
limiting that status.
Teachers generally are held in high regard in country
communities. They are often a "role model" - in many cases someone to
set the standards, regarded by many as a diplomat and leader.
...country teachers often have more 'out of school'
responsibilities within rural communities and can suffer loss of esteem within
the community if they fail to meet up to the standards and expectations placed
Perceptions of urban and rural communities regarding schools can
differ, due to:
rural media reports are more likely to
be positive towards education, particularly in highlighting the local school's
rural families often have a more
personal relationship with local teachers; thus feedback can be frequent and
shortcomings of the system can be very obvious, eg lack of
access to specialised assessment procedures for students with special needs,
lack of system support services for such students...
A number of witnesses made the interesting observation that
community attitudes to schools and teachers reflected more general community
perceptions of the state of society. In their view, when people were optimistic
and secure about general societal developments they were likely to be
supportive of schools and teachers, which they saw as projecting and
encouraging those developments. But today many people are perplexed by the
rapidity of social change and confused as to its likely future direction.
Schools and teachers perhaps reflect that lack of certainty. In turn they are
blamed by the community for failing to provide the direction it so badly
As a group of principals, we wonder then whether or not how the
community feels about teachers is directly related to how people perceive
society to be going, and that when society is seen to be on track then so too
are schools and teachers.
...we indicate that from Bill's [Professor Mulford] research,
the community seems to be most positive about teachers and teaching when
employment levels in the community are high, when violence is contained, when
the community is well informed about current issues in education, when there are
high levels of community participation in school matters and when they are
funded adequately. To some extent, I guess schools and teachers might be the
fall guys for other ills in the community.
If this is indeed the case then it represents a severe handicap
for teachers hoping to improve their standing in the community. However, the
limited research available on community attitudes to teachers suggests that the
picture is not as bleak as many teachers suppose. The (former) Australian
Teaching Council commissioned some research on this issue in 1995. It
What is striking... is teachers' conviction that the community
thinks badly of them. The reality is that there exists a range of opinions
about teachers, with those closest to the teaching process holding the most
Other surveys and polls also suggest that, while variable,
community views of schools and teachers are in fact quite favourable. A 1996
study commissioned by the Northern Territory Government, for example, found
that 82.7% of respondents indicated they were either 'very satisfied', 'quite
satisfied' or 'somewhat satisfied' with Northern Territory education services.
This was very similar to the findings of an earlier study conducted in the
Northern Territory in 1993-94.
These findings are consistent with the those of the recent
Tasmanian survey referred to earlier,
which found that 48% of all respondents gave Tasmanian government schools
statewide an A or B rating (out of five possible ratings, with A being the
highest); for local schools the figure was 63%. Two thirds of these respondents
considered teacher quality a major contributor to their high rating.
All of this would suggest that there is at least some basis
for improving perceptions of teachers and teaching among those sectors of the
community who are ill informed about, or disparaging of, teachers' work, and
for further enhancing the already favourable views held by many in the
community. The media, politicians and bureaucrats can all assist, and the
following chapters will suggest means by which this might be done. Teachers
themselves also have a responsibility to improve community perceptions,
especially through greater efforts to communicate with their local communities.
The sometimes poor communication between schools and the
communities in which they operate, and the desirability of improving links
between them was referred to in evidence to the Committee and in the general
... it is probably equally true that teachers and schools have
kept the community at arm's length over time, with authentic, representative
community involvement yet to be achieved in many instances. Thus to some
extent, some teachers and schools have probably been their own 'worst enemies'
in the areas of community misconceptions and criticism. It should also be
acknowledged that there are no doubt some members of the community who have no
desire to be involved in schools, for whatever reasons, and are happy to leave
the education of students and the running of schools to school staff and the
The relationship between teachers/schools and the community
is a sadly neglected area in most teacher education programs. It should be a
compulsory component of all teacher training programs and accorded the
importance it deserves, given that the centrality to successful educational
outcomes of a cooperative approach to education by teachers, parents, students
and community is generally acknowledged. (This issue is discussed in Chapter 7)
Parents' perceptions of teachers and their work are a
microcosm of those of the general community. Attitudes range from downright
hostility, through indifference to strong support. As in the broader community,
parents with the closest contact with their children's school tend to be most
supportive of its teachers.
Parents seemed to agree with the public's perception of teachers
in general, but tended to have more positive views of the teachers they had
closer associations with.
There was a feeling that, the closer parents get to the actual
business of teaching in schools, the more they appreciate and respect their
teachers (although there were some exceptions)
The Committee received a number of submissions from parents
who recognised and valued the contribution of teachers. The following excerpt,
from a mother of children with disabilities, provides a particular perspective.
Teachers have a pivotal role in child development as well as
formal education. They have to pick up the pieces in the lives of children who
may have little support or stability. They may be the only caring person in a
...Teachers may be supporting the only developmental program a
disabled child has, because of funding cuts of services to the disabled. They
are under pressure to fill the gaps left by inadequate support of disabled
children by other government departments.
Again, as with the general community, parental attitudes to
teachers are influenced to a significant degree by the media.
Parents and the community continue to be alarmed at what is
happening "in schools", but highly supportive of their local school.
According to NSW DSE statistics, students are ten times safer in schools than
they are in their own homes and local communities. The danger of the media
image is that of the pygmalian effect: of the image becoming the substance.
Parents also demonstrate the curious dichotomy of views
referred to earlier in connection with community attitudes whereby they can be
very supportive of their own children's teachers, and appreciative of their
efforts, while at the same time appearing to subscribe to a stereotypical view
of teachers as bludgers with easy jobs.
On the one hand, many parents in my experience, refer to the
admiration that they hold for most teachers in having to cope and deal with the
type of pressures that confront so many young adults. On the other hand they
will also often refer to the perception that teachers enjoy an abundance of
holidays and remarkably short working hours, implying it would seem that many
teachers are quite indolent.
Parents' attitudes to teachers reflect in large part their
own experiences of school and of teachers. Where these were favourable, parents
themselves are generally very supportive of teachers. The reverse is also the
My experience is that parental expectations are very frequently
derived from the parents' own school experiences. Where these were relatively
happy and productive, the parents tend to be supportive of teachers and their
actions, even in dealing with difficult behavioural incidents such as drug use
Where parents have not had much experience of secondary
education, or have unhappy memories of their days at high school, it is much
harder to establish common understandings of school operations and processes,
particularly where younger adolescents are concerned.
A number of recent surveys
point to relatively high levels of parental satisfaction with teachers and
schools. But it is also the case that many parents seem not to be able or
willing to engage with the school once the child’s enrolment has taken place.
Evidence presented to the Committee by some teachers suggested a high degree of
When our school presents parent teacher evenings (induction,
information, reporting etc) the percentage of parents that actually attend is
very low. Those that do attend usually are from the more professional sector of
our community who generally have higher expectations for their children or see
education as highly valuable.
involvement appears to be higher in primary than in secondary schools. Parents
may feel less intimidated by primary schools. They are better able to relate to
what happens there, and primary schools are smaller and usually situated within
the local area. But lack of involvement at the secondary level may, in some
cases at least, result from discouragement by the students concerned.
It is a reality that parent involvement in secondary schools is
less than it is in primary schools. I do not think it is from a lack of desire
on the part of the parents; in many cases, parents stand off from any
involvement in secondary schools because their students do not want them to be
involved. There is a cultural perception amongst their peers that it is not
cool to be seen at school.
The Committee received conflicting evidence on the impact of
socioeconomic status on parental support and involvement. Some submissions
claimed that parents in lower socioeconomic groups were most anxious for their
children to succeed and most supportive of teachers' efforts on their
children's behalf. Others considered that parental support and involvement was
highest among those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who understood more
about the role of teachers and were often themselves beneficiaries of the
There appears to be some association between parental attitudes
towards teachers and socioeconomic status. While not, of course, universally
true, it is often the case that working class parents are more appreciative of
the teacher's efforts whereas parents from higher socioeconomic levels can be
While there was a general consensus in the evidence
presented to the Committee that most parents are either supportive of teachers
or indifferent to them - a view supported in general literature - this evidence
also showed that a very small number of parents are openly hostile and/or
aggressive towards their children's teachers. Their impact on teachers is out
of all proportion to their numbers. They are a major contributor to teacher
stress and to declining morale - both directly and indirectly through the
influence they exert on their children. The following excerpts are typical of
the experiences described by teachers. Similar reports were provided from all
States and Territories and from all types of schools.
One of the most stressful issues facing teachers, which I
believe is really shaking many teachers and school administrators to their
roots, is what we are calling the aggressive parent syndrome. We can tell you
lots of stories about parents coming to the classroom and literally abusing the
teacher in front of the children in school. It is becoming more and more
common. Once that happens as you are taking the kids into school at a quarter
to nine your day is blown, as you can imagine.
"Vexatious" parents are a growing breed. These parents
are often vocal, abusive and threatening in putting their point of view both
privately and publicly. Such comment is frequently difficult to combat and
further undermines the role of individual teachers in particular and the
profession in general. Teachers and schools rarely have an opportunity to reply
to these criticisms.
A lot of those lower socioeconomic groups from my area have had
previous problems themselves. They do not see us as anything but an authority
figure to bash. 'Get on with the job. It is your job. You sort it out.' Quite
often, if they are called to the school from the principal down, all of us face
nothing but pent-up emotion, fury and, more often than not, abuse.
Allied to the anxiety caused to teachers by vexatious
parents is the growing fear of litigation. To protect themselves teachers are
reducing out of school hours contact with students and modifying their
behaviour in the classroom. Fear of litigation was also mentioned in the evidence
as a factor which discouraged men from taking up kindergarten or primary school
teaching. The general student population therefore suffers, along with
teachers, because of the threat of litigation or its implementation. (Many
teachers were at pains to point out that they did not wish to see offending
teachers protected. They were simply drawing attention to the large proportion
of cases in which parents launched prosecutions without any evidence.) In these
cases teachers are normally vindicated eventually but in the process their
reputations, careers, self esteem and health are sometimes irreparably damaged.
The spectre of litigation is an unfortunate added burden
teachers now have to shoulder, one that was not common in years gone by. A sad
side effect of this is that teachers can no longer interact normally with all
children in their classrooms. They have to keep in the back of their minds the
knowledge that all they say and do may be reported, and sometimes misreported,
to super-critical parents driven by motives of power and revenge. In recent
years malicious and unfounded allegations of teacher misbehaviour have all but
destroyed the unfortunate teachers' mental and physical health and have wrecked
their teaching careers.
The increased eagerness of parents to sue teachers has greatly
reduced the number of teachers taking sport in some schools. In certain cases,
the fact that a student acted contrary to instruction does not seem to matter.
The teacher is still held responsible.
While it is difficult to see how teachers can protect
themselves from vexatious and litigious parents other than through the
modifications to their teaching practice which they are already undertaking, it
is essential that principals and education department staff provide far more
support to teachers facing litigation than they have to date.
It would be unfortunate but not surprising if teachers
facing a small number of cases of the aggressive parent syndrome tended to
overlook or downplay the fact that most parents support them. This is
particularly understandable given that the disgruntled minority are the most
vocal (aided by the media) while those who are most supportive do not often
express their support publicly. This certainly was the view of the Tasmanian
Primary Principals' Association.
It is tempting to suggest, at this stage, that the concert of
public criticism of public education does not involve the whole orchestra but
only the loud instruments. The body of this orchestra, the general, broader
public, contains a large number of parents who seem to be happy with their
schools and teachers. They are perhaps not represented in the brass section of
Evidence presented to the Committee did not suggest any
major differences in perceptions of teachers between rural and urban parents.
In both, a wide spectrum of perceptions and attitudes was observable, ranging
from the highly favourable to the totally obnoxious. However, one or two
submissions suggested that, because the school was often a social and community
centre in rural areas and parents were familiar with it, they were more likely
to be in contact with teachers than their urban counterparts. This could be
either beneficial or unwelcome, depending on the attitudes of the parents
concerned. (The sometimes vulnerable position of female teachers in rural
schools is discussed later in this Chapter.)
Tension between parents and teachers sometimes arise as a
result of parents' unrealistic expectations of schools and teachers. In this,
once again, parents mirror the unrealistic expectations of the general
Parents are conscious of the difficulties their children may
face in obtaining jobs when they leave school. They recognise the importance of
education in this process without acknowledging its limitations. Their anxiety
about their children's futures translates into pressure upon their children's
teachers to ensure that their children succeed. It is an impossible task but
the expectation - implicit or explicit - by some parents can make the parent -
teacher relationship a very difficult one.
Young people's futures have become increasingly dependent on
educational success as requirements for educational credentials for employment
purposes have escalated. When coupled with a high rate of social change,
general economic uncertainty and an increasingly competitive employment market,
pressure on individual schools and teachers to perform, in parents' terms,
becomes more marked.
...parents seemed to be almost paranoid about outcomes and
standards. They had become so much more competitive and placed more pressure on
their children and therefore on the teachers to perform.
In private schools, parents are sometimes even more
demanding, believing that they have paid for results.
... when parents pay a school a lot of money for the educational
services, they then believe that they are buying a product. It is not at all
unusual for parents to come to the school or to the teacher with a comment, a
criticism or a disappointment and say, 'Don't you forget that I am paying your
...That is a different sort of pressure. It builds a level of
expectation that our schools have to learn to cope with to some extent -
matching what parents are hoping they are providing for their children with
what a school can realistically deliver to the children of those parents.
A further unrealistic expectation on the part of some
parents is that teachers will provide the nurturing and social support which
parents themselves have failed to provide. While many teachers do in fact make
valiant efforts to assist children from dysfunctional families they are not
trained for this role, which they undertake in addition to their normal
teaching duties. In these circumstances they will in many cases be unable to
fully meet the needs of the young people concerned. For this they are
condemned, often by those parents whose children they are attempting to assist.
We have a society which, more and more, is delegating to schools
and teachers, responsibilities which ought to lie firmly within a family. With
the number of dysfunctional families increasing, schools increasingly find
themselves obliged to provide breakfast, snacks and lunch, after school care,
and counselling services in addition to the normal educational curriculum.
... Teachers and ancillary staff do not always feel competent or
confident to deal effectively with these problems, but must do so nonetheless.
Funding does not provide much in the way of support staff for students with
problems of any kind - educational or social, yet for many children the school
is the one secure, safe, and predictable place in their lives, the classroom
teacher their one anchor and source of confidence and self -esteem.
Parents' perceptions of teachers have been influenced by a
number of recent developments. Two of these, devolution and funding, will be
discussed here in that context (and discussed more broadly later in the
Ideally, devolution of decision
making from central bureaucracies to schools should ensure that parents have
greater involvement in decisions affecting their children and greater
opportunities to familiarise themselves with curriculum issues and with
teachers. Given that parents most familiar with their schools are generally
most supportive of its teachers, this would seem to be an initiative likely to
improve parent -teacher relationships and to enhance teacher status. In
practice, devolution has fallen far short of this ideal. The following excerpt
illustrates the position at one school, but similar stories could be told from
schools all over the country.
The NT school system features
considerable devolution and our school council is the major management body for
our school. The council (which has a majority of parent members) deals with
bottom line financing, maintenance, curriculum aspects, and some components of
teacher assessment and selection. With this extensive involvement in the
school, it is interesting to note that at the AGM, we are usually hard pressed
to get a quorum (24) of parents (from a thousand students). Parents collectively
do not see schools as their responsibility. Further, parents with the
professional skills needed to properly manage the council business often make
it clear that their skills are not available gratis when they can obtain
consultation fees elsewhere.
The same submission conceded however that there were some
benefits, to parents, from devolution.
However, it must be said that the
devolution process has led to a greater parental involvement in school
management. This has been attended by a corresponding reduction in services to
schools by the NT Gov.
Devolution has been promoted as a
means of encouraging parental involvement in school management and decision
making but because it has been accompanied in some schools by a decline in
government resourcing its effect has tended to be to limit parental involvement
to fund raising. Far from enhancing parent - teacher relationships, this
additional burden serves only to increase pressure on both parents and
teachers. This process is most advanced in Victoria. It is no coincidence
therefore that most of the Committee's evidence about its adverse consequences
also originated in Victoria.
Parents involved in fund-raising
projects in the past did not have the same expectations placed on them as the
current situation requires.... Today, schools publish the amount of funds they
expect their fund-raising body to raise and where the funds will be allocated.
Pressure on both parents and school community members to achieve these goals,
the introduction of corporate sponsorship and school fees to try to bridge the
gap, adds stress to teachers involved in fund-raising committees. Some parent
groups feel that the school is placing unreasonable demands on them to raise
funds, pay school fees and door knock local businesses to try to gain
sponsorship or donations.
... the Voluntary Parent contribution has
become a necessary payment and schools are requesting subject levies for core
subjects, especially at VCE level. Parents are being required to organise a
payment schedule if they are unable to pay these monies in full. Some schools,
struggling to balance operating budgets, are subtly or blatantly pressuring
parents to sign their EMA cheque over to the school to pay outstanding fees.
The factors influencing parents' attitudes to teachers, like
those influencing attitudes in the community more generally, are to some extent
beyond teachers' control. But some initiatives can be taken by teachers, or
indeed by supportive parents. These relate to improving communication between parents
and teachers and to increasing parental involvement in schools. Currently the
degree and quality of such involvement is very variable but, on the basis of
evidence provided to the Committee, it would seem to be generally inadequate.
There is considerable evidence that parents are not satisfied
with the depth of the dialogue that takes place between home and school.
The results of interviews with parents of children at
Townsville High School conducted by the staff of the School of Education at
James Cook University, for example, were similar to views expressed in other
submissions and in the general literature. Parents reported high levels of
satisfaction with teachers at Townsville High School but high levels of
dissatisfaction with parent -teacher communication.
parents found communication with the school difficult and in important respects
school reports were brief and uninformative: that information concerning
subject choices was inadequate and the decisions often taken prematurely.
routine parent-teacher interviews rushed and out of routine interviews
difficult to arrange; it was difficult to be sure decisions made by parents,
often in discussion with their children, were taken into consideration.
One member of a school council with 'an ideological
commitment to state education' and 'a belief that teachers have a very
difficult role to perform' wrote of her dissatisfaction with her experiences on
the council in the following terms:
It is also obvious that teachers have never felt that they
should be accountable or answerable in any way to the school community. Any
challenge or criticism is taken personally so that any attempts to look at an
issue objectively become impossible. This is where the lack of professionalism
and the resistance to any form of responsiveness to community expectations is
A number of reasons have been suggested
for the failure to develop adequate links between teachers and parents. These
difficulty of communicating with a diverse, multicultural parent body
preparation and training of teachers for communicating with parents
by teachers that parental involvement in school policy and curriculum
development might usurp rather than complement their role
of time and the pressure of immediate priorities for schools and parents
of a real commitment by educational bureaucracies.
On this issue the noted Canadian educationalist, Professor
Andy Hargreaves concludes:
The new relationships that teachers are having to form with
parents is one of the greatest challenges to their professionalism in the
Improving Links with Parents
Given the joint responsibility of teachers and parents for
successful educational outcomes, how might teachers improve links with parents?
The Schools Council emphasised the importance of regular and
accurate reporting to parents.
The Council believes that much greater attention should be paid
by schools to their processes of face-to-face and written reporting of student
activities and achievements. This reporting should be accurate, honest and
detailed and be in terms of what parents want to know rather than what teachers
think they should know.
A number of submissions also referred to the importance of
reporting to parents.
Reporting to parents to be improved, parents are treated as
though they can't be trusted with real information about their own children.
They have more right to this information than teachers and other service
providers. Currently school reports resemble smokescreens which prevent parents
knowing important information that they should be acting on.
The Committee recognises that some schools have
comprehensive reporting mechanisms in place. Others do not. If these schools
were able to improve their reporting arrangements to parents, and thus to
strengthen communications between teachers and parents this would be a
worthwhile investment of time and effort. This is also an initiative within the
control of individual schools.
Parents can also assist in improving links with teachers and
in ensuring that the value of their work is more widely understood. Several
recent parent initiatives have been reported in the literature,
such as International Teachers Day (ITD) and the National Excellence in
International Teachers Day began three years ago. It is
organised jointly in Australia by the NSW Parents Council, the Federation of
Parents and Citizens Associations and the Council of Catholic School Parents.
It holds events in communities and schools, such as breakfasts cooked for
teachers by parents, speeches in appreciation of their work etc. Such events
provide perfect media opportunities, the potential of which has not yet been
fully explored. The primary purpose of ITD is to publicly recognise the work of
teachers and, in this way, to contribute to improving the status of teachers in
the community generally and among parents in particular.
The National Excellence in Teaching Award scheme began four
years ago. It was an initiative of the Australian Scholarships Group, which was
concerned about the negative images of the teaching profession being portrayed
in the media. Nominations for primary teachers are submitted by parents, while
both parents and students can nominate secondary teachers. Regional and
national awards are presented and to date more than 6,000 teachers have been
nominated for consideration. The main aim of the awards is to publicise good
teaching practice and to overcome negative community perceptions of teachers.
In the last few years the awards have received increasing publicity. They are a
good example of positive media portrayals of teachers.
Around the country there are local parent initiatives with
similar aims to the national schemes referred to above. The Parent Advisory
Committee (PAC) at Brigidine College in Randwick is an example of such a group.
It informs parents about school and broader educational developments, maintains
links between community, parents and teachers, promotes a positive image of
teachers in the community and supports teachers in their work. A former
president explained this latter aspect of its work as follows:
The PAC group tried for example, to acknowledge teachers by
sending flowers, cards or giving chocolates after an open day or following
other events where teachers had put in a lot of extra work, well beyond the
call of duty. Teachers can get rundown and depressed and wonder if what they
are doing is worth it so we felt it important to look for opportunities to say
A more focussed initiative is run by the South Australian
Association of School Parents' Clubs Inc.
SSASPC, together with other parent organisations in South
Australia, runs information sessions for parents on statements and profiles and
on assessment and reporting, so parents know what pressures teachers are under.
Quite often you get parents who are not otherwise involved in the school but
they want to know what is being taught to their children within the curriculum.
I believe this way we can help alleviate some of the problems that teachers
have, because parents become aware of the pressures the teachers are under and
why they have to do it. It is not something that the teachers have decided to
do; it is something that comes from the system.
In the Committee's view, small scale initiatives of this
kind are likely to prove beneficial to teachers and parents alike. If they were
more widely known they might be adopted by more parent groups. Publicising such
initiatives could be part of any media campaign designed to improve the status
The Committee received only limited input directly from
students, notably public hearing witnesses from Ascot Vale Primary School in
Victoria and from five high schools in the Brisbane area. These students were
generally very supportive of teachers. Being closer to the action than parents
or members of the general community they were also much more aware of the
complexities of teaching. They did not agree with the stereotypical view of teachers
as working short hours, having long holidays and generally enjoying an easy
life. They acknowledged the high levels of stress suffered by some teachers and
also remarked upon the negative portrayal of teachers in the media. They
considered teachers were generally undervalued and underpaid.
The following excerpts from the Ascot Vale and Brisbane
public hearings provide a summary of the views expressed.
Teachers are one of the most important things in your life. I
think teachers should be rated higher than they are rated now. I think most
people do not want to be a teacher because the pay is too little and they have
so much stress on them. The hours are pretty long, and they do not get the
respect they should be getting.
... it is a hard job. It is a job that the teacher takes home.
For instance, a mechanic will work on a car while he is at work, but a teacher
takes home students' problems and their own problems. I think there is a deal
of psychology in teaching these days. There is a higher level of commitment.
These views were repeated in a submission from a Year 11
Victorian student who conducted a survey of 70 fellow students in Years 8, 9,
11 and 12. She found that teachers were well respected by their students (70%),
were considered hard working (81%), helpful (87%) and good at their subject
Most of the students surveyed would not consider a teaching
career because of the difficult and stressful nature of the job.
A number of reasons are given for this lack of interest [in
teaching as a career] and the most commonly occurring is the conditions that
teachers endure (51%). Students identify stress, difficult kids and excessive
workload as some factors contributing to their decision that teaching offers
unacceptable conditions of work. Accordingly teaching rates poorly as a first
preference career choice. 99% overall are not interested.
Of the small sample of students whose parent were teachers (23%
overall), none would choose to follow in their parents footsteps.
The reluctance of the children of teachers to enter the
profession was reported in a number of submissions.
It is significant that few children of teachers are interested
in becoming teachers - their exposure to the workload and the stress of the
position, and the comparatively low salary, given the qualifications and
responsibilities, are often mentioned as reasons.
All of this evidence suggests that students are much more
perceptive about the role and value of teachers than teachers realise. However,
the Committee recognises that not all students would hold the views expressed
in evidence. Students' views might be expected to reflect the broad spectrum of
views evident in the community and, more particularly, the views of their
A submission from a Victorian country high school teacher
reported the result of a survey of 48 of her students whom she questioned about
their views on teaching as a career. They were remarkably similar to those
expressed directly to the Committee, if less circumspect.
My impression of wages/working conditions for teachers is that
they SUCK. You can earn more if you're a garbo.
Public schools have some fairly shocking facilities, due to
government funding. Science facilities are bloody shocking, here, anyway. Why
would a young, energetic person want to teach Science in an environment where
magnets don't attract or repel and compasses can't tell north from south?
Something needs to be done. Information is supposed to be the
currency of the future, and if we don't have anyone to teach us information,
we're not going to be very rich.
A number of submissions from teachers commented on the
extent to which students' attitudes are shaped by the generally low regard in
which education is held in Australia. Several teachers expressed dismay at
students' emphasis on their rights without due regard to their
responsibilities. This resulted in an undermining of all authority figures,
including teachers, and the perception, by students, that the primary role of
schools is to entertain rather than to educate.
The more strongly these somewhat selfish attitudes are held
by students the lower is their regard for teachers, and the less likely they
are to participate constructively in classroom activities. Indeed, they are
more likely to disrupt their fellow students.
One of the themes that came up in our discussions was a concern
about a lack of respect for the teacher - a lack of respect for authority. It
is a societal problem, but one that is particularly focused in schools.
...- we do find it increasingly difficult, even our schools, to
get respect for authority as teachers have traditionally come to expect it.
I am at pains to point out that I am not talking about students
sitting up in rows and saying, "Three bags full, sir,' sitting in nice
neat rows.... I am talking about questioning of individual teachers by
individual students of collective decisions for the benefit of the group, which
teachers have to do all the time.
What has not been sufficiently acknowledged is that school is an
old fashioned compulsory institution that requires work and cooperation from a
clientele who have grown up in a culture which values individual freedom and
choice far more highly than the satisfaction of hard work well done or any
other aspects of the work ethic. School can not simply turn itself into
something jazzily up to date that will be attractive to children who are
compelled to attend it by law, just because they are children. Compulsion and
confinement can never be as attractive as freedom. Work can never be made as
attractive as leisure.
There is a cultural dimension to this too. In cultures where
education is more highly valued than in Australia, students are more highly
motivated to learn and hold teachers in higher regard.
Experience with learners from Asia and other parts of the world
demonstrates that Australian students do not make the same amount of effort to
acquire knowledge, skills and good study habits as students from other
countries. Indeed the principal difference between teaching mainstream students
and recently arrived or foreign students ...is that the non-Australians accept
the role of student and respect the requirement of the teacher to do the set
work to the best of their ability and the Australians, in the majority, do not.
The school I am at now... has an Asian component of at least 20
per cent or 25 per cent, which brings a strong emphasis on Confucian values to
the school. These values include respect for teachers and education.
Many students, like their parents, consider the primary
function of schools is to ensure that they are able to get jobs when they
leave. They also recognise that many will not obtain work. In this situation
they may see schools, and therefore teachers, as irrelevant.
Earlier generations could see that education was valuable
because it led to a job and a secure future. There is no such guarantee now. Education
is not perceived to be intrinsically valuable, hence the work of teachers is
Many young people who would previously have left school
after Year 10 now remain there for a further two years in the hope that this
will improve their job prospects. (Retention rates peaked in 1992 at 82% for
Years 11 and 12. They have declined slightly since then to 77% in 1996. See
Chapter 8.) Introduction of the Common Youth Allowance will increase the number
of students remaining at school by about 12,000, on government estimates.
They are often there for lack of any viable alternative rather than through
choice. However, positive developments such as more relevant curriculum and
more congenial approaches to teaching and learning have also played a part in
encouraging students to remain at school.
Many students who feel compelled to remain at school are
resentful, alienated and lack motivation. While their cynicism is
understandable their presence in schools can exacerbate student - teacher
tensions and increase pressure on teachers. This is particularly the case in
schools which have been slow to adapt their organisation and curriculum to the
needs of a more diverse post-compulsory student population.
One of the most intractable problems faced by teachers today is
the large number of disaffected youth who do not want to be at school at all
and who, in a previous generation would either have been working or in an
In extreme cases, student alienation manifests itself in
violence against teachers and their property. The scale of such violence is
difficult to determine because reporting is not mandatory. For this reason
available figures are likely to underestimate the extent of the problem. This
certainly is the view of the State School Teachers' Union of Western Australia
(SSTUWA), which conducted surveys of physical, verbal and property violence
against teachers in Western Australian government schools in 1993, 1995 and
The 1996 survey (based on survey responses from 161 of
Western Australia's 750 government schools) found that although there was a
steep decline in reports of verbal assault over the period concerned, physical
assaults increased, as did damage to teachers' property.
The percentage of schools reporting more than 20 physical
assaults has increased from 2.8% in 1993 to 3.7% in 1996 and the percentage of
schools reporting zero results has decreased over the period 1993-1996.
...the level of physical assaults reported by primary and
pre-primary schools is of great concern to teachers. ... Although five and six
year olds may not be physically strong, they can inflict a lot of damage by
using objects such as chairs and tables as missiles.
...There has been a significant increase in the number of days
reported as being lost from work due to all forms of assault with 134.5 days
reported for 1995 and 341.5 for 1996.
The incidence of theft and damage to teachers' personal property
appears to be on the increase in the primary and pre-primary sector. ... 92% of
senior high schools report damage to teachers' personal property.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the incidence of violence
is small and that our schools are relatively safe for both teachers and
students. However, the Institute of Criminology in 1993 estimated that between
5,000 and 6,000 teachers were assaulted each week in Australia.
Some teachers recounted to the Committee their own experiences of violence in
My submission was based on my personal experiences - a lot of
them as a reading/resource teacher in a senior high school. I talked about the
violence. I had been punched, spat at, sworn at on a daily, if not hourly,
... it is a constant threat. It is not just the fact that I was
once punched and twice spat at, but it is a constant threat.
Where violence occurs, its effect on the teachers concerned
can be very damaging and long term. The SSTUWA report notes that teacher
victims of violence and assault claimed to have received inadequate support
from the Western Australian Education Department and, in many cases, from their
Most teachers who discussed the issue of violence against
teachers wanted greater authority to remove students from mainstream classes -
both for the benefit of the disruptive students themselves but, more
importantly, for the benefit of other students in the class. They favoured the
provision of alternative teaching arrangements - with adequate resources -
rather than expulsion.
Some school systems are re-examining their response to
violent students. In Queensland, for example, government schools suspended more
than 10,000 students and expelled 674 in 1996
but expulsion was a cumbersome process requiring ministerial approval and
suspensions were limited to a maximum of five days. Since 1997 principals have
been granted authority to suspend students for up to 20 days - during which
they are required to undertake special programs - and to expel those older than
15 without departmental approval.
At present it is generally very difficult to remove
disruptive students from schools, especially in the state sector. Students are
fully aware of the lack of adequate sanctions against those who exhibit
unacceptable behaviour. This undermines teachers' authority and status. Some
students have resorted to litigation in response to schools' attempts to expel
It is becoming common place for students who are suspended or
expelled from the school for serious breaches of discipline to return the next
day with a letter of demand from a lawyer. These letters from their solicitors
state that the school must take these students back or the school would be
One response to higher retention rates and the presence in
the post compulsory years of increasing numbers of students who do not intend
to proceed to university has been greater emphasis on vocational training and
the development of closer links between schools and TAFE. Both of these
approaches have been generally popular with students, who perceive vocational
courses as more relevant to them than the more academic approach traditionally
associated with the last two years of schooling. For these students the focus
on vocational education has not only increased the relevance of school; it is
also likely to have enhanced their perceptions of teachers.
There is a contradiction in teachers' perceptions of their
status. On the one hand, they believe their work is important and they value
teaching excellence in colleagues and strive for it themselves. On the other
hand, they believe that their skills are neither understood nor valued in the
community, which accords them low status. This contradiction is apparent from
Teachers see their status as low, in comparison with that of
other professionals with equivalent qualifications and training. They generally
consider that their status has declined over the last twenty or so years and
that it is continuing to decline. In evidence to the Committee, and in the
general literature, they attribute this decline to many of the same factors as
does the general community. These include:
- the low value placed on education, in its broadest sense
the low status of children
- feminisation of the profession
- low salary
- inadequate career structure
poor working conditions
- inadequate recruitment, training and induction practices
increased work load/ crowded curriculum
increasing proportion of time devoted to non teaching tasks such
litigation and violence
- lack of control over the profession and over their work
negative media portrayal
- lack of support from education departments
- attacks by governments
lack of support and understanding by the general community
- falling entry requirements for teaching, which are both an effect
of declining status and a contributor to it.
Since these factors are discussed elsewhere in the Report
they will not be elaborated upon here.
Rural teachers' perceptions of their status generally
parallel those of urban teachers, but are adversely affected by the particular
difficulties they face. These include: lack of adequate or appropriate
induction; lack of opportunities for professional development; professional
isolation; poor housing when compared with that provided to other professionals
in rural areas and the difficulty of separating public and private life in
small communities. Expectations of participation in out of school activities,
though an issue elsewhere, was a particular concern of rural teachers.
Morale seems low. Teachers feel under-appreciated and some are
begrudging the many extra contributions they make to the communities in which
they teach. They chaff under the fact that the voluntary extra services they
give are now treated as a regular part of their role and attract no special
attention unless they fail to give these services. This feeling must influence
how teachers themselves are now perceiving teaching as a profession.
A number of witnesses referred to the particular
vulnerability of female teachers in rural and remote schools, and to the need
for employers to recognise it by providing extra support.
I think there are issues for young women teachers going out into
the country... which need to be addressed. [These are] to do with safe, secure
and affordable housing and support so that they do not feel isolated and alone.
There was a report in the Australian in March this year that
talked about the major issues facing rural women teachers, for example, in
isolated and remote areas. In particular, they mentioned the difficulty of
keeping female principals in schools in the tropical areas of Australia. The
main reasons cited by women interviewed in this report were a lack of
acceptance by some local communities of women in leadership positions; a sense
of personal or professional isolation; safety and security issues; poor quality
accommodation and a lack of adequate child-care facilities.
The community view of the status of individual teachers
reflects the status of the school in which they work. Teachers at some private
schools have higher status than teachers at public schools.
It is a very dangerous area to generalise in, Senator, but I
think that generalisations can be made... If I have to come down on one side or
the other, I certainly think teachers in independent schools are afforded more
status and respect by parents and students alike.
Among teachers there does not appear to be any major
difference in perception of their status between teachers in private and
teachers in public schools.
Our view is that teachers regard themselves as belonging to a
profession, and it is a national profession. When they pick up the newspaper
and read statements that are critical of their work and the work of schools. I
do not think that, if they are in a non-government school, they somehow divide
themselves off from their colleagues in the public sector.
There were a number of indications in evidence to the
Committee of teachers' poor self image and defensiveness about their
profession. A number explained how, at public functions, they did not reveal
In many instances I best describe my occupation to other people
as "I'm just employed as a public servant." Such is the way teachers
are perceived by the community.
Of particular concern is the fact that some teachers say
they hesitate to reveal their occupation in public because of the negative
reaction that can occur, while some principals admitted that they only admit to
being a teacher in such circumstances.
Others made the point that they did not recommend teaching as a career to
either their children or their students.
This teacher of 30 years experience has strongly discouraged his
children from following in his professional footsteps in the belief that
teaching is a declining profession from a number of indicators and there are
many more careers offering far greater rewards in terms of financial returns,
recognition, value, job satisfaction and social status.
...whereas only a few short years ago, I would have highly
recommended teaching as a career path for any of my students with academic
ability, empathy and integrity, now I would not do so.
We know that in Australia 52 per cent of teachers, if given
a choice, would move to other professions.
We also know that large numbers retire at the earliest opportunity. These
figures give some indication of the extent of teacher dissatisfaction.
The Countervailing View
It would be misleading to paint a totally bleak picture of
teachers' perceptions of their status. Positive views were held by many
teachers, as the following contributions at public hearings attest.
There is an enormous amount of high quality work taking place in
schools by teachers, in faculties by teacher educators that this country ought
to be proud of and should do a lot more to acknowledge than it does.
Teachers are professionals who do a job for kids. I feel I do my
job well, and so do many other teachers, but we need support from the top. Only
when this support, resources and a review of education occurs can we be seen as
unlimited in what we can teach and contribute to learning. We need to think
about [that] now in order to plan for the future of education. Universities and
schools are doing this, and the passion is out there; it just needs to be
There was general agreement in evidence to the Committee
that teachers considered their work was not understood, not valued and not
adequately remunerated, but at the same time many were keen to point to its intrinsic
rewards. These are what attracted them to teaching in the first place and
what keeps them in it despite the external factors which inhibit job
satisfaction and increase stress.
I stress that teacher perceptions of their accorded status is
quite distinct from teacher perceptions of the importance of their role, and we
certainly share with teachers a belief in the real importance of teaching as a
Dr Steve Dinham, in describing the findings of his study of
made this point very strongly.
When we asked people what satisfied them most in teaching,
overwhelmingly it was helping students, pupil achievement, their own
professional self-growth, getting through to somebody, helping them overcome
problems, working with colleagues. That was remarkably strong and consistent.
Other teachers made similar observations.
Good teaching is about moments... It is about the moment when
you actually surprise a child into doing something that they thought they could
not do. A good teacher tries to do that all of the time.
Even those teachers, quoted above, who had advised others
not to become teachers, still derived pleasure and satisfaction from this
aspect of their work.
[My recommendation against teaching] ..is in spite of an
enduring love of working with children and joy at observing them inquire, learn
and develop positive attitudes despite the range of backgrounds they come from.
At the outset I would like to stress that I love teaching and
regard it as a privilege to learn with the fine young people I have contact
with in my daily work. However...
One of the major contributors to teachers' perception of
their low status is what they see as a lack of understanding, appreciation and
support for their work on the part of the general community. The Dinham study,
among others, disputes their assessment of the situation and argues that in
fact community perceptions are much more varied and often much more positive
than teachers themselves recognise.
The poor way teachers perceive they are regarded by
society is particularly worrying. It is possible that teachers are probably
harder on themselves in this respect than society is generally, a phenomenon
that indicates some deep seated problems within the profession. There is thus
the need to take steps to restore teacher pride and confidence even before
improving teacher status is contemplated.
The Australian Teaching Council reached a similar
conclusion, as did a number of witnesses.
Teachers think well of themselves and of the work they do. But
they are convinced that generally other people do not share that sense of a
difficult job well done. There is, therefore, a distinct feeling of ambivalence
amongst teachers as to their role and worth in society.
... compared with other countries, Australia has a very high
credibility with its teaching profession overseas, particularly because of the teaching
skills people have today. But it is the perception of the Australian society,
and certainly the perception of teachers themselves, that the status of their
profession is diminishing greatly.
At least one submission pointed to teachers' negative assessment
of their status as a self fulfilling prophesy: the more they projected this
image, the wider its acceptance in the general community, which in turn fed
upon it in making its own assessments.
The status of teachers is to a large degree determined by the
status teachers afford themselves. If teachers have a negative opinion of their
own situation then it will be communicated to the students, their parents and
to the wider community very quickly.
Teachers' perceptions of their status might be enhanced were
they more aware of the degree of support they enjoy in the general community.
But teachers, like everybody else, are influenced by the media in this respect.
And they have not in general been good advocates of their cause. While teachers
themselves place a high value on their skills their perceptions of their status
appear to be inextricably linked to community perceptions. It is therefore
unlikely that they will improve until favourable community perceptions are more
widely recognised. However, the Committee anticipates that the establishment of
a national teaching body (as recommended in Chapter 2) will enhance teachers'
status and their perception of their status by giving them greater
control of their profession and by providing a national body to speak on their
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