Keeping educators in class

WITH thousands of teachers leaving the profession each year, educationists gathered at the Varkey Foundation Global Education and Skills Forum 2019 (GESF) in Dubai to look at why teachers leave, and what we can do to make them stay. The hour-long “Keeping Teachers in the Profession” session in March was led by the University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Education (IOE) and chaired by the varsity’s Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research director Martin Mills (pic, first from right).

“We know teachers contribute a lot but we are having trouble attracting talents to the profession. Why don’t people want to be teachers? Why do others stay in the profession for so long? What do we need to prevent young teachers from leaving? How do we get teachers to want to work with children from marginalised backgrounds? These are issues we need to tackle,” he said, when addressing panellists Mott Hall Bridges Academy founder and principal Dr Nadia Lopez, Finland Ministry of Education and Culture (International Relations) director Jaana Palojärvi, and Assoc Prof Jane Perryman and Research Fellow Sam Sims from the IOE.

Here’s what they had to say.

“WE’RE in an impoverished, high-crime area. The challenge is finding educators who can appreciate that it’s not the children’s fault, adapt to the situation and see the students’ potential. Someone has done them a disservice, and it’s our responsibility and calling to do what’s right. You don’t get to earn a paycheck if you’re not helping a child have a better life. I want my teachers to be passionate and creative. I want them to know their kids’ needs. Every child is different.

Teaching isn’t about standardised tests that change every two years because a new textbook contract was signed. It’s a service and a calling. Ask teachers what’s wrong. Why don’t they want to stay in school?

My teachers stay because I fight for them and I’m ready to disrupt the system. I don’t allow textbook companies to dictate what’s happening in my school. I’m here to support the teachers. I go to class and do the work. I make sure I’m an example. It’s unfair to talk about teacher retention when policymakers don’t even know what’s going on in schools.

Teachers want to be valued, respected and heard. But we’re not part of the conversation. One way to keep teachers is to understand them. When we’re talking about teacher retention, we’re talking about lives.

When it comes to budgeting, my teachers come before anything else. I make sure my teachers are paid what they deserve so they don’t have to take on two or three jobs. I don’t want them to sacrifice (time with their) families. We don’t treat teachers with empathy and understanding yet these are the values we want them to teach our kids.”

Mott Hall Bridges Academy founder and principal Dr Nadia Lopez

Lopez was responsible for setting up an inner-city middle school that disrupted the school-to-prison pipeline in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution co-author has appeared on the Ellen Show, visited former US President Barack Obama, and received numerous awards for her work in education.


“TEACHERS we surveyed said they went into teaching to make a difference, to work with kids, and to share their passion for subjects they’re interested in. They were aware of the workload and were more concerned about the management. They didn’t think teaching would be an issue so long as they had support.

So, reasons teachers leave the profession are the target-driven culture and constantly-changing government initiatives. Teaching became more of a box-ticking exercise than doing something for the good of their charges. It took them away from the more creative aspect of why they went into teaching.”

IOE Assoc Prof Jane Perryman

At the UCL, the former secondary school teacher was responsible for research activities within her academic department, as well as doctoral supervision. Her primary research interest is the effect of policy on teachers’ lives, accountability, performance and inspection. She has just completed a project on teacher retention.

“THERE’S no shortage of teachers in Finland. Every teacher has a Masters degree. They’re highly respected and valued. And our teachers enjoy great job satisfaction. It’s an attractive profession. Only one out of 10 applicants is selected at the varsity level to become a teacher so we get the best 10% of students becoming educators.

Teachers must earn a decent wage although the money isn’t the main reason why Finnish youngsters want to become teachers. Teacher salary in Finland is in the middle of the scale if we’re comparing ourselves to other European Union nations. The younger generation value different things. They want freedom at work. They want opportunities to use their capabilities. Money alone isn’t enough. And teaching checks all the boxes. Our teachers choose what materials and methods they want to use in class.

One of the reasons teaching is so popular in Finland is that we engage teachers. It’s not just lip service. We have a very constructive relationship with the teacher union. We may not always agree but we always reach a compromise. Teachers craft the curricular at the school level. They develop their own class work and they determine how they want to evaluate the students. Our teachers are good and we believe in capacity building. This means continuous training and retraining.We build confidence by showing them that they can make a difference. Finland is not really interested in competing with others. It’s more important for us to create equity and to support the weaker ones in our education system.

Finns are extremely rational yet we think outside the box. It’s a weird combination that sets our education apart from high-performing countries like Singapore and South Korea. Twenty years ago, we decided we didn’t need school inspectors. We let teachers do what they want because they are well-educated. We got rid of standardised testing because it didn’t support classroom learning. The Finnish government is not a fan of control. We trust that everyone in society can and will do their jobs well.

But like every other government, we’re facing the challenges of a fast-developing world. I don’t know what the Finnish education will look like 30 years from now, or how the changes will impact the teaching profession. How do we develop teacher competency when we don’t yet know what’s needed? We know that teachers deal with human life and soft skills so these are some things we’re looking at now.”

Finland Ministry of Education and Culture (International Relations) director Jaana Palojärvi

The former Finnish UN Association secretary-general was involved with European Union, UNESCO and Council of Europe matters.

“IN the mid 20th century, teaching was a high-paying job in the public sector. Qualified teachers earned more teaching than if they were working in another profession. But by the turn of the century, the situation had reversed. On average, those with a teaching qualification earn more if they didn’t become teachers.

Teacher salary started to fall behind as new high-paying jobs emerged in fields like banking and life sciences. Someone with a physics degree would get paid £6,500 (RM35,124) more per year on average that a physics teacher. That’s about a quarter of a million pounds gone if you look at how much it would amount to for the entire duration of a career.

So, you’re asking a physics degree holder to sacrifice a lot of money if you tell him to become a teacher instead of a physicist. I believe that teaching is a mission and a calling but it’s the salary that keeps them in the job. In the UK, teacher retention has been falling since 2010. The ones we’re struggling to keep are early career teachers. The problem is worse in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects – especially at the secondary level.

We’re exploring the idea of a one-off retention bonus for teachers in shortage subjects like STEM. When it comes to the decision of whether to stay or leave, early career teachers are more sensitive to pay compared to those who have been in the profession a long time. So, a one-off bonus for the young ones can keep qualified teachers in school. Paying a salary of about 5% more to those who teach subjects where there’s a shortage, is also a choice we are faced with. The question is whether we should pay all teachers the same regardless of the subjects they teach, and face a recurring cyclical shortage of science and math teachers, or pay slightly more to those qualified to teach these subjects and ensure that all students have access to qualified educators.”

IOE Research Fellow Sam Sims

The Teacher Gap co-author is interested in how teachers’ working environments affect their development and retention.