We are fast approaching the end of summer holidays and many teachers are turning their attention to preparing for the start of the school year. Many of the teachers who started their careers in 2017 will not return to the classroom in 2018. In fact, over 40% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Many of those who remain are left feeling burnt out, unsupported and undervalued in their work.
Commentators have suggested learning from countries with better PISA results, such as Finland. They also suggest increasing teacher pay could improve the quality and status of teachers, and result in greater retention of teachers.
There is evidence to support these suggestions. If we look at Finland where teaching is a much higher status profession, this is likely contributed to by the fact all teachers hold Masters degrees. Having similar qualification requirements could be an option for Australia.
Additionally, the status of a profession is linked to the salaries it offers. So, it could be argued increasing teacher pay could result in lifting the status of teaching profession. But it could also attract people for the wrong reasons.
These options could contribute to an improved status for the teaching profession, but they are unlikely to be quick fixes. Our teachers work in very different contexts to their Finnish counterparts.
Also, research tells us teachers don’t enter the profession for pay. They are intrinsically motivated to make a positive difference in children’s lives. We propose better recognition and acknowledgement of the positive impact teachers have in their students’ lives could result in less teachers leaving the profession.
Positive portrayals of teachers
Our recent research was prompted by the disappearance of a recently retired teacher in southern Tasmania, in October 2017. The media attention Bruce Fairfax’s disappearance attracted painted a picture of a teacher who was universally adored by the many staff and students who encountered him in the course of his teaching career of four decades.
In contrast, media discourse about teachers is often negative and tends to attribute all manner of failures to schools and teachers. The portrayals of Bruce held a narrative of gratitude and appreciation at their centre. People shared concrete ways he, as a teacher, had positively influenced their lives. This led us think about the degree to which Bruce had been aware of this gratitude during his lifetime, and how this might have contributed to his work satisfaction, success and longevity as a recently retired career teacher.
Research in England and Norway has noted work satisfaction is crucial for teacher retention. In contrast, Australian research suggests many teachers have become dissatisfied or disenchanted with their work.
If teachers are aware of the positive influence they have on their students and colleagues they might have higher levels of resilience and work satisfaction. They might then be better positioned to withstand the many challenges they encounter and continue in the teaching profession. So how can we better communicate gratitude to and for our teachers?
Gratitude in education
Research into gratitude in education suggests it’s best expressed vocally or through demonstrating appreciation, active relationship building, and changes to attitude.
Appreciation can be expressed by giving genuine compliments and thanks for specific things you have been taught, challenged by or introduced to – be it subject content or broader life lessons. These simple but powerful acts can be done either verbally, or through notes or emails.
Other options could be speaking positively about your teacher to other students, teachers, parents and school leaders. Student-teacher relationships can be built through meeting each other in a space of mutual respect, making the effort to get to know each other as people. Engage teachers in conversations, identify common interests, and give them your full attention when they are talking to you.
We need to shift the status quo in societal perceptions where teachers and the teaching profession are disproportionately downtrodden. Gratitude for and celebration of the accomplishments of teachers is essential to keeping them motivated and engaged in the job for the long term.
Gratitude can be defined as an inner attitude best understood as the opposite of resentment or complaint. Small actions such as greeting teachers warmly, smiling more, and offering to help pack up after a lesson can have a powerful positive influence on teachers and their work satisfaction.
Importantly, research has shown when gratitude is expressed towards others there are mutual benefits for both people. Both experience the relationship is strengthened. In school settings this can lead to improved student-teacher relationships, increased positivity in the learning environment and increased student engagement. These are all potentially important contributors to improving student outcomes and reducing teacher attrition.
If we are to expect good work from teachers, they must be met with proportionate levels of support, value and appreciation to ensure they, like Bruce, can enjoy long and successful careers. We propose when teachers feel valued and are made aware of the gratitude felt by students, staff and parents, they’re more likely to stay in the profession.