I’ve spent the past two years visiting schools and living with teachers in some of the world’s top performing education systems (according to the PISA tests).
Although I would not for a second suggest that we copy everything these systems do – whether that’s because some things wouldn’t work here or because we wouldn’t want what they have – their example does make a persuasive case for introducing teacher career ladders.
Some countries are lucky. In Finland for example, teachers were seen as nation builders when the country became independent from Russia in 1917, and have been highly respected ever since. Lots of people want to be teachers, so they can be highly picky about who is let into the profession, making the job even more prestigious in a delightful self-reinforcing loop.
Other countries seem doomed to a dismal self-reinforcing loop, where teaching isn’t really that prestigious (standard response at revealing my profession to strangers was ‘oh, you’re brave’), so not enough people apply, standards are forced to drop, and it makes the job even less appealing.
Once you’re in, you can work your socks off or put your feet up, and your pay increases at the same speed, gradually, over many years. Your only hope of a proper pay rise or more responsibility is to remove yourself from the classroom (i.e. stop being a teacher) and go into school management instead. So, what are Shanghai and Singapore doing that makes them so different?
When you first get a job as a teacher in Shanghai, you’re known as a third grade teacher. This doesn’t mean you teach third grade, this means you are a novice. After five years on the job, you have an evaluation, the results of which are based on formal lesson observations, peer evaluations, and a self-evaluation. If you pass, you receive a substantial pay rise, you are promoted to a second grade teacher, and more is expected of you.
To be promoted again to become a first grade teacher after a further five years, you must have supported other teachers, published research on teaching, and passed an evaluation by the district. The pinnacle of the career structure is reserved for just 0.1 per cent of teachers – this is an honour, and you will have a significant role in improving teaching in the schools in your area.
Singapore’s structure is based on a similar idea of having to pass evaluations to be promoted, but in Singapore they recognise that teachers might have different talents, and might want to develop into different roles. So instead of having just one career ladder, they have three. You can pick a particular area (such as teaching reading) and go down the specialist route, you can become an expert classroom practitioner, or you can move into management (the pinnacle of which is to become the Director General of Education for the whole country).
I think this is a very sensible and promising strategy, for five reasons.
1. Recruitment. In many countries, being ‘a teacher’ is not considered to be a prestigious profession, and this can put people with other options off applying. Knowing you could be a ‘master teacher’ or ‘lead specialist’ within a few years though might change your mind – not because they sound fancy, but because these positions are tough to get, so are respected as such.
2. Continual improvement. You are expected to improve in these countries. After five years teaching, you are expected to be at a higher standard than when you started. Quality professional development is offered alongside these structures, and teachers are both motivated to make the most of the opportunities, and know what it is they’re aiming for.
3. Retention. You’re less likely to move out of the classroom or into another industry if you feel you are being challenged, and that there are decent career opportunities and options available to you.
4. Fairness. Dedicated, hard-working teachers won’t get frustrated by seeing lazy but long-serving colleagues getting paid more than them, as the latter won’t move up the career ladder unless they pull their socks up. This could also be a nudge for less motivated teachers to leave the profession.
5. Professionalism. It would give the opportunity for teachers to reclaim their profession as a true profession; one with standards, knowledge and skills that all are expected to have, and one in which established members of the profession (based on their skills not the length of their tenure) are expected to mentor and teach those that aspire to be experts.
I expect one reason other countries have not done this already is to do with teacher unions. If this were implemented all at once, and long-serving teachers faced a pay cut, this would not wash (it would be unfair). But if it were introduced as an opt-in for most teachers, and only as a given for teachers who are new to the profession, this could be a gradual route in to a strategy I think could raise the quality of the teaching profession in many countries.