Perceptions of the Status of Teachers

Publication Details

This report is part of a series of reports carried out for the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Teachers Council as part of the Teacher Status Project.

Author(s): D. Hall and B. Langton, Research Solutions.

Date Published: January 2006

Executive Summary

This report details the findings of a two part market research project, commissioned to provide an understanding of the public’s perceptions of teachers and teaching, and how this impacts on the profession’s ability to attract and retain good teachers within the profession. The project specifically explores the issue of teacher status, its importance and its impact.

Phase 1: Summary findings from focus groups

The first phase comprised 12 focus groups with people ranging from 12 year old students intending to go into tertiary study, through to parents of tertiary students, and business career influencers. In total some 95 people participated in the research, which was conducted in Auckland and Napier.

The purpose of this phase was primarily to inform the second phase of this project – that is, to provide a clear understanding of how status is interpreted and articulated by the New Zealand public, and what the range of opinions and attitudes are in regard to teaching as a career.

Teaching did not feature as a high status profession or occupation in any of the focus groups. The most high status professions (identified from a given list of 36 different occupations) were…

  • Politicians, lawyers and professional sportspeople – identified in the top 5 by all segments.
  • Doctors were accorded a high level of status as well, though the young people and students attributed this status to specialists, while the career influencers gave GPs greater status than specialists.
  • In addition to these….
    • Young people accorded high status to business owners, diplomats & actors;
    • Parents accorded high status to diplomats, pilots and architects;
    • And career influencers accorded high status to actors (like the young people), architects (like the parents) and scientists.

An examination of the discussions relating to status shows that there are three primary drivers of status – power, money and fame. Two other factors have secondary influence: the amount of training / skill / expertise required, and the extent to which the career has an influence on other people’s lives. However, these two secondary factors do not deliver status unless they result in a high level of power, money or fame.

This is the reason why teachers do not have high status. Although they are recognised as having to be well trained and highly skilled, and are seen as being hugely influential on society in the future, neither of these factors results in them being powerful, famous or rich.

On the positive side, however, there was no evidence in the discussions to support the idea that this lack of status necessarily deters people from becoming teachers. There was a view amongst some group participants that it is only the ‘bad’ teachers who are attracted through the power-driven status element in particular (teaching gives them the feeling of power over the children).

Within the teaching profession, status appeared to be accorded in terms of the level / age of the children being taught. Secondary teachers appeared to have greater status than primary ones, who in turn have greater status than early childhood teachers. There are a variety of reasons given for this (not all accurate in reality), including beliefs that higher level teachers get paid more, need more training, have a more difficult job, and are more likely to be male (status being more readily attached to jobs that men do).

Overall teaching is seen as a valuable and honourable profession – but neither of these delivers status. There is however an opportunity for individual teachers to gain status if the profession highlights its top performers (in the same way that individual sports coaches gain status because of their leadership and performance outcomes).

In the main, teachers are admired, commended, valued, trusted, respected (on an individual basis if they’re good) – but from the perspective of the focus groups, not granted overall respect as a group, and definitely not accorded similar levels of status as the high status professions listed.

Because teaching is such an exposed profession, there are relatively few influences on people’s perception beyond their direct experiences with teachers themselves. Almost no other career choice is as well known and well understood – everyone has been through the school system, so believes they have an intimate knowledge of what teachers do.

The pros and cons of teaching are therefore readily at hand to anyone considering this as a career. On the positive side, the role itself and what it stands for is the primary attraction (to those attracted) – the opportunity for a personally rewarding, secure job that influences both individual children, and the future society that we all live in.

On the negative side, schools are seen as being a negative environment in which to work, with badly behaved children, unsupportive parents and a system that does not allow teachers to do their best work. Teachers themselves are seen as being negative about teaching, due to workloads, safety issues and lack of a system that rewards good teachers for remaining in teaching (as opposed to moving into management).

Focus group participants felt that a number of factors straddle the pros and cons of teaching. These include….

  • Career development opportunities – some see it as a dead end job, while others value it as a career that you do for the rest of your life;
  • Working with kids – clearly some are attracted to this, while others can think of nothing worse.
  • Pay – there were strongly divergent views on whether teachers are well paid or poorly paid, with these tending to depend both on school level that the teacher was teaching at, and on the person’s context.
  • Power – the ability to influence lives was not always seen as a positive. Some are aware that teachers can also have a negative influence, and see this as too big a responsibility.

These conflicting views – the important, valued fulfilling role versus the stressed, unsupportive and in some cases poorly paid environment – appear to lead people to be outwardly positive about those making a decision to become a teacher, while inwardly often questioning the wisdom of the decision.

The main exception to this was young people themselves, who appear to feel that because they are still (or were recently) at school, it’s okay to express their dislike of schools and teachers, and remind any friends considering teaching of how bad the environment actually was when they were there.

Apart from teachers themselves – clearly the dominant influence – the media was the only other influence identified (generally negative) on how people perceive teachers. They did, however, identify a potentially positive role for the media in promoting specific careers, often talking about the programme CSI as making forensic science appealing to them or their children. The lack of even fictional positive teacher role models in our media (particularly television) seemed to the researchers to be a barrier to attracting more people into the role.

Compared to the past, people feel that career choices have become dramatically more difficult, with the primary drivers for this being….

  • A lack of clear direction from parents and others. In the past, career decisions were much more directed, whereas today, kids are encouraged and supported to believe they can do anything, and do whatever they want to do.
  • Student loans have meant that the cost of making the wrong decision is higher – and therefore the decision is often deferred for the option of either travelling for ‘now’ experiences, or working for ‘now’ money.

Feedback on (and from) career advisers highlighted an unwillingness to specifically direct young people on any particular course, rather talking about helping them to understand their passions and interests, reassuring them about their choices and persuading their parents to accept those choices if necessary.

The potential to shift attitudes to teaching over time appears to relate not to raising the status of teachers, but rather to reducing the barriers to teaching. The main barriers identified in the focus groups were….

  • Lack of discipline / poor student behaviour;
  • Risks – both physical and, for men, the risk of false accusations;
  • Pay – addressing any remaining pay issues (people were divided about this), but particularly ensuring that pay takes into account rewards for high performers to keep them in teaching (and not in management);
  • Heavy workloads which result in stress – ideas included employing clerical workers to do administrative tasks, as other professions do;
  • Improving the attitudes and behaviours of teachers themselves – getting the right people into the profession, and keeping them talking positively about the profession.

There is an opportunity around the idea that teachers themselves could or should be identifying potential future teachers, and singling them out for attention and mentoring / direction / guidance while they are still at school – thereby raising the ‘positive press’ for teaching, and highlighting the special skills / personality that it takes to become a good teacher.

These results of the first qualitative phase formed the basis for a much larger quantitative study, designed to quantify the attitudes and influences identified in the first phase of this project.

Phase 2: Summary findings from the survey

The survey interviewed a total of 1145 people, in telephone interviews lasting an average of 26 minutes each. This data is therefore based on nearly 500 hours discussion about the teachers and teaching. For analysis purposes, the sample has been divided into three key subgroups…

  • Youth (n=634) – those aged 12 – 25 years; the sample of these spans young people who are still at school, those in tertiary study and those who are not studying at all;
  • Adults (n=411) – those aged 26 years and older; representative of the whole New Zealand population irrespective of whether or not they currently have children (on the basis that the community’s views about teachers and teaching are important to future teachers, rather than just the views of parents).
  • Employers (n=162) – people who are in senior / ownership / HR roles in a selection of companies, ranging from small companies employing fewer than 10 people, up to large companies employing 50 or more people. The employer sample is skewed somewhat to larger employers, in recognition of the fact that they employ relatively more people.

Note that 62 respondents are in both the 'adult' and the 'employer' segments, being self-employed people in small companies who were accessed as employers through the general population survey.

The issue of status

The focus group analysis identified that status is attributed to occupations on the basis of their ability to deliver fame, fortune or power.

Asked to say what occupations, professions or careers they feel have high status, survey respondents were most likely to talk about doctors and / or lawyers. Politicians were the third most frequently mentioned high status occupation – significantly more so for young people.

Teachers ranked fourth overall, but at a substantially lower level than other high status occupations – mentioned by just one in five people overall compared to around half who talked about doctors as being high status. A small minority, around 7% of people, mentioned teachers when asked to identify low status careers or occupations.

The overall status rating for teachers – an average score out of 10, on a scale from 1=no status at all to 10=extremely high status – was 6.8 for the general adult population, 6.5 for youth and a significantly lower 5.8 for employers. For each group, this rating was below that given to doctors, lawyers, business owners, pilots and politicians. Teachers were accorded similar status on the scale to accountants, nurses, journalists and actors (the latter influenced significantly by youth who felt that actors have high status, as in the focus group discussions).

In both the adult and youth survey samples, teachers are accorded significantly higher status by Māori and Pacific Island people than by Pakeha and other ethnic groups.

Overall, the survey confirms the focus group findings that teaching is not a particularly high status career, and that within teaching, secondary teachers have the highest status rating, and ECE1 teachers the lowest.

The choice of a career

In discussing what aspects they feel are most important to consider when choosing a career, people identified the enjoyment that they would experience, and the pay that they would receive as the two most important factors. Essentially, most people are looking for a career that they enjoy that is well paid.

Secondary influences are job satisfaction (linked to enjoyment, but more about the sense of achievement), interesting work (i.e. not boring or monotonous) and good career prospects. Those in the adult sample also felt that job security was an important issue to consider.

Parents tend to see their children’s career choices as a decision into which they have some input, but they are not the dominant influence. The exception to this was Pacific Island people, where the adults appear to exert greater influence. Youth report taking advice on career choice predominantly from parents and friends, with teachers and career counsellors mentioned at relatively lower levels.

Around six out of 10 people report having seen advertising encouraging young people to become teachers, primarily recalling the Teach NZ campaign, and the fact that it offers grants or scholarships. Television was the most prominently recalled medium for this advertising, with print a secondary medium for those in the adult sample. The reaction to the advertising was predominantly positive.

Perceptions of teachers and teaching

When asked in open-ended format to say what comes to mind when they think about a teaching career, people were more likely to make negative (~50%) than positive (~35%) comments. Predominantly, they talked about the workload and the perceived problems of dealing with students’ behaviour. On the positive side, the major comments were about job satisfaction, and the amount of holidays.

Asked to say what characteristics they feel good teachers should have, people highlighted the importance of having the right personality, well ahead of skills, abilities and training. In particular, they feel that good teachers need to be patient, kind and ‘in touch’ with young people. The most desired ‘skill’ was being able to enforce discipline, followed by the ability to effectively communicate and transfer knowledge (i.e. teach others).

The barriers to teaching

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements about the barriers and attractions of teaching. The primary barriers identified were….

  • Pay : The majority of people in all three segments believe that teachers are not paid enough for the work that they do. Given that pay is one of the two most important influences on career choice, this is clearly a barrier. However, it appears that teaching is not alone in this, as there were significant numbers of people who felt that teachers are relatively well paid compared to the rest of the workforce. A key pay-related issue is the strong view (amongst adults and particularly amongst employers) that outstanding teachers should be paid more than the rest.
  • Lack of authority / student behaviour problems : These two ideas are linked, with overwhelming agreement that teachers do not have the authority that they used to have, and that teaching would be more attractive if children were better behaved. However, people were less willing to say that teachers should have more power to discipline (though there were certainly a large minority who felt this way).
  • Lack of support / appreciation: On balance, people felt that schools do not support teachers enough, and that parents do not appreciate their children’s teachers enough – though interestingly, teachers in the survey sample disagreed with the former statement.
  • Teacher negativity: There was some agreement with the idea (particularly amongst youth, and especially if they were still at school) that teaching would be a more attractive career option if teachers themselves were more positive about it. This supports the focus group finding that the attitudes of teachers themselves constitute a major barrier to attracting young people into teaching as their first career choice.

Factors which were identified as potential barriers by focus group participants, but turned out not to be major ones (from the survey results) included:

  • Stress
    (generally interpreted as resulting from heavy workloads and long hours)

    (people being generally divided as to whether teachers are any more stressed than others in the workforce);
  • Danger
    (people generally disagreed with the contention that teaching is a dangerous occupation, though a small group feel that this is indeed so);
  • Lack of status
    (people generally agreed that teachers have less status than they used to have, but despite this feel that teachers are important and respected).
    Further analysis fails to find substantial links between status and the attraction of a career in teaching.

The attractions to teaching

The major attractions to teaching included….

  • Influence / importance: There is overwhelming agreement that teachers have a huge influence on people’s lives, and that teaching is an honourable, important and respected profession. Almost everyone agrees that teaching is a career where you can make a difference, and that it is rewarding because you are shaping young minds. These are potentially the greatest attractions to a career in teaching, but only for those who feel that they would find teaching enjoyable (the other major influence on career choice).
  • Job security: A significant secondary influence on career choice, job security was seen as assured for teachers – not only in terms of having a job for life, but also being something that you can do for your whole working life, almost irrespective of where in the world you are.
  • Wider opportunities: Although opinion on the opportunity for career progression within teaching was divided, there was general agreement that teachers have plenty of opportunities in the wider workforce, and even stronger agreement that teachers gain skills that they can use in many other jobs.
  • Diversity: Finding an interesting job that is not boring was seen as one of the secondary influences on career choice, and there was widespread agreement that teaching would never be boring.

Factors identified as potential attractions of teaching, but which did not appear to be so included….

  • Holidays : Although mentioned as one of the main advantages of teaching (at an unprompted level), the analysis shows that when specifically asked, people are generally divided about whether or not this is the case. The data suggests that long holidays are a factor used by those who are NOT attracted to teaching to explain why others would want to do a job which they believe is so unappealing.
  • Hours of work : Contrary to what some may think, people completely rejected the idea that teachers work shorter hours than most other working people.
  • Easy & attractive work: The idea that teaching is an easy job compared to others was roundly rejected, even when specifically applied to primary teaching. Notably, people also reject the idea that ECE teachers are more like babysitters. People also tend to reject the idea that most people would want to be a teacher if they could, highlighting their overwhelming view that the good teachers are the ones that have a passion and interest for teaching.

Importantly, there was a generally consistent opinion about the barriers and attractions of teaching, almost irrespective of how the respondents felt about teaching as a career for themselves.

Overall, they see teaching as an attractive career because it offers job security, diversity, the opportunity to make a difference and opportunities in the wider workforce.

However, they also see teaching as an unattractive career because the pay is not commensurate with the effort (though this is not a factor that they attribute solely to teaching), but also because outstanding performance is not rewarded. They see difficult student behaviour and perceived lack of support for teachers from schools and parents as major problems, and feel that teacher negativity about their situation undermines the attraction of the career.

The appeal of a teaching career

Asked to rate the attraction of a career as a teacher on a scale from 1=completely unappealing to 10=extremely appealing, people tended to rate teaching around the midpoint of the scale on average, with adults slightly more positive than youth and employers. ECE teaching and particularly being a school principal were rated less appealing than primary or secondary teaching.

In the context of a range of different careers measured, teaching was rated as less appealing on average than being a business owner (by far the most appealing of the careers canvassed), pilot or medical doctor, but ahead of other options. Interesting, higher status careers such as lawyers and particularly politicians were rated less appealing than teaching on average.

The appeal of a teaching career was significantly higher amongst Pacific Island people, and in some cases amongst Māori as well.

The image of teaching vs. other careers

When asked to say which careers they associate with a series of key attributes relating to the influences on career choice, teaching was most likely to be associated with having plenty of holidays, making a difference in society, being a job you can be proud of doing, providing great job satisfaction, and being something you can do anywhere in the world.

However, when these views are mapped against the attributes associated with other occupations, we find that the model of status developed in the focus groups is supported, in that careers are primarily differentiated on the basis of ‘fame’, and then on the basis of power and pay. The primary view positions teaching amidst other low status occupations such as plumbers, nurses, factory workers and builders – the common theme being that they are neither famous, nor powerful nor are they considered to be very highly paid.

Consideration of teaching

In addition to the 14% of adults and 4% of youth respondents who have already decided on a teaching career (some already teaching), a further 38% and 46% respectively reported that they had considered teaching as an option.

This high figure may well be influenced by the significant level of exposure to teaching beyond the classroom, with around half of all respondents saying that they have teachers in their family.

There is some indication that those who consider teaching do so often as a ‘fall back’ option, with greater than average agreement that teaching is a good career to fall back on if your first choice doesn’t work out. Friends stand out as a major influence on those who considered teaching as a career.

Despite the high level of consideration of teaching, just 6% of adults and 5% of youth were identified as being readily available to the idea of a teaching career, with a further 18% / 13% ambivalent about the idea. Together these two groups can be thought of as ‘open’ to teaching. The proportion open to teaching was significantly higher amongst Pacific Island adults, and slightly higher amongst Pacific Island youth.

In the youth sample, it was significantly higher amongst women than amongst men.

The presence of preschool children in the household was a significant indicator of potential teachers, with a rise in potential also in the 31 – 40 year age group. However, potential teachers were significantly more likely than average to be currently working in unskilled occupations.

Identifying the drivers

The data shows that the links between status and appeal of teaching are relatively weak, albeit with a statistically significant correlation between the two (which is not necessarily causal).

Driving status

Further analysis shows that the perceived lack of status of teachers can be linked to perceptions relating to pay- the low salary being a significant disadvantage, and the perception that teachers are not paid enough for the work that they do. The perceived need for good teachers to be patient and kind further undermines the status of the profession.

High status is supported by the view that teaching offers diversity and opportunity (but not, interestingly, that it makes a difference). The idea that teaching is important and respected also supports status.

Driving appeal

The apparent drivers of appeal are significantly different from the drivers of status. They specifically relate to the opportunity for teachers to make a difference, by being involved with children and shaping their future. Essentially, teaching is appealing to people who want to work with children, to educate them and make society better as a result. Those who are motivated primarily by pay are less likely to find teaching appealing (leading to the correlation with status where it exists).

Teaching is appealing to those who feel it is interesting, enjoyable and offers plenty of variety and opportunity. This variety is an important (and perhaps unrecognised) element of the appeal of teaching.

Long holidays are NOT part of the appeal of teaching – rather they appear to be a used as a rationale by those not attracted to the career to explain why anyone would want to teach.

Discipline and behavioural issues are the primary factors undermining the appeal of teaching as a career.

Those identified as potential teachers have an even more refined view of the situation – they particularly value the diversity of teaching, though they do feel that the role is not sufficiently well paid. They highlight the fact that the attraction of teaching relates to the role and what it offers, and that those attracted to this role accept the disadvantages along with the advantages.


Teaching is a career choice which is well understood, with both adults and youth having clear views (although sometimes conflicting) about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the role.

Teaching is not a high status occupation, because despite requiring significant skills and training, and having a major influence on the lives of others, it does not have the ability to deliver fame, fortune or power – the essential elements of status. However, this lack of status does not appear to in any way undermine the attraction of teaching as a career, though there is a link in the area of pay, where those seeking highly paid jobs are less likely to consider a teaching career.

While it lacks status, teaching is nevertheless a highly regarded career, with the vast majority of people agreeing that it is respected, important and honourable. The attractions of teaching are well recognised (irrespective of whether people wish to become teachers or not). These are mainly related to the interaction with children, shaping their future and making a difference to society.

Similarly, the disadvantages of teaching are well recognised (perhaps more so by prospective and current teachers). These relate mainly to the pay situation (including the lack of reward for outstanding performance), and the issues around student behaviour. Interestingly, those still at school are most likely to be deterred from teaching by student behaviour.

The challenge for the teaching profession is not so much in improving the status and / or appeal of teaching as a career, but rather in reducing the barriers such that those who are potentially attracted to the profession are encouraged rather than discouraged from it. Most importantly, the attitudes of existing teachers is a significant barrier to becoming teachers for young people still at school.

In promoting a career in teaching, messages should relate primarily to the extent to which teachers make a difference for students, but also to the fact that the job itself is full of diversity, and never boring.

For future monitoring

This research clearly shows that “status” per se is not an issue for the general public in terms of attracting people to the profession. However, given the focus of the project on evaluating and monitoring the status of teachers (and the fact that this may be important to teachers themselves), we have included the status measures in our recommendations for future monitoring.

In addition to the specific measure of the appeal and status of teaching (the 10 point scale ratings), we recommend that any future monitoring include the questions as to whether people agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Teachers are not paid enough for the job that they do;
  • Teachers are relatively well paid compared to other people in the workforce;
  • Outstanding teachers should be paid more than the rest;
  • Teaching would be a more attractive career if teachers themselves were more positive about it;
  • Teachers have less status in society these days than they used to have;
  • A career in teaching would never be boring;
  • Schools these days don’t support teachers enough;
  • Teaching would be a more attractive job if children were better behaved;
  • Parents these days don’t appreciate their children’s teachers enough.

These statements have been selected as the minimum set recommended (in order to minimise the potential cost of future monitoring). They are chosen on the basis that the current levels of agreement / disagreement are such that movement could be expected should public perceptions of the appeal of teaching improve.

Other measures in this survey which are important – such as the views about the importance of teachers, and the contribution they make to society – are not included in the above list, as public opinion is already so far in agreement with these that they would not be expected to move significantly in the medium term.

Comments in relation to the Kane-Mallon report on the Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching

The Kane-Mallon report2 presents the findings of an exploration of similar issues amongst teachers, school administrators and senior students. There is much in common between the two reports.

Most critically, the Kane-Mallon report highlights teachers poor self-image as a critical factor undermining the ability of the profession to attract and retain quality candidates. Both studies found unequivocally that the “decisions to teach are not influenced by the perceptions of the status of teachers”.

The Kane-Mallon report states that teachers are attracted by “intrinsic motivations of wanting to work with children, contribute to society and do a job that they feel proud of. They were often encouraged by teachers who themselves enjoyed their work”. Although not stated explicitly in that report, it is the enjoyment aspect that is the most important factor in common between the two studies – good teachers, both studies find, are those who enjoy their work and therefore act as positive role models for future teachers. This is highlighted in their report which states…

“…retaining those who have lost their edge, who are less committed and who portray an explicit lack of enthusiasm can impact significantly on ….. the degree to which they are role models for potential teacher candidates”

….and in another comment….

“senior students see unhappy teachers trapped in teaching”.

While the Kane-Mallon report states that teachers feel misunderstood and undervalued, this current study shows that this is in fact a misconception. They state that even in their survey…

“those concerned with school governance and senior students hold teachers in higher regard than teachers perceive them to do”

The wider public survey confirms that people do not believe that teachers work shorter hours than others, they do highlight work load as one of the disadvantages of teaching, and although they associate teaching with having long holidays, they do not see these as one of the major attractions of the profession.

The report also raised the issue of performance based pay and found that although this was not supported by the majority of teachers, it was in fact supported by boards and principals – these reflecting the strong support in the wider community and particularly amongst employers to pay outstanding teachers more than the rest (as found in this report).

Interestingly, one of the recommendations in the Kane-Mallon report related to the appointment of well trained administrators as an “important step” to dealing with workload. This idea was floated in the focus groups also, particularly by business people who simply can’t understand why this has not already happen (in business, all professionals have ‘people’ to do the paperwork!).

Both reports highlight the important role of teachers in promoting the career themselves – and it is in this particular recommendation that the key to attracting future quality candidates, and retaining quality teachers, lies.


  1. ECE : “Early Childhood Education”
  2. Perceptions of Teachers & Teaching; Professor Ruth Kane & Professor Mary Mallon

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