Why do teachers choose to be teachers?

It’s the power of the ‘lightbulb moment’ which keeps the vast majority of teachers in the profession - Not a ‘fallback career’ or ‘for the holidays’

New research released Friday 23rd October explores why people choose to go into teaching and remain there, amid growing concerns around teacher shortages. Compiled in partnership by ‘think and action-tank’ LKMco and education company Pearson, it also explores how to attract teachers to work in the areas where they are needed most.

The findings are based on a YouGov survey of over 1000 current teachers in England (including those from Early Years through to Further Education), focus groups and interviews with over 40 teachers and school leaders and an international literature review of existing research on the topic. They conclude that:

The most common reason for going in to teaching, for those surveyed, is that people think they will be good at it - with 93% saying it was an important factor in encouraging them to choose teaching:
  • A desire to make a difference in pupils’ lives and to work with young people also plays a critical role – with 60% and 51% respectively saying these factors were very important reasons. Conversely, only 17% said the longer holidays were.
  • Primary teachers surveyed are particularly motivated by the desire to work with young people (94% of primary teachers compared to 87% of secondary teachers), while secondary teachers are more motivated to join the profession through an interest in their subject (95% of Secondary teachers compared to 83% of Primary teachers).
  • The role of subject interest also varies across subjects – it plays a very important role in the motivations of the vast majority of History(2) (86%), MFL (79%) and Music (81%) teachers’, but is often less important for STEM teachers (eg Maths (59%), ICT (48%), Science (63%)).
Teachers surveyed primarily stay in teaching when they feel they are having an impact, with 92% saying the opportunity to make a difference in pupils’ lives was an important motivation:
  • In interviews and focus groups teachers spoke about the power of ‘lightbulb moments’ and the ‘daily challenge’, which kept the role a ‘living job’ and meant they could see their impact.
  • Practical concerns like holidays and pay became far more important for respondents once they entered the profession, with 65% saying it was an important factor for them staying in teaching, compared to just 52% who said it was important on their initial decision to choose teaching.
There is a sense of disillusionment in the profession, with more than half (59%) of teachers surveyed considering leaving in the past 6 months:
  • Workload is the primary reason for this, with 76% citing this as a reason. Being unhappy with the quality of leadership and management (43%) and insufficient pay (43%) are also important reasons. Poor pupil behaviour is an issue for more than a quarter (27%) of respondents who considered leaving – and this is the case for primary teachers, not just secondary teachers.
  • Much-needed science teachers are most likely to have considered leaving teaching and Maths teachers are the least likely (67% compared to 49%).
Practical concerns about commutability and family location dominate teachers’ decisions about where to teach:
  • Teachers generally stay in the region where they grew up, with 52% of those surveyed saying it was important to be near family.
  • When asked what may encourage them to move, school culture and ethos, commutability and quality of life are the most important factors considered (with 76%, 76% and 75% respectively citing these factors).
Analysis of the research data identified four underlying teacher ‘types’(3):

Policies that target the teacher labour market should take into account the fact that the profession is not homogenous. The report identifies four broad and overlapping teacher types aimed to help policy makers, educationalists and school leaders better understand the school workforce:
  1. Practitioners: these teachers are particularly motivated by a love of their subject and a desire to teach children, and make up around a fifth of teachers
  2. Moderates: these teachers are moderately influenced by a broad range of factors, and make up a quarter of the profession.
  3. Idealists: these teachers want to make a difference to society and make up around a third of teachers.
  4. Rationalists: these teachers tend to carefully weigh up a combination of pragmatic, personal and social-justice related factors. They make up just over a fifth of teachers.

Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK, said:

“This research points to a simple conclusion: teachers want to make a difference for our children; when they feel they can't for whatever reason, we risk losing them from the profession. We need nothing less than a call to action to give them the support they need to make that difference. The government is taking the issue of teacher supply and retention seriously. But the larger conversation about what inspires teachers to join – and stay – in the profession will require hard talking in Whitehall, in teacher training institutions, and in every staff-room across the country.”

Loic Menzies, Director of LKMco, said:

“With an upcoming increase in the school age population and statistics showing that rising workloads are driving teachers away from the profession, it is crucial to understand what will attract teacher to, and keep them in, the profession.

“Teachers are passionate about their job - we found many teachers who had merely intended to dip their foot into the profession soon found themselves ‘hooked’ on a highly varied, deeply rewarding and intellectually stimulating job. It is incumbent on the government and school leaders to make space for teachers to be the best they can be- teachers want to do their job well and want to change lives. It would be a tragedy if an unmanageable workload stood in the way.”

Neil Carmichael MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, said:

“This is a timely discussion as the Education Select Committee prepares to consider the issue of recruitment and retention of teachers. Teachers do want to make a difference in the classroom and it is essential to nurture the best and attract new people with the right mix of qualifications skills and attitude to join a valuable profession”.

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