Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect public perceptions of teachers and the teaching profession, and how were their views and beliefs influenced by media coverage? Researchers in the UK have been exploring these questions, and their findings offer some interesting insights into how society values the profession, and the impact this has on teacher mental health and wellbeing.
The study is part of a larger project called Being a teacher in England during the COVID-19 pandemic, led by principal investigator Dr Lisa Kim and co-investigator Professor Kathryn Asbury from the University of York. They share their findings in a British Educational Research Journal paper co-authored by Keziah Owusu titled The ups and downs in perceived societal appreciation of the teaching profession during COVID-19: A longitudinal trajectory analysis.
Their research involved an initial sample of 24 primary and secondary teachers in mainstream state schools in England. They carried out 54 online interviews at 3 time points: when school buildings were partially reopened for the first time (June 2020), when they were partially closed for the second time (February 2021) and when they were fully reopened for 16 months (July 2022).
Kim says that in the early days of COVID-19 she observed a lot of focus on the implications the pandemic would have for students and their learning, and for their social and emotional outcomes.
‘As someone who researches teachers, particularly teacher effectiveness and teacher wellbeing, I started being concerned about what the pandemic would mean for teachers and what kind of experiences they would have as a result of the pandemic. I thought we really need to hear from the teachers and what's happening on the ground and how they’re coping,’ Kim tells Teacher.
The research findings
Prior to the pandemic, many teachers in England already believed that society did not value their profession. The latest Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that, on average, only 28.8% of teachers in England believed that their profession was valued by society (OECD, 2020).
‘The pandemic, and the way in which teachers were portrayed during it, may have exacerbated these pre-existing negative beliefs, in spite of the enhanced contributions teachers made during this time,’ the researchers write in their paper.
When the data for this study were collected, 3 key themes were identified:
- Initial admiration from local communities progressively waned.
- Continuous government disrespect towards teachers.
- Initial media vitriol towards teachers was sustained.
Initial admiration from local communities progressively waned
Teachers reported that while they initially received positive recognition for their work from parents (evident through gestures such as gift-giving and affirmations), this sentiment waned by July 2020. In fact, they reported both positive and negative interactions with pupils' parents, and that these negative interactions became more prevalent over time.
Continuous government disrespect towards teachers
During their interviews, participants described how an already unsatisfactory relationship between policymakers and the teaching profession was exacerbated by COVID-19's onset. They described instances of government disrespect for the profession in the form of announcements about education that were not rooted in consultation with the profession, were not communicated in a timely fashion, and did not consider how teachers would make them work.
Initial media vitriol towards teachers was sustained
During their interviews at different data collection points, participants found coverage of the teaching profession within prominent UK media sources to be inaccurate, often omitting and undervaluing the genuine perspectives of teachers. However, a distinction was often made between the mainstream media and social media versus parent and public opinion, which were sometimes evident on social media, believed to be influenced by the mainstream media.
The media’s representation of the teaching profession
Kim says that the media’s misrepresentation of the teaching profession during COVID-19 had negative impacts on teacher wellbeing and mental health.
‘The media have inherent power to portray and shape society’s perceptions of various issues. So, whatever is portrayed in the media, it is possible that it has power to shape how people think about those issues,’ Kim tells Teacher.
‘What teachers told us was that they were frustrated that there was an inaccurate portrayal of teachers as lazy and also not working during the first lockdown; that then can shape other people's perceptions of them and expectations of them. This inaccuracy and undervaluing were not helpful for their mental health.’
Regarding participant views on the teaching profession's framing in the press, a predominant response emerged: a fear of the misrepresentation of teachers’ workload within media leading to undervaluing of the teaching profession over time.
One participant said: ‘I think the teachers are, the teaching profession's been looked at kind of, a bit askance at the moment, they're saying, “oh, you're all lazy sods and need to go back to work”. And yeah, which makes me a bit cross, if I'm honest. And yeah, I just, I have this kind of sense that we're going to become scapegoats again for, for everything’.
Participants also reported that the media's portrayal of teachers changed from heroes to villains over time. ‘I think that you're either vilified or you're held up as heroes, and we're not either,’ one participant said.
For some participants, avoiding media commentary on the teaching profession proved necessary to maintain their mental health. ‘COVID went on and on the slamming and the narrative was so grim that I just didn't read it because it was just too depressing,’ another participant noted.
The value of teachers in society
Many countries, including England and Australia, are currently experiencing a teacher shortage crisis, fuelled by low recruitment and retention rates. The authors of this report say that increasing teachers’ perceived societal appreciation is critical to addressing these issues.
Kim says that this is a very important issue to be talking about and she takes every opportunity she can to highlight the value of the teaching profession.
‘One of the things that I try do in different opportunities that I get, whether that's being interviewed by someone, delivering lectures or giving presentations, is to highlight that the teaching profession is a valuable profession. I think it's really important to acknowledge and appreciate the inherent value of the teaching profession, because I think that message is unfortunately not something that some people think about often,’ she says.
‘The teaching profession shapes young people's lives in their academic growth and in their social-emotional growth. And we really need to acknowledge that teachers are really important for so many people in shaping the future and shaping people's lives. And I think we need to have that messaging front and centre whenever we talk about education.’
Kim also says that the pandemic highlighted the importance of constructive dialogue between policymakers and the teaching profession.
‘If you're going to make decisions about educational policy or educational strategy and how these are going to be implemented, teachers need to be involved in these conversations because they will be the people who implement it, they will be the recipients of these changes and they know what's best for their schools on the ground.
‘In my research, I try to talk to teachers and co-produce projects with them, so that their perspectives can be integrated into research projects in terms of the design and the aims and so forth because they are the experts on the ground. In terms of policy and also research practices, we need to seek to involve teachers more and to show we really do value teachers’ perspective on education.’
Kim, L. E., Owusu, K., & Asbury, K. (2023). The ups and downs in perceived societal appreciation of the teaching profession during COVID‐19: A longitudinal trajectory analysis. British Educational Research Journal.
OECD. (2020). TALIS 2018 results (volume II): Teachers and school leaders as valued professionals. OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/19cf08df-en
Reflect on your experience as an educator during the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you feel that society valued your work as a teacher during this time? Do you have any specific examples of when you felt particularly appreciated?
During COVID-19, did you find that the media’s representation of the teaching profession was accurate? Do you feel that the media influenced public perceptions about the role of teachers during this time?