Susannah Hume, King’s College London and Behavioural Insights Team |
Friday 22 June was Thank a Teacher Day. For many people, one thing they could thank their teachers for is helping them with the grades, and confidence, to get into university. What would happen if hundreds of teachers around Britain were able to hear from the students they had helped in this way?
The teaching profession in Britain is losing teachers at a rate of about 10 per cent per year— faster than we can replace them.[i] Teachers are burning out or becoming demoralised, and it’s becoming a major educational crisis. Teaching demands immense amounts of effort, both formally, in terms of lesson planning, teaching and marking; and informally, through emotional labour, pastoral care, giving personal and academic advice, and being concerned for the welfare and future of students. And for a lot of this additional effort, there is no feedback loop: teachers never find out what that effort meant to students or how it changed their trajectories.
Instead, they see waves of students pass through their classrooms and on to unknown destinations, and after a while may stop seeing the point in treating each student as an individual, especially around the other demands and stresses of their job. This, however, may be a danger-sign: depersonalisation, or the ‘psychological withdrawal from relationships and the development of a negative, cynical, and callous attitude’,[ii] is commonly considered a sign of burnout.
Teachers are a significant influence on students’ aspirations. At BIT, I led the Moments of Choice research into young people’s career decision-making, and we heard from many interviewees of the immense impact teachers can have. For instance, we spoke one young man, Richard, who wanted to be a music teacher:
Richard: My music teacher who teaches me now, he says, King’s* was the best ‘cause he went there and he accomplished his goals, so…
Interviewer: So he’s quite a role model for you?
Richard: All my teachers are role models.
(*It wasn’t King’s! We’ve changed the name of the institution and Richard’s name to preserve anonymity.)
Support from teachers can help talented young people from underrepresented backgrounds to aspire and get into university.[iii] But this requires teachers to (a) believe that their students can get in and succeed, and (b) have the motivation to support them effectively. Both factors are important. Teachers who didn’t enjoy university themselves, or see university as the kind of place that students like theirs won’t fit in, may – with the best intentions – discourage students from applying. And even teachers inclined to support students towards university may be inadvertently giving students incorrect or outdated advice.[iv]
Something needs to change. We believe there is one thing universities can do to help teachers know how much they’re valued:[v] close the feedback loop. This is what we’re doing this summer—going to graduations and welcome events, encouraging students to write postcards back to the teachers who inspired them: sharing a great lesson, a thoughtful comment, a moment that mattered to them. We’re calling this SHIFT – Students Helping Inspire their Former Teachers.
We hope closing this feedback loop will help teachers feel more appreciated and motivated to support more students into university. Our goal is to get postcards for teachers in most of the secondary schools, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges in the UK; we’re thrilled to be partnering with several other institutions to achieve it.
And we’ll be testing the effectiveness of the postcards using a randomised-controlled trial—because we believe it’s important to know whether an intervention is effective, even if it’s relatively simple and light-touch. If you’d like to know more about how we’re doing this, or your institution would like to get involved, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hopefully, by next teacher’s day, many more UK teachers will know that their students appreciate all the effort they’ve gone to.
[i] Department for Education. (2018). Factors affecting teacher retention: qualitative investigation. London: Department for Education
[ii] Hartney, E. (2008). Stress management for teachers. Bloomsbury Publishing, pg. 11.
[iii] Johnston, T. C. (2010). Who and what influences choice of university? Student and university perceptions. American Journal of Business Education, 3(10), 15-23.
[iv] Moogan, Y. J., & Baron, S. (2003). An analysis of student characteristics within the student decision making process. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(3), 271-287.
[v] Department for Education. (2018). Factors affecting teacher retention: qualitative investigation. London: Department for Education