Worlds of Education

“World Teachers’ Day: Between Recognition and Reward”, by Nelly P. Stromquist

published 5 October 2018 updated 5 October 2018

Teacher’s Day (usually in singular) is celebrated in many countries, a testimony to the importance with which teaching is perceived by those who benefited from knowledgeable and caring teachers. Teaching, in fact, has been identified by many as one of the most influential jobs in the world. Different countries have different dates and honor various national educators on Teacher’s Day. The oldest Teacher’s Day on record is that of Poland, commemorated since 1773. China, despite the enormous teaching influence of Confucius, established Teacher’s Day only since 1985. The United Nations has observed World Teachers Day since 1994. It selected October 5th, the day in which the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers was adopted. This document, adopted in 1966, is a foundational document in recognizing and protecting the rights of teachers and their professionalism.

Celebrations on Teacher’s Day take many forms:  teacher recruitment drives, conferences emphasizing the importance of teachers and learning, providing extra training lessons for teachers, and events to highlight the importance of teachers. In India, students give flowers to teachers.  In Canada, public awareness campaigns of the importance of teachers are held. Various cultural events take place in Mexico. In Latvia and Estonia, classes are held by the older grade students while teachers take the day off.

Mark Twain, a humorist and natural philosopher, observed: “To be good is noble, but to teach others to be good is nobler.” Not only is teaching a privileged profession but it demands a careful balance of direction and freedom. Commitment to public good must be inculcated early in life.  Direction is not indoctrination—which means blind obedience regardless of evidence, a single message, and usually acceptance of the status quo—but rather exposing students to a positive social and individual consciousness.  At the same time, freedom means giving the students the space they need to develop their initiative and creativity.

On World Teachers Day, let’s ponder on two challenges to the profession: an emerging challenge to teachers’ professionalism and the pervasive constraints to their satisfaction as teachers in the field.

Defining a trained teacher

Since 2015, countries have committed themselves to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a comprehensive set of policies adopted by the United Nations and through which the world is to attain much better conditions in all spheres of life. In this document, education is identified as one of 17 goals.  Within this goal (SDG 4), one target deals specifically with teachers and establishes one global (i.e. used for international comparisons and thus most likely to be followed) indicator:

“4.c.1.  Percentage of teachers in (a) preprimary; (b) primary; (c) lower secondary; and (d) upper secondary education who have received at least the minimum organized teacher training (i.e. pedagogical training), pre-service, or in-service required for teaching at the relevant level in a country.” (UIS, 2017, p. 88).

Note that this indicator uses a broad definition of a trained teacher.  It encompasses not only organized teacher training in specific institutions but also the training that might have been conveyed through pre-service and in-service.  Obviously, there is a difference in the amount of time when persons are formed in a training institution (at least one year) and when they receive pre- or in-service training (usually a few days, and in some cases, just a few hours).  Why is this “light” definition of teacher training in place?  Some education statisticians argue that some indicators are difficult to obtain, but certainly the enrollment of future teachers in training institutions should be easy to secure; in contrast, the proportions of those in pre-service and those in-service might lend themselves more to approximations than precise count, not to mention the great variety of what is covered through pre-service and in-service workshops. In my view, this broad definition of training will result in an overestimation of qualified teachers.

Constraints to entering the teaching profession and remaining in it

The widespread honor to teachers stands in dramatic contrast with the low material recognition attached to their job (Luckwaldt, 2018). Not surprisingly, we face “massive teacher shortages at the primary and secondary levels,” as the world needs about 69 million new teachers to secure SDG4 (UIS, 2016). About 24.4 million teachers are needed to reach universal primary education.  Of these, 21 million are to replace teachers who leave the workforce (due to retirement and attrition), and the other 3.4 million are needed to expand student access and to reduce class size to a maximum of 40 students. Secondary education has even greater needs, with 44.4 million teachers needed:  27.6 million to replace those who leave teaching and 16.7 million to ensure a class size of no more than 25 students (UIS, 2016).  Since it is likely that these 69 million teachers will not be recruited, teachers will encounter increasingly larger classroom sizes.

Teaching is becoming an unattractive career all over the world (for a detailed account of conditions in the US, see Hansen, 2018).  Multiple reasons are at work:  low salaries; teacher contracts that do not promote stability; limited opportunities for improved professionalism; and education budgets that do not allow satisfactory physical facilities, equipment, and educational materials. Why do we experience such a chronic situation in public education?  The explanation resides primarily in the myopia of political leaders.  Many of them do not see the importance of public education since they send their own children to well-endowed private schools.  For them, public education is an expenditure not an investment.  We must remember that teacher salaries are not set by market forces but by governments in a non-competitive situation.  Unless, voters demand greater support for the improvement of teachers’ conditions, we might grow accustomed to sweet celebrations of teachers’ work without providing them the concomitant financial reward.


Hansen, M. September 5, 2018.  Teachers aren’t getting younger, we’re just paying them less. Providence:  Brown Center Chalkboard, Brown Center on Education Policy. https://www.brookings.edu

Luckwaldt, Jen. 2018. For the Love of the job:  Does Society Pay Teachers what they are worth? Payscale. https://payscale.com/data-packages/most-and-least-meaningful-jobs/teacher-pay-versus-job-meaning.

UIS. October 2016.  The World Needs Almost 69 million New Teachers to Reach the 2030 Education Goals. UIS Fact Sheet, no. 39.  Montreal: UNESCO Institute for Education Statistics.

UIS. July 2017.  Metadata for the global and thematic indicators for the follow-up and review of SDG 4 and Education 2030.  Montreal:  UNESCO Institute for Education Statistics.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.