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Teacher as commodity versus teacher as professional: An international status-based crisis in teacher supply

Written by: Tanya Ovenden-Hope
9 min read
Tanya Ovenden-Hope, Institute of Education, Plymouth Marjon University, UK

There is a discord internationally between the ‘agencies’ that control the supply and quality (teacher status) of the school ‘workforce’, such as the Department for Education on behalf of the government in England and the government and Swedish Association for Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) in Sweden, and experts experienced in providing teacher training and professional development, such as university teacher education departments in Canada and Israel (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2020). The disagreement is bound to perceptions of teacher as predominantly either commodity or professional.

It could be argued that the agencies that control school teacher supply in many countries have caused the precarious position of too few teachers entering the profession (low recruitment), alongside not enough teachers staying in teaching beyond three years (high attrition/low retention). Howson (2020) has noted that agencies in England have ‘not coped well with external circumstances that have affected teacher supply’ (p. 19) since 1970, resulting in policies and practices that have not made teaching a ‘career of choice’ (p. 20) for graduates. Responses to challenges in recruiting and retaining enough teachers in other countries appear similarly ineffective in the long term (Huat See et al., 2020). In Jamaica, for example, the reaction of teachers to the ‘poor working conditions, feelings of disempowerment, low professional autonomy, lack of meaningful professional preparation’ (Gentles, 2020, p. 197) resulting from education policy and practice is to migrate and teach in other countries, directly affecting teacher supply.

The way in which many agencies have approached teaching appears to have positioned teachers as a ‘commodity’, rather than as professionals. This market-driven approach is working against any global ambitions that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education (UN, 2015) may have for the provision of quality teachers to educate the increasing world population. A commodity is a product or service. A teacher could be argued to be both of these things: a product of initial teacher training (ITT), which prepares them to provide a service (teaching) in schools. However, the cultural meaning of commodity is much more than this, suggesting that it is a commercial entity, which the Cambridge Dictionary (2020) definition demonstrates:

‘Commodity (noun): a substance or product that can be traded, bought or sold’ (para. 2).

In many countries, the way in which agencies engage with the recruitment and retention of teachers is more similar to the commercial production and maintenance of a product than it is to the training and development of a professional. A professional role is:

‘respected because it involves a high level of education and training’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020, para. 4).

Teacher education providers across the globe are doing their best to embed ‘the professional’ within ITT programmes and continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) programmes (see examples in Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2020). However, agencies’ focus is to provide enough teachers to meet demand, to secure the product (teacher) and to provide the service (teaching), and if this means unqualified teachers lacking in a high level of education and training entering the classroom, so be it (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2020). It is in these decisions made by agencies that perceptions of teacher as professional end and teacher as commodity begin.

Agencies responsible for education are predominantly bound to the political system of the country, whether at government, state, federation, territory or municipal level. The political control of, or association with, teacher supply creates the functional position for agencies to ensure that enough teachers are in schools to teach all the students. This commoditisation of teaching to meet required ‘teacher’ numbers in the classroom appears to have led to a ‘status-based crisis for teacher supply’. In other words, the crisis of teacher supply in western societies – not having enough teachers to meet classroom needs – is embedded in the status that teaching is given in that society. When teaching is not perceived or treated as a profession it becomes less attractive as a career and results in:

  • low initial teacher trainee numbers that do not meet targets (in normal economic times)
  • increasing difficulty in recruiting teachers (in normal economic times)
  • poor teacher retention (teacher attrition is high).

The status-based crisis is perpetuated by recruiting unqualified/unlicensed teachers. Allowing teaching to become a ‘job’ (service) that can be done by any seemingly competent adult (commodity) without a teaching qualification and, in some cases, a degree, undermines the status and value of teaching as a highly skilled profession. As teaching status declines, so does that attractiveness of teaching as career to both new starters and those experienced in the role. In Figure 1 I have attempted to represent the status-based crisis in teacher supply in a simple diagram.

Figure 1: Cyclical crisis of teacher supplyFigure 1 showing the status-based crisis of teacher supply from Overton-Hope. The figure shows the interlocking connections between the following factors: low ITT numbers, unqualified teachers recruited, poor status and value of teaching, poor teacher recruitment, poor teacher retention.

The agencies controlling teacher supply are expected to ensure the quality of teachers through training and qualifying status/licensing/certification to teach. However, as teacher recruitment and retention have become increasingly challenging in most Western countries (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2020), the agencies’ function to supply teachers has superseded notions of quality and profession. This is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of unqualified/unlicensed teachers in classrooms internationally. In Sweden in 2018, one-third of teachers were uncertified, with numbers expected to reach 80,000 in 2031 (Niklasson, 2020). In England in 2019, there were 25,078 unqualified teachers in state-funded schools (DfE, 2020). In the United States, 8.8 per cent of teachers were not fully certified in 2016 (Garcia and Weiss, 2019), and this is expected to have increased as the teacher shortage has increased.

The crisis cannot be solved by financial incentives to encourage individuals to train to teach, or stay in teaching short term, which is a typical response by agencies to challenges in teacher recruitment, and have not worked to support long-term retention (Huat See et al., 2020). This response has not worked as it fails to acknowledge the fundamental precept identified by experts for a sustainable qualified teacher supply: teacher as professional – valued, trusted, educated (at least graduate level), continually developing skills and practice and with high status (Cordingley and Crisp, 2020).

There is hope. Improving teacher recruitment and retention globally, escaping the status-based crisis in teacher supply (and not just through recession making public sector employment more appealing) is possible. Agencies and governments will need to rethink their approaches to meeting demand for teachers. It will require long-term, structured investment (beyond any political party term) and strategic planning, with agencies positioning teacher as professional, and not commodity. Those that control supply will need to understand the importance of status in a profession and the impact this has on teacher training, recruitment and retention.

Some countries have started on this journey of professional engagement with teaching. In China, teachers who follow a government training programme are given support and development that raises their status; this includes ‘access to furthering their education in their first five working years… necessary working and living conditions’ (Liu and Li, 2020, p. 179), which is a start. As is the Recruitment and Retention Strategy (DfE, 2019) in England, which aims to ‘support a career offer that remains attractive to teachers as their careers and lives develop’ (DfE, 2019, p. 24). But more is needed. The Recruitment and Retention Strategy (DfE, 2019) sits alongside education policy that deregulated teaching in 2012 to allow the recruitment of unqualified teachers (supporting the status-based crisis in teacher supply). The announcement by the Department for Education on 2 January 2021 of a market review of Initial Teacher Training (DfE, 2021) demonstrates there is still some distance to be travelled by the UK government in their thinking about teaching as a profession.

Agencies need to realise that approaching teacher supply as an exercise in meeting demand is doomed to fail. Teachers are not commodities. Teachers are professionals, and recognising them as such should act as the basis for all policies and practices. Highly skilled, trusted, autonomous teachers are ‘a fundamental building block to national success’ (Cordingley and Crisp, 2020, p. 146). In order for teaching to be a ‘career’ of choice, it needs to be seen by all as a profession in every sense of the definition provided earlier. As Howson (2020) astutely comments, it is in the interests of governments to get teacher education right:

‘A modern economy needs an educated workforce. It should not be beyond the powers of politicians to ensure such a workforce is available to teach every child that the state is responsible for educating by designing a system that provides sufficient well-trained teachers, with the highest quality preparation, and where they are needed by schools. Government should also create an appropriate career development programme that helps teachers develop their skills and expertise, as well as helps them create a career within the state school system.’ (p. 19)

During the Covid-19 pandemic, agencies and governments appear to have realised the important role that schools play in allowing an economy to function. Public awareness of teaching and the role of teachers has also increased, as parents have spent more time with their children at home through national lockdowns. The media has reported on schools being open in many countries to vulnerable children and those of key/critical workers and of teachers creating online resources for all ages to support parent and child access to learning. Teachers, like professionals in health care, have exposed themselves to risk of infection by putting their students needs first. Teachers are professionals and the pandemic has reflected this. The time is right for truly considering teaching as a profession to break the status-based crisis of teacher supply.


Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope is co-editor with Dr Rowena Passy of Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives published in October 2020 by Routledge. To be in with a chance of receiving a free copy of this book, simply follow @unieducator and @passyrowena the week issue 11 of Impact is published (from 3 February) and copy them into a tweet that finishes this statement, ‘Teaching is a profession because…’. 


Cambridge Dictionary (2020) Cambridge Dictionary online. Available at: (accessed 16 November 2020).

Cordingley P and Crisp B (2020) Professional learning and recruitment and retention: What global regions can tell us. In: Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 131–147.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy. London: DfE. Available at: (accessed 16 November 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2020) School workforce in England. Reporting year 2019. Available at: (accessed 2 December 2020).

Garcia E and Weiss E (2019) The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought. Education Policy Institute (EPI). Available at: (accessed 8 December 2020).

Gentles HC (2020) Stemming the tide: A critical examination of issues, challenges and solutions to Jamaican teacher migration. In: Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 197–209.

Huat See B, Gorard S, Morris R et al. (2020) How to recruit and retain teachers in hard-to-staff areas: A systematic review of the empirical evidence. In: Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 148–162.

Howson J (2020) Shortages, what shortages? Exploring school workforce supply in England. In: Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 9–21.

Liu H and Li Z (2020) High school teacher retention: Solutions in the Chinese context. In: Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 176–184.

Niklasson L (2020) Suggestions from national-level actors on how to handle retention and attrition of teachers. In: Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 210–220.

Ovenden-Hope T and Passy R (eds) (2020) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge.

United Nations (UN) (2015) Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. A/RES/70/1. Available at: (accessed 16 November 2020).


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