May.19.2021

The terrible trap of temporary teaching: I need to do more to get a job next year

By Meghan Stacey, Rachel Wilson, Susan McGrath-Champ, Scott Fitzgerald, Mihajla Gavin,

These days, there’s a new kind of teacher in NSW public schools: the ‘temporary’ teacher. 

The category of temporary employment, a version of fixed-term contract work, was introduced in 2001. The category has been steadily growing while the proportion of permanent positions has declined and casual positions have remained relatively stable, as indicated in Figure 1 below. Today, about 20% of NSW public school teachers are in temporary positions. 

Figure 1: Permanent, Casual and Temporary union members, 1970-2017 (percent of total)

Source: NSWTF Annual Reports, 1970-2017. Data for 2004 are not published.

While a teacher employed in a casual capacity is employed day-to-day, a teacher employed in a temporary capacity is employed full-time for four weeks to a year, or part-time for two terms or more. Temporary teachers tend to be newer teachers – but beyond this, there is  very little known about how this category of employment is experienced. 

Our research, recently published in the Journal of Educational Administration and History with a free version available here, drew on a large state-wide survey on teacher workload conducted in 2018 – you can find the full report here. We disaggregated the data from more than 18,000 teachers to identify 3,689 temporary teachers and examine both quantitative and qualitative data on how their experiences of workload might be similar or different to that of teachers in permanent and casual roles.  

This is what we found.

Quantitatively, teachers in temporary roles report similar levels of workload to their permanent counterparts, both of which are considerably higher than those in casual positions. Teachers in temporary roles estimated working an average of 56 hours per week during term time, compared to 57 hours for those in permanent positions and 40 hours for those employed as casuals. In addition, while 72% of permanent teachers and 70% of temporary teachers report that their job ‘always’ requires them to ‘work very hard’, this is only the case for 58% of casual staff members. Similarly, while 66% of permanent staff members and 62% of temporary staff members report never or rarely having enough time to complete work tasks, this is only the case for 40% of casuals. We note that in these figures, numbers are still high for casual staff – just not as high as they are temporary or permanent teachers.  

Yet interestingly, teachers in temporary positions feel like they work harder than those in permanent ones. As one respondent put it, ‘I work as hard if not harder than many permanent teachers’.  

This feeling of working harder may be due to the temporary, and more precarious, nature of their roles. These teachers know that their continued employment depends on ‘impressing’ those around them, particularly the school principal. There was a sense of an ‘unspoken pressure for [temporary] teachers to ‘do more’ in order to heighten their chances to get work for the next year’. This need to impress was not, however, felt by those in permanent positions. This appeared to be leading, for some teachers, to tension between staff in different employment categories. As one respondent recalled, ‘two permanent teachers have even stated, “I don’t have to do anything else, I am already permanent”’; another described experiences of permanent teachers ‘prey[ing]’ on temporary teachers by ‘shift[ing] work’ to them. 

An additional dimension of our investigation arose when we looked at the differences between men and women teachers in temporary, permanent and casual roles. More men reported being in permanent employment than women, with women being much more likely to be temporary than men. With the tendency of teachers to be predominately women, we found that, in fact, there are more temporary teachers than there are the total number of men teaching in NSW public schools. Our data also suggest that women may also stay longer as temporary teachers than men do, with potential implications for future career opportunities and leadership positions in schools. 

Finally, it is worth noting that, in our data, only 27% of those in temporary employment were working in that capacity by choice.

Our findings would imply that something should be done about the growing category of temporary employment in NSW public schools. Addressing this issue has, in fact, been one of the recommendations of the recently released ‘Valuing the Teaching Profession’ report of the ‘Gallop Inquiry’. Working out ways to attract new teachers is also part of the terms of reference of a recently announced review of initial teacher education

We would also argue that, at system level, the conversion of, in particular long-serving women temporary teachers into permanent employment would be a good thing, signalling respect for the work they do and building benefits for the profession, schools and ultimately students. A widespread reduction in the overall proportion of temporary employees, as well as work hours and workload demands, is also needed. 

While teaching is a cognitively, emotionally, and physically strenuous job, historically it has relied upon its reputation as a secure, permanent, and stable career to attract strong candidates to the profession. As pay rates are now notably low, compared to other professions with equivalent levels of education, growing problems with the security, workload and work conditions of teachers become even more critical. Our new teachers, many of whom are temporary, will be tomorrow’s school leaders, and are central to the provision of public education. To maintain a strong teaching profession, it is important that we look after them.

From left to right:

Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.

Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Scott Fitzgerald is an associate professor and discipline lead of the People, Culture and Organisations discipline group in the School of Management at Curtin University. Scott’s research presently covers two main areas: the changing nature of governance, professionalism and work in the education sector.

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