Babak Dadvand

Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage

Burnout is blamed for an exodus of teachers contributing to ‘a teacher shortage crisis’ in Australian schools. The teacher burnout argument offers a ‘convenient’ explanation of why teachers leave – they burn out as external pressures wear them down. Yet, framing the problem as one of teacher burnout diverts attention from ‘the moral crisis’ with which our teaching workforce has been grappling for years. 

The moral crisis is rooted in despair when teachers face persistent and chronic challenges to the values that animate their work. It emerges when the ‘call to teach’ as a moral practice meets an inequitably resourced education system that prioritises test-based accountability and top-down engineering of teachers’ work. 

The teacher shortage crisis 

The crisis talk has brought attention to some of the most legitimate grievances of teachers in Australia. Inadequate remuneration, unsustainable workloads, administrative burdens, and growing bureaucratic requirements have had irrefutable negative effects on teachers’ morale and their sense of career optimism. 

The teacher shortage crisis has also highlighted the importance of retaining teachers who are already in the job. This has led to a focus on improving teachers’ working conditions. At the same time, front-end-focused measures are introduced to address teacher supply issues. These policy solutions, including the recent Labor’s Plan to Fix Teacher Shortages, are aimed at making teaching a more attractive career option.

While these measures deal with elements of what has contributed a teacher shortage crisis, they remain largely oblivious to a less visible moral crisis that has haunted the teaching profession, a crisis rooted in tensions between the view of teaching as a caring practice driven by a sense of calling and education policies, school practices and working conditions that sit in tension with the call to service. 

A spectre is haunting teaching — the spectre of a moral crisis

A burnout explanation of why teachers leave the profession would lead to solutions that aim, at least in principle, to alleviate what burdens teachers, and burns them out. The New South Wales’ plan to support high-quality lesson planning is an example of such solutions. Universal access to centralised learning materials is offered to “free up lesson planning time each week” (Premier Dominic Perrottet). 

From a teacher burnout perspective, this policy response is adequate as it alleviates ‘the burden’ of lesson planning. This is, however, a problematic proposition. Many teachers view creating engaging lesson plans as part of their core work, something that provides them with the ownership of their practice.

A moral crisis explanation provides an alternative explanation of what wears teachers down and paves the way for their exit decision from teaching. Teachers may leave not because they burn out and have nothing more to offer; they leave because their call to service is consistently challenged by the realities of an inequitably resourced school system that pursues top-down engineering of their work. 

Viewed as such, teachers’ exit decisions can be interpreted as an ultimate act of dissent; it is a refusal to bear witness to and endure dehumanising conditions that undermine their professional autonomy, compromise their wellbeing and overlook what they cherish most in their work: making a positive difference in the lives of children and young people through the actual practices of teaching and learning. 

To exit, therefore, may not be a symptom of burning out. It can be an exercise of agency and a rejection of the top-down recipes that ignore the moral core that orients teachers’ practices.

Addressing the moral crisis

Addressing the moral crisis requires attending to what has eroded the fabric of education as a public good. This includes the school choice model and funding inequities that have created a two-tiered education system in which the least-resourced Australian schools cater for the most under-served students and their communities. Many of these schools have unsustainable working conditions that require teachers to forego their own wellbeing to do their job well. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the least advantaged schools in Australia are six times more likely to report teacher shortage problems compared to more affluent schools.

Attending to the moral core in teaching also requires a return to a view of education as a domain of possibility, agency and growth. It needs doing away with policies that prioritise compliance with centralised systems of monitoring tied to narrow test-based accountabilities. These practices have been shown to adversely impact on teacher morale and student wellbeing. We need to put the trust back in our teachers and their professional judgements. To do this, an audacious reform project is needed to rekindle an old flame amidst the ferocious onslaught of forces that codify teaching in purely managerial and technical terms.

Revisiting the teacher shortage crisis through a moral lens is more than reframing an existing problem in new terms. It requires us to attend to the values that sustain teaching as a caring form of practice. The moral argument disrupts the narrative that equates exit to a deficit in resilience and adaptability. Instead, it brings the focus back on teachers duty of care (for self and the other), and their agency to say ‘no’ to the conditions that dampen their morale, compromise their wellbeing and stall their care work. 

Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer in Pedagogy, Professional Practice and Teacher Education at La Trobe School of Education. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. Babak’s current research is focused on the challenges that teachers face and the types of support that they need stay in the profession, especially in the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. Twitter: @DadvandBabak

How to get career change teachers to stick

The Federal Government review of Initial Teacher Education has reinvigorated debates about attracting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession and preparing them to be effective teachers. 

In response, the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review 2021 Discussion Paper has highlighted several issues, including ways to attract high-performing mid-career professionals into the teaching profession to increase teacher supply.

Workforce planning for schools: Putting the cart before the horse

The review of Initial Teacher Education provides an opportunity to rethink schools’ current workforce planning strategy. It has, among other things, brought attention to how we can better capitalise on the contributions that diverse, passionate and qualified individuals with different career backgrounds can make to the teaching profession.

Yet, workforce planning for schools in Australia has traditionally relied on short-term, inconsistent and at times one-off initiatives to staff schools, especially those that suffer from teacher shortage problems. Recruitment bonuses, incentives and special entry pathways into teaching have been central to government strategies. This reactive approach has prioritised teacher recruitment to teacher retention.

A more comprehensive workforce planning strategy needs evidence-informed decision-making to recruit and prepare and retain qualified career change teachers. 

Career changers in the teaching profession

While career change teachers have always been part of the Australian education landscape, we know little about them, the challenges they face, and the support they need in their career transition into the teaching profession, as we outlined in an earlier article. We’ve done a new study including interviews with 17 career change teachers to uncover the motivations and challenges facing these career changers. 

What do we know about career-change teachers?

I got made redundant, which was the catalyst for a career change from my previous role. I could have probably quite easily gone and gotten a job in my same career somewhere else, but I just decided to use it as an opportunity to make a more significant change. One of the reasons that I wanted to go into teaching was because I wanted to work in a field that was more connected to the community rather than in a corporate environment.

Career change teachers make unique contributions to the profession by bringing practical experience and specific skills. Based on their previous experience, connecting abstract knowledge to real-life applications is natural for career change teachers.  This can make learning more engaging and meaningful for students. They also come equipped with interpersonal and organisation skills from their previous careers. 

Our study found that many career-change teachers are driven by a sense of ‘calling’ and a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. 

I was doing chartered accounting and then banking for about the last 12 years. That was my sort of pathway for a bit and I was increasingly finding it not very fulfilling. I was very busy and stressed and all those sort of things, but not feeling like I was actually contributing to a community and people as much as I wanted to. 

Supporting career change teachers in their transition

A common thread in our participants’ responses was the challenges they faced in their transition, which affected their morale and job satisfaction. 

Challenges included: 

  • Adjustment to professional identity as teachers
  • Transfer of skills from the previous occupation to teaching
  • Establishing collegial relationships in the new workplace
  • Maintaining work-life balance
  • Meeting financial commitments
  • Developing self-efficacy and professional confidence in the new career
  • A mismatch between expectation about and reality of teaching 

The support provided by initial teacher education programs is integral to a positive transition to teaching and long-term teacher retention. In their adjustment from their previous career to studying and teaching, the support provided by university-based mentors, familiar with the needs of career change teachers, is the first step in this direction and vital in bridging the gap between study and teaching. 

The university provides us with what they call a clinical specialist so someone who is an experienced teacher, sometimes an academic, sometimes someone who’s been in more senior roles in schools. […] I had a very good clinical specialist. She had a lot of experience working in schools such as mine, where sometimes the behaviour can be really challenging […] I think in my first year that was really important because the behaviour was quite challenging and it took me quite a while to figure out how to teach in that environment. 

School-based mentors can offer specific advice about teaching, curriculum, the school context, expectations and practices.  

I have a mentor at school who I meet every week for a period. She has been very helpful and I go to her for advice even outside our scheduled meeting time. The school also provides support for new staff and they organise meetings to coincide with important events such as report writing and parent teacher interviews to ensure that we know what to expect and to provide any help. The school also has a teacher who provides support to new staff so I can always contact her if I require any help with anything. 

Retaining Career Change Teachers

Understanding the challenges that career change teachers face in their transition and the support they need is the first step in ensuring our schools are staffed with the most qualified teachers. Tailored, adequate and ongoing support is essential in preparing and retaining the most passionate career change teachers. It helps reduce investment loss due to the revolving door of teacher recruitment and teacher attrition.

While career change teachers can be drawn to the profession as a part of a larger solution to teacher shortage problems, these problems are likely to persist if education systems fail to address systemic issues that impact teachers’ sustainability within the profession, including issues relating to relatively low pay, insecure employment, heavy workloads, inadequate ongoing support and ever-increasing administrative duties in teaching.

From left to right: Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer at the School of Education, La Trobe University. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. As a teacher educator, Babak has worked with multiple cohorts of pre-service teachers, including those who enter the teaching profession through employment-based pathways into teaching. Babak’s current body of research is focused on the challenges that pre-service and in-service teachers face and the types of support that they need in their transitions into the profession, especially within the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. This Industry Report is informed by and builds upon Babak’s recent research and teaching work. Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is a subject coordinator and lecturer in the Master of Teaching (Secondary) and Master of Education (International Baccalaureate) courses at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Merryn is active in developing initial teacher education in Victoria, as coordinator of the Master of Teaching (Secondary) Internship course, a position which supports change of career teachers as interns in schools. Merryn’s research interests focus on transition and retention of early career teachers, developing scientific reasoning competencies of pre-service science teachers, investigating the supports required by change of career teachers and supporting out of field Physics teachers in Victoria. Jan van Driel is a Professor of Science Education and co-leader of the Mathematics, Science & Technology Education Group in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) at the University of Melbourne. His research interests include science teacher knowledge, teacher education and professional learning. He has supervised 25 doctoral students to successful completion. He has served on the boards of associations for educational research in the Netherlands and the USA. Currently, he is co-editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Science Education anda member of the Education Committee of Council of the Australian Academy of Science and the executive board of the Australasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA). In 2018, he was identified as national field leader in Education by The Australian. In 2021, he received the MGSE Research Excellence Award. Chris Speldewinde is a Research Fellow and Sessional Academic currently undertaking a doctorate at Deakin University that examines STEM teaching and learning in Australian bush kindergartens. Chris has several academic and practitioner publications regarding bush kindergartens. Chris works on projects involving with multi-university research teams investigating issues in early childhood, primary and secondary school education. He also has interests in the implications of teacher education; teaching out of field; policy and governance in education; and early childhood and primary school education.