Jo Lampert

Speculating on teacher attrition in Australia: Might COVID-19 be ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’?

It is worth considering the potential impact COVID-19 might have on teachers, many already feeling devalued and over-worked, as they return to their classrooms after a period of heightened pressure to perform in on-line learning environments.

Teacher attrition is a persistent and well-documented problem in Australian education, especially in historically disadvantaged schools where teachers are leaving the profession at increasingly high rates.

This recent intensification of workload and the broadening of their role might work towards ‘breaking the camel’s back’ for some teachers.

The flipside of the debate however is whether other teachers might react positively to the challenges of COVID-19, not just because teaching is a reasonably secure source of income but with a renewed passion for the profession. They might even be inclined to stay in teaching for longer.

While it is obviously too early to know exactly what will happen to the teaching workforce it is worth thinking about these scenarios in an effort to prompt government, teacher education providers and school communities to prepare for both eventualities.

Teachers rarely leave ‘hard-to-staff’ schools because of the children

Pre-COVID-19, attrition was already considered a significant workforce issue with up to 50 per cent of Australian teachers predicted to leave the profession before making it to five years. In hard-to-staff schools in high poverty, remote and rural communities, teacher turnover statistics are even higher.  According to OECD 2019 data, over a third of principals in disadvantaged schools report their capacity to provide instruction is hindered by a lack of teaching staff.

Interestingly, the reasons behind Australia’s teacher exodus are rarely ever around ‘fleeing their students’. Instead, teachers attribute their departure to feelings of disillusionment around such things as isolation, increasing administrative demands, lack of on-going learning and support, and insufficient recognition of their work.

As teachers leave the profession, we are finding that schools serving historically marginalised communities are often being staffed with the least experienced educators. Beginning teachers are faced with the extra challenges of coping with professional and geographic isolation, placing them at an increased risk of suffering burnout before they their career gets started.

Unanticipated consequences

Understanding such issues for school staffing provides a reminder that whatever eventuates from COVID-19 is in addition to pre-existing teacher workforce issues, including demoralisation and overload. The unanticipated consequences awaiting us in the aftermath of the pandemic may just be the provocation to ‘break the camel’s back’; a back that is already under considerable strain for many teachers working in traditionally hard-to-staff communities.

Teachers are experiencing stress in new ways; some are saying they are putting their health at risk in what may be considered unsafe workplaces. During the time when schools were practically the only services to stay open, teachers reported feeling expendable, like ‘sacrificial lambs’. Now, upon returning to classrooms, they are expected to carry on regardless.

Lesson from the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand

The Christchurch earthquake in 2011 taught us that teachers will be feeling fragile after such a traumatic time; that, while they are being hailed as ‘first responders’ by some, they still might require support in their own right. After the earthquake, there was notable staff attrition and an increase in sick days, mostly related to teachers’ own ongoing anxieties. Many were not ready to return to work when asked to do so.

Australian teachers, particularly those working in vulnerable communities, will now be re-entering schools under conditions where families are suddenly under tremendous financial, physical and psychological stress, and they are worried about both their students and their own families.

The transition to and from Online Learning

Our teachers are still experiencing the stresses associated with putting their teaching online. While the presence of online learning in Australian schools has grown significantly in the past few years, most teachers pre-COVID-19 continued to utilise technology to sustain more traditional teaching practices. This has made navigating the transition to the digital space an often stressful and challenging task. By mere design, moving to a virtual learning environment further alters the nature and magnitude of teachers’ workloads.

One misconception associated with online instruction is that ‘teaching is teaching,’ meaning that the skill sets needed in the face-to-face environment are transferable to online teaching without any adjustments. However, teachers have found that this is far from the truth. Online pedagogy requires different competencies and skill sets. All this has added to an increase in workload, stress and levels of emotional exhaustion for our teachers; especially true for teachers working in communities with limited or no access to such technologies and knowledges.  

Impact on early career teachers

Another issue requiring consideration involves the impact of COVID-19 on early career teachers who are employed under the contract system adopted by most Australian state education departments. This system, based mainly on short term contracts (usually 12 months but can be as short as one school term), is used often to employ new teachers in rural and regional areas. As a result, many of these beginning teachers experience diminished job security and uncertain expectations about their futures. Will the loss of income for the already undervalued casual teacher workforce lead to an increase in attrition rates in this sector?

This, added to the stresses that teachers already felt in rural Australia from the terrible bush fires earlier in 2020, make us worried that more than ever that it would be hard to attract and recruit new teachers to relocate in such precarious times.

Possible loss of a whole cohort of graduate teachers

Universities and teacher education institutions are also airing concerns about potential fallout from COVID-19. While universities cope with their own online learning challenges and significant financial woes, they must now contend with a graduating teacher workforce under strain. Some early projections were that the loss of a whole cohort of graduate teachers would cause unprecedented workforce shortages. As a longer-term concern, Australian Initial Teacher Education Programs are also worried about attrition from Initial Teacher Education in general as students may change their minds about becoming a teacher.

It’s not all bad news for teaching 

On the other hand, there is also evidence that teachers respond to major paradigm shifts with optimism and creativity. According to the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey, most teachers are open to innovation and say they thrive on developing new ways of practising. This could prove true in the current context as students return to classrooms with teachers who feel re-motivated to focus on new ways of teaching and learning.

After the Christchurch earthquake, some teachers mentioned that being around children again actually helped them manage their own emotional responses. So, heading back to school might make a big difference in mitigating any difficulties teachers face as a consequence of COVID-19 and provide opportunity for teachers to reconfirm their passion for the profession.

A new appreciation of teachers

COVID-19 is also giving Australians a chance to pause and renew their appreciation for teachers and teachers’ important place in society. Lately, there has been increased recognition by parents and the community of the work teachers do, especially in the wake of on-line schooling in the home. Trending across Twitter, Instagram and YouTube has been the #TeachersRock hashtag. This has provided a platform for Australians to post positive messages for teachers as they started Term 2. It follows on from other on-line initiatives around the world to thank those working in the front line.

As parents and the general public acknowledge the complexity of teaching and learning, this may well lead to an improvement in teachers’ social status and result in further retention of teachers who feel further valued.

Looking optimistically to the future, when all this is finally over, teaching may emerge as a more desirable profession. The dire financial impact of COVID-19 might see teachers remaining in their secure jobs and could attract those from other professions into the field, based on its historically safe employment status. Moreover, for the first time in decades, teachers might gain in social status having proved their value to the public as front line or essential workers. Perhaps COVID-19 may even offer opportunity for teachers to be finally recognised for the crucial role they play.

Whatever happens one thing is clear: how we support teachers to work in these times of uncertainty during COVID-19 is more crucial than ever.

Stephanie Garoni is a lecturer in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She is interested in the practices of schooling and how these practices are held together in the work of teachers and their students. She has many years of experience as a classroom teacher, teacher librarian, learning support teacher, enrichment coordinator, literacy and numeracy advisor and deputy principal in both Australian and overseas schools. She now lives and works in regional Victoria. Her current role at La Trobe University is in the Nexus program as an academic coordinator. She can be contacted at s.garoni@latrobe.edu.au. Stephanie is on Twitter @StephanieGaroni

Jo Lampert is a Professor in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She is also Director of the Commonwealth funded NEXUS alternative pathway into teaching at La Trobe University. Nexus is a community-engaged teacher education program designed to prepare culturally diverse, high quality teachers for metropolitan, regional and rural Secondary schools in Victoria, many of which are hard-to-staff .Jo was founder and co-director of the National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged Schools program (NETDS) for ten years prior to moving to La Trobe University in 2017. Her research has included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, teacher education for high poverty schools and community-engagement in teacher education. Jo also has an interest in literary studies and is known for her research in children’s books about September 11, 2001. She can be contacted at J.Lampert@latrobe.edu.au  Jo is on Twitter  @jolampert