Here is another of our intermittent blogs during the #AARE2022 conference. If you want to cover a session at the conference, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to check in. Thanks!
Symposium: ‘Teacher shortages in Australian schools: reactive workforce planning for a wicked policy problem’ (post starts after the photos!)
With nine people sitting on the floor, six standing, and a long queue leading from the entrance, the symposium ‘Teacher shortages in Australian schools: reactive workforce planning for a wicked policy problem’ was forced to change venues before it could even begin. The overwhelming interest in this session speaks to rising concern and anxiety for the state of the teacher workforce around Australia today.
The first paper, from Jo Lampert, Amy McPherson and Bruce Burnett, featured an analysis of how 20 years’ worth of government and university initiatives have sought to recruit, prepare and retain teachers in ‘hard to staff’ schools, the impact of these initiatives, and the policy lessons that can be learned from them. The analysis found that mostly, these programs have emphasised recruitment over retention (a frustratingly familiar feature of current initiatives like the Teacher Workforce Shortages Issues Paper, too), with few featuring any formal evaluation process. Policy lessons included a need to focus on benefits, provide financial support, and focus on the wellbeing and working conditions of staff.
Scott Eacott’s presentation on the operational and strategic impact of a teacher shortage on school leadership argued that we have a social contract in Australian education which is not currently being fulfilled. Eacott pointed to the need for a whole-system response instead of a school system which “cannibalizes itself through poor design and incentives”.
Eacott’s paper was followed by work from Susanne Gannon, tracing the #MoreThanThanks campaign of the NSW Teachers Federation, which has sought improved wages and conditions for teachers in NSW public schools. Gannon drew on the work of Carol Bacchi to explore how the construction of the teacher shortage ‘problem’ in NSW has become combative space, from ministerial denials of a problem at all; to a swathe of positive press releases from the NSW government on how teachers are purportedly supported; to the use of the phrase “the committee divided” 93 times in the recent, ‘Great Teachers, Great Schools’ report. Gannon concluded by questioning whether perhaps it’s “not even thanks” that NSW teachers are getting, but instead, open ideological warfare.
The final paper in the session was from Dadvand, Dawborn-Gundlach, van Driel and Speldewinde, exploring career changers in teaching and why they stay or leave. Career change teachers are often positioned as part of the workforce shortage ‘solution’, yet these participants were unsure about their future as teachers. The paper used in-depth interview data to privilege teacher voice and highlight the issue of teacher working conditions and support whilst in the job as what needs to be, but is not often, the focus of reform.
A clear thread across presentations was an explicitly identified tension between the needs and desires of the local, straining against the structures of the centre. Eacott, for example, pointed to the challenges created when substantive teachers take leave without pay, resulting in their position having to be filled by precariously-employed staff (if they can be found). Yet supportive and attractive working conditions – including but not limited to leave provisions – are arguably what need to be addressed if the teacher shortage ‘problem’ is to be meaningfully engaged with. And this, in itself, requires re-assessing just what the ‘problem’ actually is: one of teacher working conditions, and the need to build supportive structures around teachers’ work in all schools. As discussant, Professor Martin Mills, concluded the symposium by asking, “What would a school look like where people committed to social justice wanted to teach?”
Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy and is the director of the Bachelor of Education (Secondary). Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. She is an associate editor, The Australian Educational Researcher Links: Twitter & University Profile
I almost never post on Twitter. Sometimes I like other people’s posts, but I’ve been a reluctant Twitter user. However, last week I posted this statement: There is no ‘teacher shortage’. There are thousands of qualified experienced teachers who are no longer teaching. There’s a shortage of respect and proper compensation for teachers allowing them to actually teach. In fact, as full disclosure, I paraphrased this from something posted by Professor Kara Mitchell Viesca | College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with whom I’ve worked. By the time I woke up in the morning, the tweet had gone viral. It’s been liked more 229.5K times, shared 44.2K times and commented on 1,937 times.
Nearly all these comments were posted by teachers or ex-teachers who emphatically agree that a change is needed in how we frame “teacher shortages”. These comments were from all around the world, mainly from the US but also from Australia, Canada, the UK and elsewhere. I haven’t yet sifted through all the comments, which keep on coming.
Overwhelmingly, these teachers (or ex-teachers) perceive the discourse of “teacher shortages” as misguided and even hurtful. As they point out, there are thousands and thousands of well-prepared, passionate, skilled, knowledgeable teachers. Comments on the original post recount how much they put into their teaching, how well qualified they are yet how little they felt valued. The constant criticism of teachers is something Nicole Mockler has written about recently, in her review of media representations of teachers.
Those who posted explained how much they loved the kids in their classrooms, created and taught creative, content-rich lessons. Many said they had been fully planning to teach for the rest of their lives. In other words, there was never a ‘shortage’ of good teachers who might have stayed had it not been so hard. They grieve their loss of career. Many say they didn’t really want to leave teaching, but as widely reported, they could just no longer teach how they wanted to – nor in some cases could they maintain their mental and physical health under current conditions. Teachers talked about the pressures of only ever receiving impermanent contracts, of endless reporting, of unreasonable workloads dominated by non-teaching tasks, of being on the receiving end of constant teacher-blaming. They also wrote about the de-professionalisation of teaching and their loss of autonomy.
Some mentioned other reasons for leaving, such as poor student behaviour but by far the majority of comments simply responded ‘truth’ or ‘yessss’ or ‘agree’. The sadness on the part of teachers who no longer feel they can remain teaching is palpable from these responses.
Some teachers who have left the profession have found a way around those pressures by taking advantage of government schemes, both in Australia and elsewhere that are designed to address teacher shortages but may have created a different set of problems. For instance, in Victoria significant funding has been allocated through the Tutor Learning Initiative https://www.vic.gov.au/tutor-learning-initiative-2022-information-for-prospective-tutors which employs part-time tutors in schools to ‘catch up’ students who are academically behind since the pandemic. One unintended consequence was that exhausted and often very experienced teachers took the opportunity to take well-paid tutoring jobs that relieved them of the parts of teaching they liked least, such as duties that could be carried out by administrative staff. Again, the ‘resignation’ from teaching cannot be perceived as a ‘teacher shortage’ but as a kind of redistribution of talent. Good or ‘quality’ teachers have chosen to move sideways (in fact downwards, taking less pay and security but with less stress) to stay in schools.
In fact, there is no lack of research on why teachers leave. There have been numerous teacher attrition and retention studies over a great many years. Except for pandemic related workforce issues (sickness and lockdowns) we’ve been warned for a long time that we needed a teacher workforce renewal strategy, not just because of an ageing workforce but because of the increasing accountabilities and pressures on teachers. These issues are widely reported, not just by other researchers, but in recent reports such as the Grattan Institute report Making Time for Great Teaching.
Along with Amy McPherson, Bruce Burnett and Danielle Armour, our recent review of twenty years of government, ITE and private initiatives to attract and retain a teaching workforce conservatively found 147 government, ITE or partnered initiatives that have been trialled over the past twenty years. One recommendation is that understanding the retention of teachers at key ‘walking point’ moments would assist policymakers in designing longer-term, more impactful interventions to attract teachers towards hard-to-staff schools (especially when they are considering leaving the profession).
This review of the many initiatives that have already been funded and implemented is just one research project repeating what seems to be clear. Incentives may attract people including career-changers, to teaching, but it’s a whole of system issue. The problem isn’t Initial Teacher Education on its own, which has been graduating very good (sometimes great) teachers for many, many years. The problem isn’t a lack of smart, passionate, and committed people who want to be teachers. But the well may go dry – we can’t keep looking elsewhere for teachers if we aren’t able to keep them in the profession. There’s little question that this is a crisis. We do need teachers in front of students; and there is no doubt teaching workforce issues are urgent. But sending teachers our there more quickly or prescribing curriculum to ‘help them manage their time’ is a misunderstanding of what’s going on. And by the way, school leaders agree. There were many comments from Principals as well.
I want to make it clear that I had not expected this post to go viral. I have been coordinating social justice teacher education programs such as the Nexus alternative pathway into teaching for a very long time. I see amazing schools and dedicated teachers ever day who are doing remarkable things under difficult circumstances. I am ‘for’ teachers and schools.
If 229.5K isn’t evidence enough of how teachers are feeling I’m not sure what is. I’m also very reluctant to focus only on “teacher grief”. Let’s also tap into the stories of teachers who remain in schools, especially now. Let’s find out what their working lives are like. Their lived experience will tell us how close they are to walking, why they stay, what keeps them going. Nobody knows how to find solutions better than those most affected.
On August 8, the Minister for Education Jason Clare published the Teacher Workforce Shortages Paper in advance of the Teacher Workforce Roundtable to tackle the national teacher workforce shortage
Maybe we should stop using the term teacher shortages.
We have a teacher workforce issue without a doubt. We need more teachers urgently. But some of us are nervous about recruiting new teachers at the same time as we are sorting out their workplace conditions.
Jo Lampert is Professor of Social Inclusion and Teacher Education at La Trobe University. She has led alternative pathways into teaching in hard-to-staff schools for over 15 years, most recently as Director of the Commonwealth and State supported Nexus M. Teach in Victoria, a social justice, employment-based pathway whereby preservice teachers work as Education Support Staff prior to gaining employment as paraprofessionals (Nexus). She tweets at @jolampert.
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.
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 email@example.com. 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