Mihajla Gavin

Why teacher unions matter now more than ever

Teachers are striking. Not just in NSW, Australia, where the NSW Teachers’ Federation went on strike when it took to the streets in late 2021. Teachers in the states of Washington, Ohio and Seattle in the United States also took strike action this year in response to similar pressures that Australian teachers are facing. They are demanding smaller class sizes, more specialist support for teachers, higher wages, and better conditions to prevent teacher burnout.

My research has focused on school education mainly in NSW where market-driven agendas have entrenched competitiveness in education systems, contributed to the rise of precarious work in the teaching profession, slowed the growth of teacher salaries, and increased the workload and administrative burden on teachers and school leaders. For the last 40 years, neoliberal policy agendas in education have threatened to undermine the democratic foundations of public schooling and weaken education unions that represent the voice of thousands of teachers.

Research on teacher unions is lacking

Although public education is an issue at the forefront of society, what is lacking in the conversation about neoliberal education reform agendas is how teacher unions attempt to challenge such agendas. Teacher unions are important civic and economic associations that articulate teachers’ collective and professional voice.

As an interdisciplinary researcher spanning the fields of industrial relations and education, my research focuses on the interrelations between employees and employers and their representatives, and the state. For nearly 10 years, I’ve examined the complex contexts in which teacher unions organise and campaign in an effort to understand the strategies they use to resist neoliberal agendas.  

My chapter, recently published in Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia, contributes to understanding how teacher unions build grassroots activism and shape campaign strategies to resist neoliberalism and inspire action towards a more democratic future. The chapter is nested in a broader conversation in the book, alongside contributions from teachers and researchers, which is focused on giving primacy to teachers’ voices in education scholarship and public debates. The chapter draws upon insights from my doctoral thesis which examined how one teacher union in Australia has campaigned over the last 40 years in response to various education reforms and threats to teachers’ working conditions.

Lessons in building union power

There are contemporary reports of a teacher shortage crisis in New South Wales. Compounding this is an ageing teaching workforce. While the education and training industry has the highest proportion of employees who are trade union members, revitalising how unions recruit and engage the next generation of activists is a key concern of unions today, not only for teacher unions. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics union membership data from August 2020, only 5% of employees aged 15-19 years are trade union members; this is only marginally higher at 6% for those aged 20-24.

In addition to the profile of unionism changing, the social, political, economic and cultural environment of organising is also evolving. One Former Assistant General Secretary of the teachers’ union I spoke to in my research reflected on this: “[when] you started teaching, you joined the superannuation scheme, you joined the health fund, and you joined the union, and you were just active in the union”.

Renewing strategies to engage an incoming generation of teachers into the profession has been an important task for teacher unions. Strategies have included organising beginning teacher conferences for teachers new to the profession, establishing networks to connect young activist teachers, and offering training and professional development opportunities for members.

Campaigning to advance alternative ideas in public education

The concepts of governance, accountability, efficiency and competition are also changing the way we think about public institutions and public services. Freedom within education is being constrained and democracy is being threatened by neoliberal logics. Such ideology has challenged the fundamental values on which public education systems have been built.

Research shows that teacher unions have responded to this in various ways, including ‘organising around ideas’, connecting with community and campaigning for social justice. This means presenting alternatives to dominant (neoliberal) ideas and campaigning for a vision of quality public education based on the values and principles of democracy and social justice.

Framing campaign messages in response to different contexts enables unions to set the agenda for public education and articulate the voice of the profession.

For instance, using ‘local stories’ can be a powerful way to appeal to parents and community members during campaigns. In one education funding campaign I researched, a Union Organiser from a teacher union spoke about how their campaign was framed around:

“not talking about the billions of dollars and talking about macro level, but just saying to the community this is what it means to you, this is what it means to Billy in kindy when he arrives at the school and he can’t speak a word of English, he’s able to get access to support . . . Those stories can’t be refuted and they can’t be talked down . . . [i]f you’re actually talking about a real human from a real place in a real situation.”

Empowering teachers has also been important in the face of threats to their core industrial and professional conditions of work, as well as the strong criticism and blame that has been placed on teachers over many recent years.

Teachers and their unions are working in challenging times. Continuing to foster a sense of empowerment in teachers and placing the voice of teachers at the centre of education debates is crucial in order to protect and advance the conditions of one of the largest occupations in the world.

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

Why is there so much talk about teachers right now? Because we are afraid of them

The federal minister for education Jason Clare convened a roundtable to solve the teacher shortage on the eve of the new government’s Job Summit. Items on the agenda? It wasn’t hard to go past working conditions, status, and a growing, chronic teacher shortage as the impetus for history-making industrial action and considerable media coverage.

Concerns about teachers’ working conditions have themselves arisen out of a context in which teacher quality, figures of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teacher, the fear of indoctrinating teachers, have been increasingly constructed as ‘policy problems’ to be addressed. ‘The teacher’, it seems, is becoming one of the most contested figures in contemporary education policy debates.

We have recently edited a Special Issue of the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives in which the collected papers reflect on the current positioning of teachers across a range of international policy contexts. This journal, unlike the majority of academic journals, is run by a university and is entirely open access, which means you can read the full issue. You can also watch a video introduction to the issue. 

Look at Australia, for example

In our introduction to the issue, we use Australia as an example of a country in which responsibility has been placed on teachers to ‘fix’ perceived educational crises, often through policy reform that requires teachers to be ‘better’ trained, more professional, more accountable and more standardised. Here, the past fifteen years of education policy has featured: the introduction of standardised census testing of students via the National Assessment Programme, the results of which are made public via the My School website; the introduction of national teaching standards and accreditation requirements; and repeated inquiries into initial teacher education, with the introduction of program standards and, more recently, mandated teacher performance assessments.

Why are teachers so central to education policy?

Given all this policy change, we think it’s reasonable to claim that teachers are the targets of much political and popular consternation. But what is it about teachers that makes them such a matter of attention and concern, and how does the current political climate contribute to these (often unrealistic) expectations?

According to Wodak, populism has an “appeal to the ‘common man/woman’ as opposed to the elites”. She has argued that in populist regimes, ‘difference’ is denied and the ‘common’ is valorised, creating “a demos which exists above and beyond the divides and diversities of social class and religion, gender and generation”.

We argue that it is possible to view schooling (and teaching) as a logical site of public commentary because of the common experience amongst most populations. Indeed, it is often suggested that everyone knows what it is like to be a teacher because everyone has gone to school. As Lortie put it, there is an ‘apprenticeship of observation’ in school education that means everyone, regardless of whether they become a teacher or not, forms ideas about the work of teaching simply because of their ongoing interactions with teachers throughout a significant portion of their lives. In terms of populist tendencies, this widespread experience and presumed knowledge about how schools should operate, positions teachers as a common ground upon which critique can be aimed.

At the same time, teachers increasingly bear the burden for the economic, social and political wellbeing of the countries within which they teach. As the global economy becomes understood as essentially knowledge-based, the need to track and compare student achievement within and across nation-states has taken on a broad prominence typified by, for instance, the regular Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Indeed, teachers are an increasing point of focus for the OECD, which now also runs the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) examining teachers’ work and working conditions. This, we argue, reflects a revived and rearticulated emphasis on the teacher.

The teacher as an object of fear

Yet despite this apparent importance, teaching does not often become an object of respect, but rather of fear, emblematic of growing national and international anxieties around knowledge, success and the moral character of the next generation. This puts the figure of the teacher in an uncomfortable position. Paradoxically, teaching is known to all (“anyone could do it!”), yet also unknowable (as a university-based, complex and contested form of expertise). Teachers’ success is supposedly important for global competition, but teaching is not necessarily viewed as worthy of professional status and fair working conditions. Within this context, ongoing attempts to control, standardise and responsibilise teaching and teachers becomes a rational, even urgent pursuit. So much so that the resulting hyper-focus on teachers-as-solution has created what Wodak calls a “fear ‘market’”, where teachers become the target of an expanding “cottage industry” of commercial products (e.g., professional development materials, data-tracking platforms, etc.).

It’s time to destabilise global narratives of teachers

The papers in our Special Issue explore teachers’ work across contexts including the United States, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. The journal in which the issue has been published is based at Arizona State University, meaning that the inclusion of studies from places like Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands may make somewhat unfamiliar reading for many subscribers. This was intentional.

In Australia, education policy is often developed and analysed in reference to what Lingard has termed our common ‘reference societies’ of the US and UK. As researchers and authors, we are routinely asked to make our work ‘relevant’ by situating it in relation to such dominant international reform contexts. But what would happen if this demand was reversed? Should research emanating from dominant contexts instead be required to make itself relevant to more diverse, local spaces, and what analytical possibilities might this open up? Possibly, what is needed is to reimagine teachers and schooling in ways that are less limited by the systems and structures that have led us to this point. Perhaps it is time for teachers and those who research them to truly warrant their positioning as an object of fear, by destabilising the taken-for-granted terms under which they work.


From left: Meghan Stacey is senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy. 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. Mihajla Gavin is a senior lecturer at UTS Business School. Her PhD, completed in 2019, examined how teacher trade unions have responded to neoliberal education reform. Her current research focuses on the restructuring of teachers’ work and conditions of work, worker voice, and women and employment relations. Jessica Gerrard is an associate professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Jessica researches the changing formations, and lived experiences, of social inequalities in relation to education, activism, work and unemployment. She works across the disciplines of sociology, history and policy studies with an interest in critical methodologies and theories. Anna Hogan is senior research fellow in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on education privatisation and commercialisation. She currently works on a number of research projects, including investigating philanthropy in Australian public schooling, the privatisation of global school provision, and the intensification of teachers’ work. Jessica Holloway is senior research and ARC DECRA Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Her research draws on political theory and policy sociology to investigate: (1) how metrics, data and digital tools produce new conditions, practices and subjectivities, especially as this relates to teachers and schools, and (2) how teachers and schools are positioned to respond to the evolving and emerging needs of their communities.

Why performance pay will never fix the disastrous teaching crisis

The NSW teaching profession is currently in crisis. However, recent education reform announcements to address the crisis miss the mark. Teacher workloads have reached unsustainable levels. Our survey research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers showed that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum and policy changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.

Most teachers responding to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers coped with the challenges of this significant administrative load by working longer hours.

Findings from an Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop released in February 2021 found that, in recent decades, there had been a significant increase in the volume and complexity of teachers’ work. But there was a decline in the relative position of teacher salaries compared to that of other professions. Meanwhile the state is facing a worsening teacher shortage which is only contributing to workload problems. 

Stalling award negotiations over issues of pay and workload have triggered months of industrial unrest in the state’s education system.

Is performance pay the answer?

In a bid to ‘modernise’ the state’s education system, Premier Dominic Perrottet recently announced proposed changes to NSW school education. This suite of changes would introduce performance-based pay for teachers, which it is claimed will ‘excel and drive better results for kids’, reduce the amount of administrative work that teachers do, and change school hours.

Under current pay arrangements, teachers typically receive pay increases based on their length of service in the profession and attainment of professional standards. However, salary growth for teachers slows over time

While details of the Premier’s plan for performance-based pay are not yet known, discussions around linking pay to teachers’ performance in Australia – and worldwide – are not new

Performance-based pay schemes have been introduced in countries like the USA – such as President Bush’s Teacher Incentive Fund for states and school districts that chose to introduce merit pay schemes – as well others like China, England, Sweden and Singapore. In Australia, there has also been a long discussion about revitalising teacher pay schemes to attract and retain the best teachers in the profession. Just 5 years ago, measures to pay teachers for performance were also announced by Simon Birmingham as Federal Minister for Education.

Proponents of performance pay commonly argue that it is fairer to reward high-performing teachers than pay all teachers equally, that it motivates teachers, and raises the quality and accountability of teachers. But the weight of evidence to support performance-based pay is lacking. Experts in this area argue that it creates competition between teachers, negatively impacts teacher collegiality, and creates a culture of fear and isolation rather than growth and collaboration in schools. Evaluating teachers’ performance is also highly complex. 

Those against performance-based pay argue that it is difficult to quantify success in a classroom because there are so many elements to it. Scholars have noted how any single measure, such as measurement of student achievement on standardised tests, cannot be a reliable basis for making performance-related decisions about the efforts of individual teachers. Context is also important. Evidence also shows that such schemes are not effective in improving student achievement. At the heart is also a broader conversation about the need for education reform to move away from a focus on performativity and narrow accountability measures.

The Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession – with expert witnesses and over 1000 submissions from teachers and schools – also didn’t recommend performance-based pay as a solution to the complex issues urgently facing the teaching profession. 

The solutions to the teaching crisis are clear

A wealth of evidence is clear about the solutions needed to address the multiple crises facing the NSW teaching profession. Conversations about performance-based pay detract from the real issues facing the profession. We’ve written previously that there appears to be a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia and the policymakers with power over their conditions. Through imposing a new, divisive pay scheme, the Premier reinforces rather than removes these divisions. 

Dominic Perrottet has stated he wants to be known as the ‘Education Premier’, but this will require deeper, more effective steps and genuine engagement with teachers.

The frustration of teachers around issues of pay, workload and shortages has boiled over into industrial unrest since late 2021. It was recently announced by the state teachers’ union that NSW state teachers would participate in another 24-hour strike on 30 June. What is different from earlier strike action is that Catholic school teachers will join them. The last time both unions took joint action was over 25 years ago in 1996 when John Aquilina was NSW Minister for Education. This signals problems in the NSW teaching profession are spreading deep and broad.

Meaningful reform in education should be focused on listening to and supporting teachers, giving teachers the time to collaborate with others, reducing unnecessary administrative burdens, ensuring salaries are competitive, addressing the worsening teacher shortage, and appreciating the integral and vital role that teachers play in our communities and for society.

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

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.

Teachers deserve more than love and praise. They deserve a raise.

Our second post on the NSW Teachers’ strike

It has been 10 years since NSW public sector teachers have taken industrial action. 

Within that decade, workloads for teachers have exploded, salaries have become uncompetitive, and the teacher shortage in NSW has worsened. 

The education sector is at a tipping point. 

NSW public sector teachers are currently renegotiating a new award to protect and improve their salaries and working conditions. But the findings from the Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Professor Emeritus Geoff Gallop released in February this year found stark evidence of a profession in crisis. 

The evidence we presented to the Gallop Inquiry painted a picture of worsening working conditions for the profession and highlighted that urgent change is needed. 

Why working conditions need improving

Working hours are unsustainable 

Teacher workloads have reached an unsustainable level. Our research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers has highlighted that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.

Our research also found the average teachers’ work undertaken at home is consistently between 11 to 12 hours per week, indicating that work in schools is too great in volume to be undertaken on the school site. 

During school holidays, teachers also work excessive hours, on average 10 hours per week, but up to 40 hours in some cases.

Overburdened with administration

Most teachers who responded to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers reported they were coping with the challenges of this major administrative load by working longer hours. In NSW, over 96% of teacher-respondents reported that the volume of collection, analysis, and reporting of data had increased over the last five years. 

If these statistics aren’t concerning enough, the voices of teachers speak to the challenges they face:

“I am currently on leave from the head teacher position and am working as a classroom teacher. This decision was due to excessive work hours, averaging 80-plus hours per week in term and 50-plus hours in ‘holidays’ as a head teacher for six years. The stress of this unsustainable workload left me physically exhausted and mentally drained.”

“The paperwork and administrative work has increased enormously.”

“The administrative demands and all the other useless busy work are detracting from the ability of school leaders and staff to engage creatively and to be innovative in the delivery of teaching and learning.”

One teacher recently tweeted his litany of mandated non-teaching tasks. We note it is not exhaustive:

Precarious work is on the rise

Teachers are not only working harder, but undertaking their job in more precarious conditions than ever before.  Fixed-term contract teaching is a growing feature of the NSW public education system. While the category of ‘temporary’ teacher in NSW was established in 2001 in response to growing concerns around casualization and a need to ensure greater employment security for, in particular, women returning to the workforce after having children, today it constitutes an enhanced dimension of precarity within teaching. 

Around 21% of the NSW teaching workforce currently work in temporary roles. Although temporary teachers do similar work to permanent teachers, they often feel as though they work harder. Many perceive they need to ‘do more’ in order to keep their contracted jobs. 

Teachers told us that: 

“I feel there is an unspoken pressure for temp teachers to ‘do more’ in order to heighten their chances to get work for the next year.”

They are “at the whim of principals who pick and choose according to who toes the line.”

Student results are worsening while teacher shortages increase

The evidence from the survey suggested that negative impacts on students were likely to follow if current trends continued. Sadly, this is the situation that has played out with results of Australian students continuing to decline by international comparisons in particular broad-scale testing regimes.

Alongside the workload problem is the worsening teacher shortage in the State. Enrolment growth, an ageing profession and fewer students enrolling to train as teachers means the profession is at risk of “running out of teachers in the next five years”.

Poor pay plus increasing hours and intensity of work will make addressing a teacher shortage extremely difficult. Lifting pay is critical for the sustainability of the profession and is a signal of the increased attention and respect that is long overdue for teachers. Addressing teachers’ current working conditions is also critical to how shortages can be addressed.

Why strike action is on the table

There is no doubt that it has become more difficult for trade unions to legally engage in industrial action, with the parameters for legal industrial action now being so narrow. 

Indeed, after the NSW Teachers’ Federation announced its intended strike action for 24 hours, the NSW Department of Education (successfully) sought no-strike orders from the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.

Teachers are not a militant profession but have a profound sense of care for the students they teach and the work they do in their communities. This is why industrial action is so extraordinary. 

Strike action is often a last resort. But our research has found that teachers can engage in such action when they feel that policies and political decisions are deeply and significantly threatening their core industrial and professional conditions of work, intensified by an uncooperative or dismissive government. The teachers’ union has said teachers feel this way

Striking is most successful when teachers are collectively aggrieved about multiple deficiencies in the system brought on by the policies of managerialist governments, like poor job security, increasing class sizes, undermining the professional status of teachers, increasing workloads, and bureaucratic models of performance management. 

An uncooperative government can also activate teachers to mobilise when governments are either openly hostile towards teachers and their union, or fail to consult with them on policies that affect their conditions of work. 

There are few occasions in history where NSW teachers have flexed their industrial muscle to take a stand against marketization and managerialism that eroded teachers’ working conditions. In one of the largest demonstrations in Australian labour history, some 80,000 teachers descended on The Domain in Sydney on 17 August 1988 to protest against the Greiner/Metherell cuts to public education funding and market-driven policies. 

The suite of pressure points currently facing the teaching profession brought on by a challenging reform environment sets the scene to rival the success of the 1988 strike. According to Buchanan, “today’s teachers would need a 15 per cent pay rise to restore them to their wage status three decades ago alongside comparable professions”. Given that, the demands seem very reasonable. 

Teachers’ voices must be heard now. If not, it will be too late. 

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

Will the Quality Time Action Plan reduce teacher workload?

Teachers want more time for lesson planning, not less.

Last week, the NSW Department of Education released the Quality Time Action Plan, intended to “simplify administrative practices in schools”. Having highlighted the concerning growth in administrative workload in schools in a report based on a survey of more than 18,000 teachers for the NSW Teachers Federation in 2018, we were excited to hear about this development. 

A way forward for reducing administrative workload?

The Plan provides a commitment to “freeing up time”, through a targeted “reduction of 40 hours of low-value administrative tasks per teacher per year”. Administrative work was the overriding concern for teachers in our workload survey, with more than 97% of teachers reporting an increase in administrative requirements in the five prior years. Further research shows that the heavy workload of teachers pre-pandemic was intensified by COVID19 in 2020. As researchers in the field and advocates for the important work of teachers, we find it encouraging to see tangible efforts made to address teacher workload.

According to the Plan, issues with administration are to be addressed through six “opportunity areas”: 1) curriculum resources and support, 2) assessment and reporting to parents and carers, 3) accreditation, 4) processes and support services, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) data collection and analysis. Some of these areas, especially data collection and analysis, resonate with what we heard from teachers in our 2018 survey. And importantly, some of the actions in the Action Plan do seem to provide tangible reductions in the time teachers spend on this kind of work, such as automating data processing that was previously manual. 

Avoiding the narrowing of teachers’ work

But other target areas of the Plan were more surprising to us, particularly those around curriculum. The Plan acknowledges that “skilled programming and lesson planning are a critical part of teaching” – but also states that “this task can be quite time consuming”. It offers to improve “the accessibility and quality of teacher resources” to “save hours of time teachers previously used creating and searching for content”. We’re not the only ones who were surprised by this inclusion – we noted plenty of social media discussion from teachers about it last Friday after the plan was released to them. 

We don’t have access to all of the data upon which the Department is basing its Plan. Maybe there are teachers who have called for more assistance in programming and lesson planning. There is, to our knowledge, no published research suggesting that this is a problematic workload area for teachers, although it has been a noted challenge in relation to conversion to remote teaching during the pandemic. This Plan strategy does seem to be at odds with the findings of our survey that teachers’ most valued activity, the one that they saw as most important and necessary, was “planning and preparation of lessons”. Similarly, teachers reported wanting more time for “developing new units of work and/or teaching programs”. They did not want to do less of this kind of work, in contrast to what the Plan seems to propose. 

According to policy analyst and scholar Carol Bacchi, policy documents always serve to create or give shape to policy problems. That is, for Bacchi, any ‘solution’ given in a policy is actively constructing a particular kind of ‘problem’ to be addressed. So it’s interesting that the Plan constructs class preparation as part of the teacher workload ‘problem’. This suggests that the problem isn’t that teachers need more time to do their preparation, but that the way in which they have been preparing in the past has been inefficient, with the solution to instil a more centralised approach. While teachers may be appreciative of such resources, it’s not what they advocated in our survey, where the top recommended strategy was to reduce face-to-face teaching time to facilitate a closer focus on collaboration for planning, programming, assessing and reporting. Similarly, we note that the NSW Teachers Federation salaries and conditions campaign launched last week, ‘More Than Thanks’, is – along with higher salaries – calling for an increase in preparation time of two hours a week, to enable this kind of work. 

There are also other interesting framings of the teacher workload problem in the Plan. For example, the support around data collection and analysis seems to be mostly about ‘streamlining’ existing requirements rather than removing them. This tells us that the perceived problem is not the data itself but how it is collected and reported. 

Lesson planning is core to teachers’ work 

Given that the Action Plan’s intended focus is on ‘administration’, this makes us wonder what ‘administration’ in teaching is understood to include. What is considered ‘administration’ and therefore peripheral, and what is considered ‘teaching’ and therefore core? This is quite a high-stakes question. Because if we position some aspects of teachers’ work as simply ‘administration’, then we run the risk of sidelining work that teachers value as part of their professional identity, such as the creative and intellectual work of lesson planning. 

We are wary of any policy approach which re-purposes concerns over workload as an opportunity to control or limit the central pedagogical labour of teachers. Reforms which chip away at the core work of teachers, where both societal contribution and teacher satisfaction is most concentrated, run the risk of damaging the profession and the education system it carries.

This may not be what happens under the Quality Time Action Plan. But given recent concerns over the commercialisation of education data and resourcing, it is worth asking whether it would be the profession itself providing centralised programming and planning resources, or if this would be outsourced. 

Teachers’ voices matter: give your feedback 

There is an opportunity to provide feedback on the Action Plan. We encourage teachers – those who live these matters each and every day – to fill in the feedback form. Workload issues are as complex as they are important, and we heartily welcome the ongoing efforts of all stakeholders to effectively support the people who staff our schools. 

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.

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

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.