teacher attrition

What we must do now to rescue Australian schools

We expect education to be a catalyst for more equitable and inclusive societies yet too often governments and systems deploy one-stop solutions without detailed plans for how exactly improvements will be achieved or at what costs.

The Building Education Systems for Equity and Inclusion report comes from an Academy of Social Sciences of Australia workshop I hosted at the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW. Working with representatives from school systems, academia, professional associations, industry, and teachers, the report offers recommendations aimed at addressing inequities in the school system.

Recommendations centre on five key issues: intergenerational policy failure; the need to look beyond the school gate; raising the voice of the profession; data, evidence and research; and ensuring a focus on teaching and learning.

Intergenerational policy failure

While the Australian Government is spending more on education than at any point in history, disparity gaps endure for various equity groups on a range of outcomes. Needs- based funding tied to the implementation of evidence-based reforms hasve been distorted courtesy of the unique policy architecture of Australian federalism. School systems have limited resources with which to pursue their objectives and the design of school funding policies plays a key role in ensuring that resources are directed to where they can make the most difference. 

Australian federalism means there is neither a national system nor a state/territory system of school-based education. Common critiques focus on overlap in responsibilities and duplication. Achieving uniformity is difficult, time consuming, and frequently limited to the lowest common denominator. However, education is a complex policy domain whose actions impact well beyond state or territory borders. Currently, no jurisdiction wants to be the first to admit there are problems meaning systems can deteriorate substantially before action is taken. Asserting jurisdiction independence and sovereignty surrenders some of the strengths of federalism and removes important failsafe mechanisms targeting overall health of the system.

A significant policy problem for education is the current teacher shortage. Substantial attention has been directed at Initial Teacher Education programs, and the attraction and retention of educators. Less focus has been granted to affordability of housing for teachers. With housing (ownership and rental) costs rising, servicing commitments on a teachers’ salary can be difficult – particularly in major cities. The ability to live near the place where one works, or the drivability or commuting infrastructure means that workforce planning needs to take a multi-dimensional approach built on more than just raising the public profile of the profession.

Beyond the school gate

Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data indicates that 22 per cent of children in the first year of formal schooling are vulnerable in at least one domain (e.g., physical, social, emotional, language, and communication), and 11 per cent in two. Early data indicates that the AEDC is a predictor of NAPLAN performance nine years later and with 8.1 per cent of early childhood providers operating with a staffing waiver due to a lack of qualified staff, early intervention is a difficult task.

School-based education exhibits many layers of segregation and stratification. The distribution of students from socio-educational disadvantage or requiring adjustment due to disability are not evenly distributed between sectors (government, catholic, and independent). Peer effects can influence outcomes as much as individual socio-economic status. Cultural context has a large effect (between 33 and 50 per cent) on student performance, and the further a school is located from major cities the lower level of student outcomes. Failure to control for segregation and stratification makes it impossible to identify the drivers of school improvement in different locations and better design interventions aimed at equity and inclusion.

Voice of the profession

Education is seen as ‘a’ if not ‘the’ solution to most social issues and the result is that schools are constantly being asked to do more without having anything removed. Many of the decisions to add things to schooling take place without any engagement or consultation with educators – not education bureaucracies but the educators who work in schools. The result is frequent changes in curriculum documents, additional mandatory training programs, shifting accreditation requirements, updated and expansive administrative requirements, all with negligible impact on student outcomes. This not just intensified teachers’ work but de-democratising the profession. TALIS data indicates that only 28.7 per cent of Australian teachers feel that their views are valued by policy makers. With declining educator well-being and in the context of a teacher shortage, it is timely to establish a forum for representatives from the profession to have a voice in decisions regarding the form, objectives, targets, and outcomes of schooling as articulated in the national agenda.

Data, evidence, research

Improving the equity of education is not possible without data and evidence. You cannot improve that which you do not measure and monitor. An effective school education system needs sufficient data points and appropriate data linkage to understand how well it is performing and robust evidence to identify priority areas for planning, intervention, and policy. While the Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia details nationally agreed performance indicators, inconsistencies across states and territories datasets means that crucial insights for informing policy at a national level are being lost. Data linkage is an urgent task for understanding the relationships between multiple factors and their impact on education and social outcomes to inform effective policy making, program design and research at a national scale.

Systems and schools that embed data-driven evaluation as a core professional responsibility have a greater impact on student outcomes. This has led to schools increasingly being asked to provide evidence of their impact. At the same time, despite an impressive track record, education research is under-funded. Despite the establishment of the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) seeking to position Australian educators at the forefront of education research, without increases in total funding available, it is unlikely that research of the scale and scope necessary to effectively inform policy can be conducted. A promising avenue for increasing the quality of evidence and data use in schools and systems is co-design. However, it requires strategic leadership and matching incentives (including funding mechanisms) to better enable a systemic approach to research use, knowledge translation and breaking down boundaries between stakeholders.

Focus on teaching and learning

Pedagogical reform is a low-cost high-return approach to addressing distortions in a school system. Australian research (for example, Quality Teaching Rounds) has demonstrated that targeted and tailored interventions can positively impact student outcomes and teacher well-being. Yet, 76 per cent of teachers describe their workload as unmanageable. Australian schools have more instructional hours (828) than the OECD average (713), with teachers engaged in far more administration and school management than higher performing systems (e.g., Finland, Estonia). Attempts to recognise quality teaching through accreditation have received little uptake with only 0.33 per cent of the workforce certified at Highly Accomplished or Lead. Addressing equity and inclusion requires attention to how systems are designed to focus on the instructional core of schooling and making sure that resources (human, physical, and financial) are targeted towards achieving the highest quality of teaching in every classroom.

Summary

As the world re-sets to life under pandemic, the internal tensions for differentiation and external pressures for standardisation on education policy have never been greater. With increasing costs for public services at the same time as government revenue and household incomes falling, issues of educational equity, inclusion and excellence are amplified. The pressure to consolidate resources and pursue cost efficiencies will be felt most significantly by the poorest and most marginalised children and communities throughout the country. The stakes are high. Education is critical to human welfare, especially in times of rapid economic and social change.

Ensuring that resourcing and oversight focuses on the health of the system, with wraparound services supporting the workforce to have a voice and what they need for high quality instruction give Australian school systems the best chance of delivering equitable outcomes for all. 

Participants in the workshop

Professor Scott Eacott, Gonski Institute for Education, UNSW Sydney

Professor Eileen Baldry, UNSW Sydney 

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, University of Newcastle 

Professor Chris Pettit, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

Professor Suzanne Carrington, Centre for Inclusive Education, QUT 

Dr Goran Lazendic, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)

Dr Virginia Moller, Steiner Education Australia 

Dr Rachel Perry, NSW AIS Evidence Institute

Dr Bala Soundararaj, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney 

Rebecca Birch, Teacher, Independent School 

Cecilia Bradley, Australasian Democratic Education Community 

Zeina Chalich, Principal, Catholic Education

Mark Breckenridge, Australian Secondary School Principals’ Association 

Elizabeth Goor, Montessori Australia 

Alice Leung, Head Teacher, Concord High School

Alex Ioannou, Montessori Australia 

Matthew Johnson, Australian Special Education Leaders and Principals’ Association  

Maura Manning, Catholic Education Parramatta 

Andrew Pierpoint, Australian Secondary School Principals’ Association 

Daniel Pinchas, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)  

Diane Robertson, Principal, NSW Department of Education 

Michael Sciffer, PhD Candidate, Murdoch University

Scott Eacott PhD, is deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.

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 that one tweet went viral (and what we must do now to fix “teacher shortages”)

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.

Here’s what a brave new minister for education could do right away to fix the horrific teacher shortage

The new Federal Minister for Education Jason Clare announced last Friday he would convene a Teacher Workforce Roundtable focussed on tackling the nationwide teacher shortage, to be held on August 12. The roundtable will include principals, teachers and education experts.

The critical shortage of teachers is a crisis of our own making. 

We knew the teaching workforce was ageing a long time ago and we knew we would reach a point where we would have so many teachers retiring that we would need to increase the number entering to make up the gap. 

Too many pundits are blaming the stress of the pandemic – but this is not the consequence of COVID. It is a failure of workforce planning by successive governments and now we all have to take some responsibility for – and find new ways – of working together to address the problem.

First, let me say that the ministers, both Federal and State, must urgently address the disparity between state schools and private schools in the recruitment process.

As head of the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work, I observe closely what happens to students in their final year who are able to apply for Conditional accreditation, and to teach up to a recommended 0.6 of a full time teacher’s load. Some of my colleagues have wisely pointed out the risks of mixing work and study, and the potential to hasten burnout.  

The final year, with its long placement (internship), and opportunities for well-managed Conditional accreditation, is also a great opportunity for schools to assess a student teacher’s capacity and whether they are likely to fit within the school culture. 

Independent schools use this as a kind of probation period, and some provide scholarships to students in the final year of their teaching degrees AND, if they work out well,  guarantee them permanent, secure jobs. That’s not something public school principals are able to do. I hear from so many public school principals who say they would love to be able to offer similar incentives.

Instead, the majority of young students eager to stay in the public system have to work years as casuals before they can get a permanent secure job. We have outstanding student teachers who are committed to the public system but the public system is not committed to them.

Why is the public system so hamstrung? Our students, not just at Sydney University but across the nation, should be snapped up and looked after, instead of being abandoned to such a casual approach.

We need to value the contributions of those who have committed to a career in education. Instead, there is a chorus of critics. The immediate previous federal minister for education Stuart Robert attacked public school teachers as duds without a shred of evidence. While it is pleasing to note that the new minister has a vastly different approach, the general attitude of politicans and pundits is poor. As my colleague Nicole Mockler has written elsewhere, there is a lot of focus on “teacher quality” but none on system quality. Poor performance is blamed on “teachers themselves, rather than to the system in which they practise”.

As Mockler says: “It has been used to justify tighter controls on who enters teaching, denigrate teachers and evade difficult questions of equity and funding.”

For a moment, at the height of lockdown, I thought that changed. The work of teachers was valued, particularly by parents trying to teach their children at home. Suddenly everyone understood how hard it was to teach just one or two children. Imagine 30 in a classroom at once.

But that momentary shift in attitude appears to have disappeared and there has been a return to denigrating the profession, those who enter teaching, and those who teach teachers. This has an influence on recruitment and an impact on young people’s choices. Why would you join a profession that is so lacking in value and respect. 

We also need to do a much better job looking after and retaining the teachers we have. Almost two-thirds (59%) of teachers surveyed from New South Wales, the Northern Territory and South Australia indicated that they either intended to leave the profession before they retire, or were unsure if they would stay until retirement. If we think the problem is bad now, imagine what it will be like if those teachers do leave.

Public education must be made more attractive to our graduates but also to the teachers who are already in our public schools. It is difficult to maintain a steady flow into the public school system for the reasons I’ve outlined above – but even teachers early in their careers are deterred by the lack of security and flexibility. The incentives to work in regional, rural or remote areas are not enough to attract and keep teachers. Many of our graduates want to make a difference but they also need to be able to look after themselves and their families. Without any prospect of a permanent position, other systems and occupations become too attractive, especially when they offer higher starting and award rates, and more opportunities for earlier progression to higher rates of pay. This is especially so in the current tight labour market.

This is what poor workforce planning looks like.

It is not the time to shake up initial teacher education because it is not the problem causing a shortage in teachers, and we must not risk undermining the quality of these programs or of the graduates they produce.

We can have confidence in initial teacher education in this country. It is in very good shape. There is too much focus on the intake into teacher education. The fact is that, in NSW for example, school leavers wanting to enter an education degree must have three band fives in their HSC (including English) or equivalent – and those who don’t must do well in the first year of university studies before they are admitted. 

We can also have confidence in the quality of our graduates because of the standards they have to meet to become accredited. But what we must do is mentor our new graduates. Give them additional time for preparation, to continue to learn the craft of teaching. Don’t just throw them into the deep end and expect them to swim, because the job of teaching is complex and difficult and without proper support they are likely to not thrive, and may not survive.

It is great that new federal education minister, Jason Clare, has called a meeting of his state counterparts and other key stakeholders because to solve the teacher shortage, we must all  work together and be solution-focussed. The Labor Party has committed to new ‘universities accord’. What better challenge to meet first through this collaborative approach than bringing all stakeholders together to fix the teaching workforce crisis?  

This can’t just be another opportunity to continue unhelpful criticism of teachers or of young people who choose to be teachers or of initial teacher education. We must stop criticising people who are committed to teaching.

But there is something which can be done immediately in schools to help address the crisis. We can employ many more paraprofessionals, who can undertake the tasks that teachers currently do that don’t require a teaching qualification. Relieving teachers of these time-consuming administrative tasks is likely to assist in retaining our existing teachers.

There is also something that can be done in funding arrangements. State health systems receive large amounts of Commonwealth funding for teaching, training and research activities which occur in public hospital services. NSW alone gets $750m this year and the Commonwealth hands over $2billion nationally for it. This funding is provided to state health systems in recognition of the critical importance of education, training and research to the ongoing quality and sustainability of our health system nationally. This kind of funding is not available to school systems. 

Pay our teachers better. Improve their conditions. Invest in training and research in our public, catholic and independent school systems to improve quality and a pipeline of skilled graduates to renew our ageing teaching workforce. Teachers are striking because their pay and conditions are not adequate for the work they do. Entice back the teachers who have left by easing the burden of accreditation. Drop so many of the barriers we have.

The deans of education across Australian universities are wanting to work in cooperation with systems and with ministers. We are keen to do our bit by continuing to produce high quality graduates who will help to fill the teaching shortage.

The views expressed here in this blog are those of the author alone and are not made on behalf of or are intended to represent the views of the University of Sydney.

Debra Hayes is professor of education and equity, and head of the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work.  Her most recent book (with Ruth Lupton) is Great Mistakes in Education Policy: How to avoid them in the Future (Policy Press, 2021). She tweets at @DrDebHayes.

Why is the acting minister trying to damage Australian education?

Part two of a two-part series in response to Stuart Robert’s comments last week. Yesterday: Rachel Wilson on Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Australia is facing a teacher shortage crisis. Schools are struggling to find enough teachers to teach their students. The situation is extremely dire. For example, modelling indicates that Australia is going to be short of more than 8,000 primary school teachers by 2025. Too few people are entering the profession and, worryingly, far too many teachers are leaving early especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Low wages, overwork, difficult student behaviour, lack of support and stress are some of the reasons teachers leave the profession or have periods of sick leave.

The Acting Minister for Education and Youth, Hon Stuart Robert MP gave a very irresponsible speech last week, which will do more harm to the teacher supply crisis. Robert claimed that he wants to ‘attract the very best candidates to the teaching profession and to ensure they are well prepared when they first enter the classroom.’ However, he argued that Australia needs to ‘knock down the bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers’.

He went on to explain:

… you can hire and fire your own teachers, I’m talking to the heads of your schools here. And there’s no way they will accept a dud teacher in their school like, not for a second. So for your school, you just don’t have them, you don’t have bottom 10 per cent of teachers dragging the chain.

This is a clear and calculated political statement about the quality of teachers and how they should be treated.

Robert argued, ‘The point being, if we can take the bottom 10 per cent quality of teachers and turn them into the average quality within the teaching profession, we will arrest the decline.’

Such political statements frame teachers as a “problem” and are aimed at creating derision and uncertainty in the broader public. Robert is doing this well.

Robert clearly calls into question:

·         ‘what students are taught’

·         ‘how students are taught’

·         ‘the environment in which students are taught’

·         ‘the content of ITE courses’

·         the levels of ‘disruptive behaviour in classrooms’

He also calls into question other aspects of education in Australia, including:

·         the quality of public schooling,

·         the quality of teaching,

·         a preference for certain types of education research,

·         public school lack values,

·         parents’ preferences for schools

·         students’ levels of achievement

·         the safety of schools

Roberts’ comments suggest that he considers himself as an appropriate expert who can make informed decisions about education. For example he states, ‘my assessment is that the revisions are travelling very very well.’

Unfortunately, public statements by powerful people, such as Robert, politicise teachers and their work. This politicisation influences who is attracted into the teaching profession and how they do their work, particularly those teachers at the beginning of their careers.

Robert’s political views expressed in this speech focus on individual and deficit perspectives of teachers. He raises unfounded concerns about many aspects of education in Australia.

Regular attacks on student performance, teacher quality, teacher education, academic standards, teaching methods, and school discipline occur in many countries around the world.

These views are intentional and aimed at undermining perceptions of the success of education systems to bring about more traditional approaches to schooling. That is, politicians like Robert are pursuing an ideological agenda which undermines the professionalism of educators and ignores the bodies of research that should be informing policy and practice.

Such negative views of education continually undermine the profession and create tensions and doubt in society. In this environment it is very easy to slide into disparaging and demeaning public discourses about the declining quality of teachers and the profession more generally.

In a context of uncertainty related to the quality of education in Australia, there is likely to be a range of political remedies to “fix” the problem of incompetent and ill-prepared teachers by reasserting control over teachers’ work and focusing on traditional teaching methods such as scripted curriculum, testing, rewards and sanctions, behaviour management, and explicit instruction.

Australians should be very concerned because Robert’s comments contribute to further de-professionalisation of teachers’ work and a lack of trust in the work teachers do. They are likely to deter people from considering teaching as a career option and could lead to further problems to the overall supply of teachers.

Finally, we should not have ministers of education making politically motivated statements like this:

‘So why don’t we face the brutal reality that we have got to arrest the quality of our teaching, if we are going to make a difference when it comes to it and stop pussyfooting around the fact that the problem is the protection of teachers that don’t want to be there; that aren’t up to the right standard; that are graduating from university or have been for the last 10 years and they can’t read and write. They can’t pass the LANTITE test.’

They are damaging Australian education.

Professor Anna Sullivan is the Director of Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion at the University of South Australia. One of her areas of research focuses on early career teachers’ work. In particular, she has sought to understand the ways in which teachers’ work can be restructured to enable their success and how early career teachers can be supported to stay in the profession.

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

The future of teachers’ pay: time to send a better price signal

Today we will feature two posts on the NSW Teachers’ strike. This is the first post.

At the peak of their careers teachers earn less than electricians, physios, PR people and chiropractors and half that paid to lawyers and finance managers.

What we pay people – especially those at the top of their game – says a lot about what we value.  

As we to look towards a post-Covid-19 world we need to think about what signals we send young people making initial career choices and those planning the rest of their working lives.  

Currently we are sending the wrong signal about teaching.  And that message has been deteriorating over the years.

There are two fundamental problems.

The first concerns the slide in teachers’ pay compared to other professionals in Australia.  In 1986 female teachers earned 102% of the female professionals’ average and male teachers earned 99% of the male professionals’ average. By 2018 the position of teachers had worsened- women teachers earning 93% and male teachers earning 84% of the respective professionals’ average. 

The second concerns their flat earnings profile compared to their peers overseas and most other professions in Australia.   While entry level wages for teachers are relatively high, the top of the teacher’s pay scale in Australia is compressed relative to that paid to their peers in many OECD countriesl

What needs to be done?

Research released last year points to the need for a sizeable increase (minimum of 10-15%) in teachers’ wages.  This would restore teachers’ pay relative to that earned by the average professional to what prevailed 30 years ago.

The most effective way of achieving this is to address the problem of the teacher’s compressed wage structure.  Top teachers need to be paid significantly more.  Compared to nearly all other professionals in Australia, experienced teachers are paid significantly less than experienced lawyers, doctors, engineers and ICT professionals.  These professionals have significantly higher rates at the top of the scale (in the range of 30 – 50 per cent higher than those at entry level).

It is time to review the structure of teachers’ pay classifications which are relatively compressed by international standards.  Importantly, in examining other professions, not all members of those professions get the same, higher, rate of pay.  Higher earnings go to particular sub-groups in the respective professions.  This is most evident when we examine those in the top 20% of any profession.  

Increasing the top wage rate would have the effect of increasing the attractiveness of teaching as a lifetime career and greatly increase the likelihood that the best teachers will be retained in the future.

Reports of looming teacher shortages are growing.  A longstanding cause is that as many as one third of new teachers leave within five years of entering the profession.   Conventional economic theory says employers should respond to this with higher wages.

In practice, pay alone is never the solution to staff shortages  – but equally it is difficult to overcome such problems without significant adjustments in remuneration.   Increasing pay is an ‘essential ingredient’ in any serious policy package devised to attract and retain labour.  

Such movements send a signal.  In this case it would make clear that teaching is as highly valued as many other occupations in society – professional and non-professional.  

An improved price signal, especially for those in the upper reaches of the profession, has the potential to profoundly change Australians’ career decisions at the beginning of their working life, retain the best teachers in the system and make it easier for those interested in making the transition into teaching at later stages in their careers.

Professor John Buchanan is based in the University of Sydney Business School.  The report he co-authored is entitled NSW Teachers’ Pay: How it has changed and how it compares is available on the NSW Teachers’ Federation website.

The government must know how to fix the teacher shortage. Why won’t it act now?

Schools are struggling with major teacher shortages and the reason is clear.

Australia’s education system is missing one fundamental part – a national teacher recruitment and retention strategy. 

Every other country I have reviewed has one; here’s England’s, here is Bulgaria’s, Zimbabwe’s is recently announced.  I’m not emphasising this because we should copy other countries. There is a much stronger argument –  internationally the importance of the teaching profession is widely understood, with appropriately weighty policy attention.

Australia’s current Quality Initial Teacher Education Review will make a contribution in this regard and it has broadened terms of reference to include “attracting and selecting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession“. However, the scope does not include retaining teachers nor effective allocation of them to areas of need. This is an area of pressing need and one of the structural systemic failings of our education system.

It will not be addressed with piecemeal policy shots. 

Policy gaps

The fact that we don’t have a national strategy on this speaks volumes about how teachers are undervalued in Australia; and how few with political power recognise the foundational role teachers hold in our economy, social fabric and democracy. 

The difficulties arising from this neglect, and there are many,  include: the current crisis in recruitment of teachers (shockingly evident in NSW where every week another school has to  take action because they are so understaffed), shifts to a less secure workforce, declining academic standards in admission to teaching degree, deteriorating work conditions and workload.

We desperately need a teacher recruitment and retention strategy – as a tool to redress this neglect, provide due respect to teachers and contribute to broader systemic reforms to reverse the declines we are seeing in many educational indicators (and no, I don’t just mean PISA scores). Piecemeal initiatives here and there are not enough, and those initiatives sometimes appear to willfully neglect the evidence base for what works in attracting and retaining teachers.

NSW’s recent announcement to provide what amounts to a cash incentive to attract mid-career professionals over to teaching, with six months of coursework and a six-month paid internship is yet another example of foolish policy. 

This approach has already failed once, as demonstrated by the Commonwealth Government response to the Action now, classroom ready teachers report some years ago. 

Attracting, recruiting and retaining candidates to a profession is a complex, multifactorial and lengthy process that will not be solved with a single incentive. It needs coordinated, comprehensive strategic response, with a long-term plan and system wide reform. This is not the same as the National teacher Workforce Strategy which does not lay out a plan to adress problems, but suggests monitoring via the Australian Teacher Workforce Data project which is still not fully operational after more than a decade in development.

We need a strategic plan built on evidence.

What the evidence says

A systematic review published earlier this year by See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi provides an up-to-date analysis of the relevant literature. As a systematic review, which excludes research that does not meet research quality benchmarks, it provides a quality-assured evidence base. What does it say?

I am guessing this will not be news to the teachers out there:

“The only approach that seems to work at all is the offer of monetary inducements, but there are caveats” (See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi, 2021, p.2.)

The caveats include that monetary inducements work only in attracting those already interested in teaching. The monetary inducements must also be large enough to compensate for challenging work conditions – and provide some offset for teachers who could be attracted to better paying jobs. Reforming both working conditions and financial incentives is important to attract high quality candidates to the profession. The recent Gallop review Valuing the Teaching Profession made it clear current teacher salaries are not competitive with those of similarly qualified professions – addressing this would require a 10 to 15 percent rise in teacher salaries. 

The systematic review also suggests that financial incentives also work better for attracting young females to teaching. They are less likely to work on older and male teachers. It is unclear how they would work in attracting diverse candidates to work in diverse Australian schools. Importantly, the monetary incentives are also only temporary, with no residual benefit. Once the incentive is finished, its power is gone. However monetary inducements do also work in retaining teachers, especially in changing school contexts. Thus, effective policies are more likely those with incentives for entering initial teacher education, and satisfactory pay across the full career span with special incentives for those working in challenging schools.

The review found no evidence for locally recruiting and training teacher education programs intended to supply hard-to-staff schools. Nor that teachers trained via alternative routes are more likely to stay in teaching – why would we keep investing money there then? It also found no good evidence that “pathways” improve recruitment into programs, with only one program shown to be effective in that regard.

There were some, complex findings regarding the effect of professional support for all teachers and mentoring for beginning teachers. Such effects impact on working conditions and workload, which are important considerations.

Uniquely Australian

Australia faces some unique challenges in regard to teacher recruitment and retention. In the 2020 report The Profession At Risk I had the unsavory task of analysing Australia’s declining trends in Initial Teacher Education admission standards, and degree completion rates.There are clear and disturbing trends in ATAR scores, but limited transparency on standards overall. Despite more and more students entering teaching degrees, less than 60 per cent of education students complete their degree within six years. I argue that the poor transparency and low standard for entry in Australia, far below international benchmarks, may be contributing to ( not a result of) the dwindling esteem of the profession- adding a unique element to the Australian teacher recruitment landscape. 

Other analyses suggest Australia also has specific problems with allocation of our teaching workforce.The OECD report Effective Teacher Policies shows that, uniquely, Australian schools have more teachers, and better qualified and more experienced teachers, in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools. 

But we also have a notably low share of top performing students who go on to be teachers; and those students are also more likely to teach in advantaged schools. This stands in contrast to the majority of OECD country who allocate the most high achieving, qualified and experienced teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This is another reason why we need a comprehensive and coordinated national strategy. 

Like waiting for Godot

Teacher recruitment and retention isn’t a new issue for Australia. There have been periodic crises and reviews over that last four decades. A review way back in 1986 suggested a more coordinated, and politically neutral approach was needed. Recommendations have rarely been acted upon. A 2014 Australian DFAT report Teacher Quality Evidence review, exploring suitable policies for international development recipient countries found   

“The systemic development of teacher quality is dependent, first and foremost, on effective teacher recruitment strategies…Supporting effective teacher workforce management by donors can and should include strategies and interventions to deploy teachers in hard–to-reach areas as well as supporting national governments to develop rewarding conditions of service for teachers, ensuring that they are adequately remunerated

If this is the advice we are providing for international aid programs a decade ago, why are we yet to address it for our own precious education system?

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

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

Teachers are NOT under-qualified and NOT under-educated: here’s what is really happening

Australian teachers are doing well. They are not under-qualified and they are certainly not under-educated, as some media stories would have you believe. They are doing an admirable job managing exhausting workloads and constantly changing government policies and processes. They are more able than past generations to identify and help students with wide ranging needs. They are, indeed, far better qualified and prepared than those in our nation’s glorious past that so many commentators reminisce wistfully about.

In fact, our teachers today are the best qualified ever. They are educational specialists. So are their teacher educators, people like us, who prepare teachers for their professional calling. Contrary to the opinions of some media commentators and politicians, our teacher educators are also better prepared and more qualified than ever before. They design and implement innovative, intensive and rigorous teacher education programs, they deal with constantly changing policy and government requirements, and they expertly mentor and supervise their student teachers’ classroom experience.

So let’s unpick this a little just to demonstrate the trustworthiness of our opening claim.

Teacher qualifications

A two-year course was enough to educate teachers in the 1970s. And this was an improvement on the “pupil-teacher” apprenticeship approach that preceded in the 1960s which allowed a person to start teaching before they finished high school.

These days, four or five years of tertiary education is the base line for preparation to be a teacher in Australia. This is followed by mandatory ongoing professional development. Teachers possessing a higher degree are also not uncommon. The profile of teachers in Queensland, for example, shows that 70% of QLD teachers in 2016 possessed higher degrees in the field of education beyond their initial teacher qualification.

Entrance to teacher education courses

The use of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has come under scrutiny in the news recently as a measure for entry into teacher education courses in Australia.  However less than half of those entering teaching education rely on an ATAR in any way to indicate their academic suitability. Many others enter with a post-secondary academic qualification as their measure of academic preparedness for initial teacher education. That is, they have higher than Year 12 academic achievement as their claim to academic ability.

Further, ATAR as a measure alone is not used for teacher education entry in any institution in Australia. The ATAR has been shown to have limited value for teacher education as it oversimplifies the complex attributes that assist someone to start teacher education well, and it ignores the value of the teacher education program itself.

Students entering teacher education today are assessed carefully for their motivation and capacity for a teaching career before entry. They must demonstrate they have numeracy and literacy skills better than 70% of the population. Then candidates for primary teacher education programs in Queensland must have satisfactorily completed their secondary education with demonstrable achievement in maths, a science, and English. Indeed, each regulatory jurisdiction has their own set of requirements. New South Wales, for example, requires three band five ratings (better than 80% achievement) in their senior school results.

We think much of the public debate regarding the entry standards required for teaching programs is testament to an insinuation that a four-year teacher education course can somehow be devoid of any content, or development. If we just waited four years before letting teacher candidates loose on our poor unsuspecting students, then yes, the entry standards would be pertinent. But that’s not what happens of course.

As they are studying to become a teacher, student teachers today have to meet a stringent suite of requirements to develop and demonstrate pedagogical skills, theoretical understanding, conceptual and discipline knowledge across the National Curriculum, communication skills, planning and cultural development capabilities, and so on. This is coupled with substantial in-school teaching experiences and it is all assessed through a rigorous Teacher Performance Assessment.

Teacher education courses and teacher educators

But maybe the real problem is teacher educators and the courses they teach. Are teacher educators just academics who haven’t been near a classroom for years, or in the spirit of the statement “those who can’t do … teach”, are teacher educators just a crew of failed teachers? Certainly that is what some would have you believe. It is simply not true.

Take one of our institutions for example: in our teacher education unit we have 28 academics and all of us are fully qualified and registered teachers. Over 70% of us have been school leaders, heads of department, deputy principals, principals, and/or have held regional leadership roles. The remaining 30% are no slouches; they have all had long and successful careers of an average of 10 years in school classrooms before attaining higher degrees and moving to academia. All are deeply committed to providing a quality program to develop the next generation of teachers.

The teacher education programs we use are all heavily and nationally accredited. They are rigorous and vigorous. These courses are definitely not for the fainthearted. Every student that graduates with a teacher education degree has demonstrably changed and has developed as a professional in response to the program of study and experience we provide. Every graduate meets the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Their professional registration and our accreditation as a higher education provider depend on this. Teacher education institutions are required to provide clear evidence that this is always the case.

Coping with an exhausting workload

Meanwhile for teachers, curriculum areas have grown and the reporting and record keeping obligations have become more onerous. For the average Year 6 class where a single teacher is typically responsible for pulling the entire year of learning together, there are at least eight discipline areas aligning to the national curriculum, supplemented by no less than three cross curricular priorities and seven general capabilities. On top of this there may be cultural or pastoral studies if they are at a faith-based school. So that could be 13 teaching fields for the one teacher with the one class.

Yet back in the 70s, at least in Queensland, teachers were responsible for only six or seven subject areas (depending on whether music was considered in the mix) and they were able to develop their own approaches. They did have more students per teacher: the student/teacher ratio was 24-1 in 1970 compared with 13.7 in 2016. But, there was less content to teach, and a markedly reduced requirement for record keeping, obligations to prepare for national standardised tests, and so forth.

The point is, teachers today are highly qualified professionals who cope with an astounding workload.

So, let’s stop distrusting teachers and stop questioning their qualifications to do their job. Teachers today are well prepared. They are qualified, caring and capable professionals who can be proud of their achievement in graduating from one of today’s rigorous teacher education programs.

And let’s stop distrusting teacher educators. They too are well qualified and are well placed to provide effective teacher education based on their own well-developed capacity to relate to classrooms and students.

Our teaching profession is healthy and strong, and providing a wonderful service to our children, youth and communities. Why is that so hard for some commentators and politicians to believe?

 

Professor Nan Bahr is Pro Vice Chancellor (Students), Professor and Dean of Education at Southern Cross University. In this role she is responsible for oversight and strategic management for improved engagement, experience and retention of students across the University. Professor Bahr also has specific responsibility, as Dean of Education, for the quality of the Teacher Education programs, research and service in the field of education for Southern Cross University. 

Professor Bahr has a national and international profile for educational research with over 100 publications including four books (one a best seller). Key research has been in the fields of music education, educational psychology, teacher education, adolescence, resilience, and teaching innovation in higher education. As a University Teacher, she has been awarded the University of Queensland Award for Excellence in Teaching, has been a finalist (twice) for the Australian Awards for University Teaching, and has been awarded for extended service with the Australian Defence Force.   Nan is on Twitter @NanBahr

Professor Donna Pendergast is Dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research expertise is educational transformation and efficacy, with a focus on: middle year’s education and student engagement; initial and professional teacher education; and school reform. 

Donna commenced her career as a school teacher working in secondary, P-10 and senior college settings before shifting to the role of academic, first at Queensland University of Technology, The University of Queensland, and since 2009, at Griffith University.  She has served in many roles associated with the profession including Chair of the Board of Directors of Queensland Education Leadership Institute (QELI) and Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education (QCDE).  Donna has more than 160 refereed publications, 16 commissioned reports and 19 books, including the popular Teaching Middle Years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, now in its third edition and the recipient of an international Choice Award as an Outstanding Academic title. Donna played a pivotal role in preparing school leaders for the shift of Year 7 to secondary and the implementation of Junior Secondary in Queensland.  In 2015 she received the Vice Chancellor’s Research Supervision Excellence Award, and in 2017 she received a National Commendation from the Australian Council of Graduate Research for Excellence in Graduate Research Supervision. Donna has recently been awarded the Australian Council for Educational Leadership Miller-Grassie Award for Outstanding Educational Leadership. Donna is on Twitter at @pendergast_d

Associate Professor Jo-Anne Ferreira is Director of the Centre for Teaching & Learning and Academic Director, SCU Online at Southern Cross University. She is responsible for enhancing teaching quality and the student learning experience, both face-to-face and online. Prior to this, she was Director, Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. She began her teaching career as a secondary English and Geography teacher in South Africa and Australia.

Jo-Anne has developed and delivered award winning professional development programs in Australia, South Africa and across the Asia-Pacific region to teachers and student teachers. She has also taught in universities in South Africa and Australia. Her research interests are in online education and the sociology of education with a special interest in post-structuralist theories of identity, embodiment and power, in systems-based change, and in environmental and sustainability education. She has most recently led a decade-long research project on systems-based change as a strategy for embedding sustainability education in teacher education.