teacher recruitment

‘My teacher sucks’: how teacher shortages shatter learning

Teacher shortages in NSW exist. 

This is a surprise to long-term casual teachers who describe permanency as a unicorn. They compete for limited positions in certain locations, sectors and KLAs (Key Learning Areas). But still the teacher shortages exist. 

Having worked across a range of settings, metropolitan and regional, highly competitive selective environments, metropolitan disadvantaged schools and small rural schools, and in a range of roles, I’ve seen the view change distinctly from where you place your chair.

For school principals, teacher shortages are the bane of their lives. Creating a timetable to satisfy every student’s increasingly incontrovertible right to a personalised curriculum is compromised by the capacity to staff primary industries, visual design, French, Aboriginal Studies and so on. Principals all know that when teacher recruitment replies “there isn’t anyone” and they hang up the phone, that what they really mean is “you are on your own” because the kids don’t cease to exist just because recruitment can’t find a teacher. 

A lack of reliable centralised staffing means that every single principal knows that January will be running the recruitment gauntlet alone, whilst holding their breath that the new grads who accepted a position bright-eyed on graduation late last year haven’t been given a better offer. Leading the implementation of whole school programs such as wellbeing teams with complex case management of individual students whilst executing whole school improvement plans and expecting principals and teaching staff to play a pivotal role in instructional leadership, leading teachers in collaborative practice and managing small group intervention, is all compromised when you don’t have people to do the work. 

Principals then endure subsequent nonsensical conversations around NAPLAN results declining when there was a parade of different teachers through a child’s life, some with no experience in dealing with little Justin’s intergenerational trauma or Truc’s mental health challenges. They nod in compliance and then steel themselves to improve student outcomes. They are reminded once again that literacy and numeracy matter whilst politicians wave their sabres declaring war on inadequate results.

Students’ experiences of teacher shortages are not directly articulated, however manifest in their indirect experience of school.

“My teacher sucks” on the surface belies the reality that Mr Rawson was teaching Visual Arts after training in French, and was only teaching Visual Arts because he’s new to the school and was desperate for a job.

“School was crap today” doesn’t explain why Petra had to sit in the playground outside the Deputy Principal’s office for 3 periods because the Deputy Principal had been calling casual teachers since 6:00AM and got no hits that morning. “I can’t study what I want, it’s a crap school” doesn’t articulate that the curriculum on offer at a school is compromised by the staff capacity, and schools can choose to either staff a subject with an untrained, albeit well-intentioned, teacher who has never taught a course before, or to stick to the expertise of staff and limit curriculum choices.

Parents’ experiences of teacher shortages vary from the well-informed ally to the angry and oftentimes entitled Lord and Lady. “The teachers are so unreliable, we can never speak with them and they cancel meetings on the day” when Mrs Joseph couldn’t meet with Dang’s mother because she was given an extra teaching period that day. “The teachers just don’t know their stuff” as the physicist reviews Mr Daly’s attempt to teach Physics that was never covered in his Mathematics degree. “All Mary wanted to study was German and IT, and they can’t even provide that!” when the school is offering 32 elective classes by offering a combination of courses through TAFE, local school networks, Distance Education providers and the school staff.

Teachers’ experiences of teacher shortages are relentless and lived daily. When a school leader can’t find a casual teacher, it is the teacher who picks up the additional load. When students can’t be covered by a teacher colleague then the Deputy Principal will often supervise them, however supervision is not instruction, and when that supervision ends, the child will return to another teacher’s classroom later that day and it will be that teacher who has to tame them, inspire them and engage them again. A teacher may have time during the day to prepare for an afternoon lesson, however every teacher knows that when you need that time during the day, it will get consumed, often by an extra duty caused by a teacher shortage. The only way to prepare for that class then is out of hours. When the teacher wants to access that course on Inclusive Teaching, they can’t because the Deputy can’t release them from class. Luckily the course will be recorded, or made available out of hours so the teacher can access it on their quiet Saturday afternoon. A teacher is the one who must wrestle with new knowledge beyond their expertise, hating not being able to foster the students’ excitement as much as they can within their own field of expertise. This saps morale and increases workload. And when finally beaten down and weak, teachers resist taking sick leave because they know it will only exacerbate the challenges for their colleagues, and after all, it’s generally easier to come to school unwell than prepare work for a class that may or may not have a teacher, and the teacher has to get through the curriculum before the next assessment phase anyway.

For those who work outside of schools, teacher shortages still have an impact. A flexible workforce is critical to respond with agility to political imperatives such as promoting language programs when the wind blows from a diplomatic field such as the growth and decline of Korean. Similarly, promoting STEM in schools requires Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics teachers. It’s difficult to manage priority areas across a system without people on the ground.

The current requirement for a double dose vaccination for all school staff is more than a health direction for school struggling to staff their classes. A Public Health Order may have an indirect role on harder to staff schools as those who refuse to be vaccinated will leave the profession, and the vacancies generated by their departure will be filled by those from the harder to staff schools, just like we have seen with the COVID intensive learning support program.

A system that promotes every student, every teacher and every school improves, every year must prioritise learning. How can teachers and schools improve if they can’t access professional learning? How can schools continue to grow from year to year if the harder to staff schools churn through early career teachers annually, if they are lucky enough to recruit them in the first place. Over time we are seeing an increasing disadvantage between schools that struggle to find staff year after year, and those schools that have a large percentage of their staff who are highly experienced, expert teachers in schools that can continue to build on their shared vision and expertise year after year. How can a system effectively respond with system levers across such diverse contexts?

So, teacher shortages matter depending on where you put your chair. If you work outside schools, they are a strategic challenge, for a principal they impede whole school functions and strategic planning. Students experience teacher shortages through the “school sucks” lens and parents deride a school blind to the reasons driving the challenges they experience. Teachers feel the shortage, and it becomes a vicious spiral of fatigue, a vortex that saps their morale and erodes their working conditions. It would be lovely if those with their chairs placed outside schools could remember, or even knew, what it looks like to place your chair in the centre of the amphitheatre and to feel what teacher shortages mean, rather than to just ‘know’ what they mean. If they could, then perhaps addressing teacher shortages would become more urgent. The boat is sinking, and we cannot afford it to sink any more. We want schools to thrive, our principals to confidently enhance the strengths of everyone in their school to carve out the best possible future for all students. We want to guarantee a diverse, expert and motivated workforce in every local school. Without teachers in schools, we can’t.

Teacher shortages matter for all of us.

Paul Laing is a doctoral research student (EdD) at the University of New South Wales and he has a background teaching languages across a broad range of schools in NSW. He has worked as a classroom teacher, Head Teacher, Deputy Principal and Principal, as well as a Teacher Quality Advisor and Curriculum Advisor. His current research includes exploring the relationship between working memory span before and after instruction. He has a keen interest in cognitive load theory and the contribution of cognitive science to learning design.

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