Teachers in Australia are struggling with workload and feeling underappreciated, and almost six in ten say they intend to leave the profession. These are just some of the many findings of the two large-scale parallel surveys we conducted in the second half of 2019. We asked a nationally representative sample of 1000 members of the public and almost 2500 Australian teachers to share their perceptions of teachers and teaching.
The teacher survey How do Australia’s teachers feel about their work? became one of the largest to have been conducted in this country. It provided teacher participants the opportunity to reflect on their experiences of being a teacher in Australia.
The data we collected told many interesting stories with rich personal responses from teachers, demonstrating the diversity of their work and the depth of the challenges they face.
The key findings from the two surveys provide useful, and at times surprising, information to contribute to the important discussion of teacher attraction and retention in Australia.
- Satisfaction with teaching
Just over half of the teachers surveyed expressed satisfaction with teaching (56 per cent) with a further ten per cent being extremely satisfied. However, a third of teachers (34 per cent) expressed dissatisfaction with their role as a teacher.
Satisfaction is associated with teacher retention, where teachers who report satisfaction with their work being more likely to stay in the profession. It is concerning both for teacher retention and for attracting future teachers, that over a third of teacher participants expressed dissatisfaction with their role.
- Teacher appreciation and respect
This presented interesting and also concerning results. There was a contradiction across the two surveys with the 93 per cent of the public participants trusting teachers to do a good job, and 82 per cent believing that teachers were respected. However, concerningly, 71 per cent of teacher respondents did not feel appreciated by the Australian public.
There are two messages to be taken from this. The first is that trust and respect felt by the public are not always translating into the experiences that teachers have when they interact with the public, whether it is with their local school communities or more broadly with policy and media. Comments from teachers demonstrated that a feeling of being underappreciated was a result of negative personal interactions with parents, media portrayals of teaching and the increasing demands of oversight and accountability that monitor their everyday work. This comment from a teacher illustrates these perceptions,
I feel as though there is very little trust in teachers- this comes from parents, leadership within the school, government, general public and older students. I feel constantly criticised and as though I need to prove myself worthy over and over again. It is absolutely shattering when you’re working hard and with passion, following best practice, constantly building skills to ensure you are continually improving and caring deeply for the individual outcomes of the young people in your care, to be treated as though you are substandard.
The other message from this key finding is that feeling underappreciated contributes to further concern for the retention of teachers and the attraction of teaching as a profession. Ten per cent of teachers who felt underappreciated suggested that this contributed to their desire to leave the profession.
- Teacher workloads
A large majority (76 per cent) of teachers surveyed responded that their workloads were unmanageable. They described excessive workload that impacted on their physical and mental health and their families, and it distracted them from their core focus of teaching and learning. These comments from participants capture the intensity of workload that is being experienced by so many teachers.
I am currently finding a distinct lack of balance between my work and family life. I take work home to mark every day, I plan, prepare and organise each afternoon for the following day and am exhausted after each day falling into bed. I work hours every weekend and during the holidays. There’s little switch off time.
The long hours, workload and the emotionally taxing nature of the job. It’s 24/7 work and my brain is constantly thinking about school or is at school. I don’t think I can do it for more than ten years as a classroom teacher.
The teaching workload and necessary hours to manage it are extraordinarily unreasonable. The impact of this on those teachers with families or caring for elderly parents is detrimental to their health and well-being.
The perceptions that the workload associated with teaching is a challenge was also noted in the survey of the public, with excessive workload demands identified as a main reason that participants would not recommend teaching as a profession to young people in their lives.
Challenges with managing workload were also reported as contributing to reasons that many teacher participants were considering leaving the profession. This is consistent with recent findings of other Australian research that found that Australian teachers work more hours than most other OECD countries and that high workloads contribute to stress, burnout and ultimately attrition.
- Feeling safe at work
Most teachers (80 per cent) reported that they did feel safe at work. However, significantly, one in five (491 participants) did not feel safe and described concerns about physical and psychological risks coming from parents, students and colleagues. Of those who did not feel safe, 54 per cent specifically mentioned violence, aggression or physical assault. Many also described the cumulative impact of regular emotional challenges, stress and unsustainable work/life balance as impacting their physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. These concerns were felt across all career stages. Comments provided showed that these impacts were specifically connected to considerations of leaving the profession.
[Teaching is] too stressful, impact on body health and work life balance. I love my job but it’s not worth the toll it takes on my mind and body
I don’t feel like I can last any longer than this. My job is having a negative impact on my health
Concerns for our teachers and the future of teaching
Our findings suggest there are many teachers in Australian schools who are struggling with their work. Issues of workload, safety and lack of appreciation are contributing to teacher dissatisfaction. Australian teachers go into the profession often because they care about making a difference in the lives of children and young people. But the realities and stressors of the role undermine this sense of purpose and ultimately contribute to attrition, and more broadly to public perceptions of the work that make teaching a less career attractive choice.
Concerns about shortages in the teaching workforce in Australia have been linked to issues of an ageing workforce and high rates of early career teacher attrition. There are many schools, often in rural and remote or other hard-to-staff schools where shortages are already having an impact. Our study adds evidence of what is contributing to attrition rates and the growing lack of interest in teaching as a career. These are issues we need to face to ensure we have a strong Australian schooling system into the future.
Dr Fiona Longmuir is a lecturer in educational leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Her research focuses on intersections of educational leadership, educational change and social justice with current interests in student voice and agency, social cohesion and alternative approaches. Fiona teaches in the Master of Educational Leadership and principal preparation programs. Fiona can be contacted at Fiona.firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @LongmuirFiona
Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Amanda’s key research interests include educational leadership, social justice, and policy enactment. Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. Amanda can be contacted at Amanda.Heffernan@monash.edu and found on Twitter @chalkhands
Dr David Bright is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne. His research interests include critical approaches to English as a second/foreign language, Indigenous education, teacher and student identity, international schooling, and post-qualitative research methods. David teaches in a number of pre-service and postgraduate education programs. He can be contacted at David.Bright@monash.edu and found on Twitter @d_a_bright
Read the full report of our study : Perceptions of teachers and teaching in Australia