teacher shortage

Distorted reports keep coming. This one will make you livid

What should we be talking about when we talk about teachers? Teachers’ pay, working conditions and the looming teacher shortage. 

What are media talking about instead? A commonly suggested ‘solution’ to address concerns about standards in teaching: pre-prepared lessons, or, as the Grattan Institute describes them in a recent report, ‘high quality teaching materials’. 

The Grattan Institute, a thinktank, notes in its summary of the report that: “of 2,243 teachers and school leaders across Australia, … only 15 per cent of teachers have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes.”

In a departure from any claims to objectivity, the report paints a picture of teachers “being left to fend for themselves, creating lessons from scratch and scouring the internet and social media for teaching materials”.

This is yet another example of a large scale survey conducted by those with only a tangential relationship to the profession. It ignores the views of many teachers and offers a ready-made solution – one likely to become another costly and wasted expense for taxpayers. It also fails to note such approaches have been tried in some jurisdictions in Australia – with limited success, for example, the Curriculum-to-Classroom program in Queensland was found to be deficient. The surest outcome of such an approach would be a new revenue stream for specifically chosen edu-businesses as they rush to be selected as the provider of choice.   

There are already a range of paid options for teachers to access similar resources through sites like Twinkl, Teachers Pay Teachers, TES and others. Admittedly, these are paid resources; we argue it is unreasonable for teachers to pay for any curriculum resources out-of-pocket. However, even a ‘free’ version seems misguided because it does not pay attention to the work – and the expertise – that is central to teachers’ practice. And this practice includes the careful design and development of learning materials. This is not something that can be outsourced. 

As we say, the assumption and positioning of highly trained and university-qualified teachers, many of whom have trained for 4 or more years, as vulnerable and ‘fending for themselves’ is odd.

Planning lessons, finding, curating and developing resources is central to the work of teachers. Many teachers take great delight in carefully crafting lessons that leverage students’ interests; education is not, and never has been a one-size-fits-all model and any claim otherwise is undermining teachers, leaders and education support staff around Australia.

Teachers delivering content via a pre-prepared script or lesson might seem easier and simpler, but it remains difficult to see who benefits from a lifeless and unthinking teacher delivering someone else’s content. The key to teaching – and learning – lies in the human relationships between teachers and students. Those human relationships allow for careful contextualisation and design. It is that which drives teachers to search for just the right YouTube clip – the one that will appeal to that particular Year 9 Science class – not a sense of ‘fending for themselves’. Whereas teachers are responsible for their school students, families and communities, creators of ‘teacher-proof’ lesson banks are accountable to their corporate employers. As Lucinda McKnight reflects, ‘who would we rather have designing learning experiences for our own children?’. 

Our new book, Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia has taken the focus of empowering teachers and outlines alternative, human-centric ways that teachers can be trusted and empowered to make decisions about their work, with the shared goal of democratising approaches to education. By combining theory, academic thinking and teachers’ best practice examples, the book provides a range of suggestions on many of the key challenges facing Australian education. For example, George Lilley outlines the way that teachers have been sidelined in favour of a rigorous adherence to educational research.Alex Wharton’s chapter   imagines what an education system might look and function like if teachers were respected across all facets of their domain. 

Polly Dunning’s chapter articulates the range of pressures placed upon teachers – and the effects this has on children. Not surprisingly, the nature of lesson planning is not mentioned, but rather the rise of administrivia and additional expectations placed upon teachers without additional time or funding provided. 

As with many things in education, the best solutions require humans to be empowered to find their own solutions.   Education is filled with complex, ‘wicked’ problems, where solutions can take time, and require contextual nuance. ‘Solutions’ such as those suggested by The Grattan Institute ultimately misunderstand the work of the teacher as technocratic and therefore something that can be standardised. Until we appreciate the complexity of what it means for teachers to teach, we will continue to be presented with claims of ‘teacher-proof’ policies and materials that ignore the diversity of the students, whilst disenfranchising the teaching profession. 

If we are aiming to recruit and retain teachers, poorly thought out solutions such as providing teachers with pre-prepared teaching materials, as suggested by the Grattan Institute, is not the answer. This will do little to reduce workload, and it will also further damage the reputation of the teaching profession by limiting the expertise of teachers. These outcomes will do little to encourage people to become or remain teachers.  

Instead, we must look towards long term solutions that recognise the expertise of the profession. Trust, empowerment and listening to the voices of the profession is key. 

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors.

Steven Kolber is a teacher at a Victorian public school, the founder of #edureading founder, secretary of Teachers Across Borders Australia and a proud member of @AEUvictoria. #aussieED Global Teacher Prize top 50 Finalist

Tom Mahoney is a teacher and educator of secondary VCE Mathematics and Psychology students, currently completing a PhD in Educational Philosophy part time through Deakin University. His research explores the influence of dominant educational ideologies on teacher subjectivity. You can keep up to date with Tom’s work via his fortnightly newsletter, The Interruption, via Substack. Tom is on Twitter @tommahoneyedu  

Why teacher unions matter now more than ever

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

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

Research on teacher unions is lacking

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

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

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

Lessons in building union power

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

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

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

Campaigning to advance alternative ideas in public education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage

Burnout is blamed for an exodus of teachers contributing to ‘a teacher shortage crisis’ in Australian schools. The teacher burnout argument offers a ‘convenient’ explanation of why teachers leave – they burn out as external pressures wear them down. Yet, framing the problem as one of teacher burnout diverts attention from ‘the moral crisis’ with which our teaching workforce has been grappling for years. 

The moral crisis is rooted in despair when teachers face persistent and chronic challenges to the values that animate their work. It emerges when the ‘call to teach’ as a moral practice meets an inequitably resourced education system that prioritises test-based accountability and top-down engineering of teachers’ work. 

The teacher shortage crisis 

The crisis talk has brought attention to some of the most legitimate grievances of teachers in Australia. Inadequate remuneration, unsustainable workloads, administrative burdens, and growing bureaucratic requirements have had irrefutable negative effects on teachers’ morale and their sense of career optimism. 

The teacher shortage crisis has also highlighted the importance of retaining teachers who are already in the job. This has led to a focus on improving teachers’ working conditions. At the same time, front-end-focused measures are introduced to address teacher supply issues. These policy solutions, including the recent Labor’s Plan to Fix Teacher Shortages, are aimed at making teaching a more attractive career option.

While these measures deal with elements of what has contributed a teacher shortage crisis, they remain largely oblivious to a less visible moral crisis that has haunted the teaching profession, a crisis rooted in tensions between the view of teaching as a caring practice driven by a sense of calling and education policies, school practices and working conditions that sit in tension with the call to service. 

A spectre is haunting teaching — the spectre of a moral crisis

A burnout explanation of why teachers leave the profession would lead to solutions that aim, at least in principle, to alleviate what burdens teachers, and burns them out. The New South Wales’ plan to support high-quality lesson planning is an example of such solutions. Universal access to centralised learning materials is offered to “free up lesson planning time each week” (Premier Dominic Perrottet). 

From a teacher burnout perspective, this policy response is adequate as it alleviates ‘the burden’ of lesson planning. This is, however, a problematic proposition. Many teachers view creating engaging lesson plans as part of their core work, something that provides them with the ownership of their practice.

A moral crisis explanation provides an alternative explanation of what wears teachers down and paves the way for their exit decision from teaching. Teachers may leave not because they burn out and have nothing more to offer; they leave because their call to service is consistently challenged by the realities of an inequitably resourced school system that pursues top-down engineering of their work. 

Viewed as such, teachers’ exit decisions can be interpreted as an ultimate act of dissent; it is a refusal to bear witness to and endure dehumanising conditions that undermine their professional autonomy, compromise their wellbeing and overlook what they cherish most in their work: making a positive difference in the lives of children and young people through the actual practices of teaching and learning. 

To exit, therefore, may not be a symptom of burning out. It can be an exercise of agency and a rejection of the top-down recipes that ignore the moral core that orients teachers’ practices.

Addressing the moral crisis

Addressing the moral crisis requires attending to what has eroded the fabric of education as a public good. This includes the school choice model and funding inequities that have created a two-tiered education system in which the least-resourced Australian schools cater for the most under-served students and their communities. Many of these schools have unsustainable working conditions that require teachers to forego their own wellbeing to do their job well. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the least advantaged schools in Australia are six times more likely to report teacher shortage problems compared to more affluent schools.

Attending to the moral core in teaching also requires a return to a view of education as a domain of possibility, agency and growth. It needs doing away with policies that prioritise compliance with centralised systems of monitoring tied to narrow test-based accountabilities. These practices have been shown to adversely impact on teacher morale and student wellbeing. We need to put the trust back in our teachers and their professional judgements. To do this, an audacious reform project is needed to rekindle an old flame amidst the ferocious onslaught of forces that codify teaching in purely managerial and technical terms.

Revisiting the teacher shortage crisis through a moral lens is more than reframing an existing problem in new terms. It requires us to attend to the values that sustain teaching as a caring form of practice. The moral argument disrupts the narrative that equates exit to a deficit in resilience and adaptability. Instead, it brings the focus back on teachers duty of care (for self and the other), and their agency to say ‘no’ to the conditions that dampen their morale, compromise their wellbeing and stall their care work. 

Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer in Pedagogy, Professional Practice and Teacher Education at La Trobe School of Education. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. Babak’s current research is focused on the challenges that teachers face and the types of support that they need stay in the profession, especially in the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. Twitter: @DadvandBabak

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.

The education minister’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea*

When will governments learn their lesson? Worksheets won’t fix workload crisis.

The teachers of NSW are at breaking point, and the government solution is to take away the part of their work they most expert in – lesson planning.  As Queensland’s experience shows, this ‘quick fix’ will not solve the workload issues which underpin NSW’s teacher shortage crisis.

The social media response to the SMH’s article, which featured the NSW education minister Sarah Mitchell (pictured in the image with department secretary Georgina Harrison) on lesson planning reform has been swift.

and more.

Teachers are decrying the government strategy. Of most concern,  the resources will be produced in under eight weeks, for a curriculum that is currently under review. The lack of transparency about how this feat will happen makes this approach look like this wasteful, impractical splurge on public funds during a time we are all being asked to tighten our belts.

The thing is, resources are already available and attached to the National Curriculum website via Scootle. Many of them arrived there because of a similar initiative by the Queensland Government. So our question is, why hasn’t the NSW government done its homework or listened to the teachers before addressing the core issues fuelling the teacher crisis?

Lesson planning is not the issue

While the Grattan Institute report, which forms the basis of the NSW government’s strategy, identifies the biggest demand on teacher time is planning, they have neglected that this lesson planning is the part of their work that teachers want to be doing – it is their core work. The top three activities teachers would choose to do if they had a  spare hour are working on student assessment, preparing effective classroom instruction, and adapting teaching.

 The Grattan report goes on to argue that providing teachers with centralised planning resources will alleviate pressure. But the report’s own findings show the issue not the planning per se, but the time needed to undertake it – teachers could develop common lesson plans and resources, tailored to and developed within their school context, with their colleagues, if the time that they identify as the biggest impediment is provided to them.

Increased administrative duties and expanding pastoral care pressures are chewing into time teachers once had to collaborate, plan and prepare their students for success. Time is the issue, but time could be made available by strategies that deal with the administrivia of teacher workloads, rather than removing the core work.

Queensland tried and failed

Queensland tried the centralised provision of “curriculum lesson plans, texts and learning materials” a decade ago in the Curriculum to Classroom (C2C) reforms, designed to support the initial implementation of the Australian Curriculum. This project, while well-intentioned, was not as simple as the Queensland Department of Education first imagined. It became plagued by multiple issues which both slowed down the roll out and reduced the quality of the resources in comparison to what a teacher could develop themselves, if given the time. For example, according to Naomi Barnes who was a Senior Writer on the program, copyright meant that only resources which were made freely available by those who owned the copyright, or were out of copyright, were approved for use in the C2C program. This means that in an era where teachers are trying to increase the diversity of texts in their classrooms (which they could do through purchasing class sets and designing their own lessons)  they were instead provided with worksheets that referred to dated works that were less prone to copyright issues.  To include diverse texts would mean adequately compensating authors, rather than financially cutting corners through inferior resourcing.

Even more concerning was the political interference in the development of the materials, with resources being vetoed by the Newman LNP government at the time. As such, lesson plans were held up to scrutiny via the “Courier Mail test” or whether they would hit the newspaper for content Newman’s government might determine was partisan. Issues of diversity and contestability were removed for “safer” options. In other words the government decided what was safe for children to know. This political interference in teacher’s work is still a feature of LNP curriculum governance

C2C also increased workload. Research from both C2C implementation and more recently shows that even with highly proscriptive, resourced lesson plans, teachers viewed and used the materials in a wide range of ways, negating the promise of consistency and workload reduction. For example, Mathematics teachers pointed out that the initial C2C materials did not actually address all elements of the curriculum they were meant to support and so required significant redevelopment. Barton et al’s exploration of the initial responses to C2C implementation found “prescription of curriculum materials only leads to mistrust and a devaluing of teachers’ expertise”. Hardy suggested rather than seeking to standardise teacher work, we instead recognise teachers’ professional skills as experts in lesson planning and curriculum implementation, valuing their professional collaborations and practices .

Workload correction

While having a set of resources can be a helpful starting point when planning, it is not going to fix the workload issues facing teachers because teachers will still have to spend time adapting them to their school context, which is what they already do with the myriad of resources already available to teachers in numerous resource banks, like Scootle.

A full-time teacher is currently allocated approximately 3.5- 4 hours a week as non-contact or preparation and correction time. A standard teaching load is 4-6 classes, so this is less 30 minutes per week during the school day to plan for learning and mark assessment. The Grattan report pointed out that 28% of teacher time is devoted to non-teaching activity (ie over one full day a week – more than their allocated non-contact time). As one example, the introduction of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) has significantly increased the administrative workload for teachers in maintaining detailed lesson plans and tracking individual resources to ensure funding is allocated to students with additional needs or disabilities (Union survey highlights data overload (informit.org)). Properly funding learning support staff who can assist classroom teachers both with the planning for and administration of differentiated materials would be one welcome change. A reduction in teacher’s cocurricular loads would also be another easy-to-implement solution, as would reviewing the extent of classroom teacher involvement in pastoral care work, which has only increased with the increased disruption and distress of COVID and bouts of lockdown and homeschooling. 

The issue is that the proportion of non-teaching activity is taking up their allocated time to prepare for their core work – lesson planning and differentiated delivery. Rather than spending money on creating (already available) resources the funds NSW has to spend on this project would be better spent investing in additional school staff to take up some of this administrative load.

The clear and obvious solution to relieving pressure on teachers is an ongoing investment in additional staff: learning support experts, sports and arts co-curricular supervisors, and professional pastoral staff.  Recognising teachers’ professional expertise as educators and giving them the time to do their core business well is the real answer to the teaching crisis, not handing out another worksheet.

*Headline with apologies to Alexander and to Judith Viorst

Dr Alison Bedford is a lecturer (curriculum and pedagogy) in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland and a secondary school history teacher.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, hstory and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

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