teacher shortages

‘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.