teacher shortages

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 performance pay will never fix the disastrous teaching crisis

The NSW teaching profession is currently in crisis. However, recent education reform announcements to address the crisis miss the mark. Teacher workloads have reached unsustainable levels. Our survey research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers showed that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum and policy changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.

Most teachers responding to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers coped with the challenges of this significant administrative load by working longer hours.

Findings from an Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop released in February 2021 found that, in recent decades, there had been a significant increase in the volume and complexity of teachers’ work. But there was a decline in the relative position of teacher salaries compared to that of other professions. Meanwhile the state is facing a worsening teacher shortage which is only contributing to workload problems. 

Stalling award negotiations over issues of pay and workload have triggered months of industrial unrest in the state’s education system.

Is performance pay the answer?

In a bid to ‘modernise’ the state’s education system, Premier Dominic Perrottet recently announced proposed changes to NSW school education. This suite of changes would introduce performance-based pay for teachers, which it is claimed will ‘excel and drive better results for kids’, reduce the amount of administrative work that teachers do, and change school hours.

Under current pay arrangements, teachers typically receive pay increases based on their length of service in the profession and attainment of professional standards. However, salary growth for teachers slows over time

While details of the Premier’s plan for performance-based pay are not yet known, discussions around linking pay to teachers’ performance in Australia – and worldwide – are not new

Performance-based pay schemes have been introduced in countries like the USA – such as President Bush’s Teacher Incentive Fund for states and school districts that chose to introduce merit pay schemes – as well others like China, England, Sweden and Singapore. In Australia, there has also been a long discussion about revitalising teacher pay schemes to attract and retain the best teachers in the profession. Just 5 years ago, measures to pay teachers for performance were also announced by Simon Birmingham as Federal Minister for Education.

Proponents of performance pay commonly argue that it is fairer to reward high-performing teachers than pay all teachers equally, that it motivates teachers, and raises the quality and accountability of teachers. But the weight of evidence to support performance-based pay is lacking. Experts in this area argue that it creates competition between teachers, negatively impacts teacher collegiality, and creates a culture of fear and isolation rather than growth and collaboration in schools. Evaluating teachers’ performance is also highly complex. 

Those against performance-based pay argue that it is difficult to quantify success in a classroom because there are so many elements to it. Scholars have noted how any single measure, such as measurement of student achievement on standardised tests, cannot be a reliable basis for making performance-related decisions about the efforts of individual teachers. Context is also important. Evidence also shows that such schemes are not effective in improving student achievement. At the heart is also a broader conversation about the need for education reform to move away from a focus on performativity and narrow accountability measures.

The Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession – with expert witnesses and over 1000 submissions from teachers and schools – also didn’t recommend performance-based pay as a solution to the complex issues urgently facing the teaching profession. 

The solutions to the teaching crisis are clear

A wealth of evidence is clear about the solutions needed to address the multiple crises facing the NSW teaching profession. Conversations about performance-based pay detract from the real issues facing the profession. We’ve written previously that there appears to be a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia and the policymakers with power over their conditions. Through imposing a new, divisive pay scheme, the Premier reinforces rather than removes these divisions. 

Dominic Perrottet has stated he wants to be known as the ‘Education Premier’, but this will require deeper, more effective steps and genuine engagement with teachers.

The frustration of teachers around issues of pay, workload and shortages has boiled over into industrial unrest since late 2021. It was recently announced by the state teachers’ union that NSW state teachers would participate in another 24-hour strike on 30 June. What is different from earlier strike action is that Catholic school teachers will join them. The last time both unions took joint action was over 25 years ago in 1996 when John Aquilina was NSW Minister for Education. This signals problems in the NSW teaching profession are spreading deep and broad.

Meaningful reform in education should be focused on listening to and supporting teachers, giving teachers the time to collaborate with others, reducing unnecessary administrative burdens, ensuring salaries are competitive, addressing the worsening teacher shortage, and appreciating the integral and vital role that teachers play in our communities and for society.

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

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.

‘My teacher sucks’: how teacher shortages shatter learning

This post won the 2021 EduResearch Matters Blog/Blogger of the Year Award, which recognises an outstanding contribution to public understanding and debate of educational issues. Congratulations Paul Laing. First published on September 30, 2021 and republished on December 20.

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.