Amy McPherson

Teacher shortages: Is teaching family-friendly now?

Once upon a time, teaching was seen as a favourable job, especially for women. The public perception was of teaching as a family-friendly profession where teachers could be out the door by 3pm and had school holidays off to spend time with their own families. 

This belief about teachers’ work as family-friendly is part of the lore of teachers’ work. The compatibility of the school calendar, the hours of work with domestic responsibilities especially with child-bearing has been a ‘selling-point’ of teaching for generations of women thinking about teaching careers. In the 1960s, women’s magazines supported teaching as a good profession for women because it was a job that suited women’s interests as well as their responsibilities as wives and mothers.  

Of course, to an extent, the idea that teaching is family-friendly was always a myth and it has often been contested. Even way back in the early 1900s it was ‘definitely not a family-friendly profession’ considering married women were banned from the professional altogether and in many places pregnancy bans remained until the late 1960s. 

Teaching has rarely been a job where you could go home, simply forget about work and relax every night. However, even when the truth of the myth of family-friendly statements are interrogated, there remains public perception that teachers get ‘excessive’ holidays. What some people think of as family-friendly work environments, others criticise, claiming teachers have it too easy. 

Whether teaching is a family-friendly career for women (or indeed for everyone) is directly relevant to understanding the unprecedented teaching shortages we are experiencing in Australia. 

Our Australian Research Council study of the working lives of teachers who remain teaching in high-turnover schools is in its very early stages, but already this issue is raising its head as a largely unexplored topic. Even it was always a partial myth, recruitment of teachers drew heavily on the narrative of teaching as family-friendly. Teach Queensland’s website Why teaching is a rewarding career still recruits teachers, by advertising the career’s balanced lifestyle, claiming 

The teacher lifestyle provides many perks, including flexibility to work close to where you live, guaranteed holidays, and time to spend with your own kids (if and when you have them!). There’s also support for flexible work practices and varied employment options including permanent, temporary and casual roles.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, we are noticing that teaching may have transitioned from at least one of the more family-friendly professions to one of the very least! 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 Census data shows that of the 12 million people employed on Census day (10 August 2021), more than 20 per cent (2.5 million) worked from home. With the ability to work from home much more common now than at any time in history, teaching has become one of the few professions where such flexibility is much more rarely supported. 

Similarly, where more professions encourage part-time or flexible work, many school leaders actively resist part-time employment or job-sharing arrangements for their staff. Despite this, recent workforce data published by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership shows that 36% of all secondary and 45% of primary teachers are working part-time.  The appetite for more flexible working conditions is clearly there. 

Despite the necessity of teaching online during Covid, very few changes have been made to facilitate ongoing online or even hybrid work environments for teachers. Thus, while their friends and partners may now work from home on a much more regular basis, this is not true of teachers. While some reports, such as Next Steps: Report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review – Department of Education, Australian Government recognise how family responsibilities restrict many Preservice Teachers from taking remote or regional placements father from their homes, there is little mention of family work-life balance when it comes to employed teachers. 

As outlined in the Productivity Commission’s Working From Home Research Report (2021) teachers saw the pros and cons of working from home (which wasn’t, on its own, seen as easier or even necessarily more family-friendly). In the Commission’s analysis, teaching is one of the few occupations regarded as not being able to be done from home. Nonetheless, the Australian Education Union’s Victorian Branch recommends that schools provide more flexible employment opportunities, including better access to part-time employment for staff transitioning toward retirement and those returning from leave, such as parental absence.

However, there may have been an opportunity lost such as understanding how some teacher’s work could in fact be done remotely, particularly during non-teaching hours. Chats on Reddit suggest some teachers envy their friends and families who have much more flexible jobs than they do.  

And even if it is the case that ‘good teaching’ can’t really happen remotely, it makes the career less attractive to future teachers who might see such inflexibility within the profession as a deterrent. Teachers report un-family friendly teaching environments as one reason for burn-out which clearly should be added to all the other reasons now understood as leading to teaching shortages.

This makes us wonder whether an increased focus on schools as family-friendly workplaces could be part of the solution to the current teaching shortages. 

Jo Lampert is a professor of teacher education at Monash University. Amy McPherson is senior lecturer in the School of Education at the Australian Catholic University. Bruce Burnett is a professor of education at the Australian Catholic University.

When one shocking shortage led to another

Here is another of our intermittent blogs during the #AARE2022 conferenceIf you want to cover a session at the conference, please email to check in. Thanks!

Symposium: ‘Teacher shortages in Australian schools: reactive workforce planning for a wicked policy problem’ (post starts after the photos!)

With nine people sitting on the floor, six standing, and a long queue leading from the entrance, the symposium ‘Teacher shortages in Australian schools: reactive workforce planning for a wicked policy problem’ was forced to change venues before it could even begin. The overwhelming interest in this session speaks to rising concern and anxiety for the state of the teacher workforce around Australia today.

The first paper, from Jo Lampert, Amy McPherson and Bruce Burnett, featured an analysis of how 20 years’ worth of government and university initiatives have sought to recruit, prepare and retain teachers in ‘hard to staff’ schools, the impact of these initiatives, and the policy lessons that can be learned from them. The analysis found that mostly, these programs have emphasised recruitment over retention (a frustratingly familiar feature of current initiatives like the Teacher Workforce Shortages Issues Paper, too), with few featuring any formal evaluation process. Policy lessons included a need to focus on benefits, provide financial support, and focus on the wellbeing and working conditions of staff.

Scott Eacott’s presentation on the operational and strategic impact of a teacher shortage on school leadership argued that we have a social contract in Australian education which is not currently being fulfilled. Eacott pointed to the need for a whole-system response instead of a school system which “cannibalizes itself through poor design and incentives”.

Eacott’s paper was followed by work from Susanne Gannon, tracing the #MoreThanThanks campaign of the NSW Teachers Federation, which has sought improved wages and conditions for teachers in NSW public schools. Gannon drew on the work of Carol Bacchi to explore how the construction of the teacher shortage ‘problem’ in NSW has become combative space, from ministerial denials of a problem at all; to a swathe of positive press releases from the NSW government on how teachers are purportedly supported; to the use of the phrase “the committee divided” 93 times in the recent, ‘Great Teachers, Great Schools’ report. Gannon concluded by questioning whether perhaps it’s “not even thanks” that NSW teachers are getting, but instead, open ideological warfare.

The final paper in the session was from Dadvand, Dawborn-Gundlach, van Driel and Speldewinde, exploring career changers in teaching and why they stay or leave. Career change teachers are often positioned as part of the workforce shortage ‘solution’, yet these participants were unsure about their future as teachers. The paper used in-depth interview data to privilege teacher voice and highlight the issue of teacher working conditions and support whilst in the job as what needs to be, but is not often, the focus of reform. 

A clear thread across presentations was an explicitly identified tension between the needs and desires of the local, straining against the structures of the centre. Eacott, for example, pointed to the challenges created when substantive teachers take leave without pay, resulting in their position having to be filled by precariously-employed staff (if they can be found). Yet supportive and attractive working conditions – including but not limited to leave provisions – are arguably what need to be addressed if the teacher shortage ‘problem’ is to be meaningfully engaged with. And this, in itself, requires re-assessing just what the ‘problem’ actually is: one of teacher working conditions, and the need to build supportive structures around teachers’ work in all schools. As discussant, Professor Martin Mills, concluded the symposium by asking, “What would a school look like where people committed to social justice wanted to teach?”

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy and is the director of the Bachelor of Education (Secondary). Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. She is an associate editor, The Australian Educational Researcher Links: Twitter & University Profile