Jing Qi

Scholarships for teaching students are great – but will they really diversify the profession now?

Australia is in the midst of a teacher shortage, and with 35% of teachers considering leaving the workforce before they reach retirement age, the problem may get worse before it gets better. This means we need to increase the number of teachers graduating from university teaching degrees. The full set of data for 2024 university applicants isn’t available yet, but UAC data suggests that applications to study teaching degrees at universities are trending downwards

One of the strategies to address the teacher shortage is the new Federal Government scholarships to encourage more people to undertake teaching degrees. While hoping to attract more people to teaching overall, the scholarships target groups under-represented in the profession, with scholarships available for First Nations peoples, people for whom English is an additional language/dialect, people with disabilities, people from regional, rural or remote locations, and people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Currently, the level of diversity in the student population in Australian schools far exceeds the diversity of the teachers, with the majority of teachers being from monolingual, White-Anglo and middle-class backgrounds, and more likely to be born in Australia than the general population.

Benefits of a diverse teacher workforce

Research also tells us that a diverse teaching population has a positive impact on student learning outcomes and engagement in schooling. Students perceive schools as more inclusive and welcoming environments when they see teachers who have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. Based on teachers’ own experiences as culturally and linguistically diverse students, they can better understand their students’ cultural practices and beliefs and how they grow as learners. As insiders to the experiences of racism, they are valuable in the fight for educational and social justice. They make significant contributions to their school communities, due to their distinct experiences and their ability to offer students a different worldview, as well as becoming cross-cultural mentors for their mainstream colleagues.

But will these scholarships work to diversify the teaching profession?

There is no doubt that these scholarships will be attractive for some promising teacher candidates who would otherwise face greater challenges juggling study with their work, health needs and caring responsibilities. There is potential for the pool of students studying teaching to be widened because of the availability of such scholarships,  which would be a positive outcome.

However, financial support during their studies isn’t going to provide everything these students need to have a successful career in teaching. For example, our research has found that teachers from culturally, linguistically and racially diverse backgrounds (we use the acronym CLRD) experience higher levels of isolation, exclusion and racism in their workplaces. CLRD teachers can experience discrimination on the basis of skin colour, accent, dress and even food. Teachers have told us:

“At times, my faculty  would have lunch together in the staff room. It would have been nice to be told about this, even just to be polite, but it did make me feel very left out.”

“Teachers from Anglo background speak to you in a condescending way, belittle you, question your knowledge and qualifications, and there’s definitely a hierarchy where they consider themselves better than you.”

Forced to conceal their true identity

While there isn’t explicit evidence to connect these experiences to racism, every CLRD teacher who participated in our research shared a story like this. Teachers from CLRD backgrounds often feel forced to conceal their true identity to try and fit in, and it means that they’re less likely to stay in the profession and thrive in their careers.

In addition, most CLRD teachers described additional labour they were expected to undertake because of their race, language or cultural background. Some teachers were happy to do this work to help their students, but many commented that this was labour they did not see their white counterparts being asked to do.

Further, when it comes to scholarships, it’s vital that recipients successfully complete their ITE programs. Some teacher candidates from equity groups may require additional academic support from their university, and may not complete their programs without that help. Some universities do a great job of providing this support, but it takes extra resources. How students will be supported needs to be a part of the discussion.

So will these scholarships keep new teachers from leaving the profession?

The financial support may help teacher candidates from equity groups to take the leap into university studies, but it’s not a single solution to teacher retention.  Teachers on these scholarships are required to teach in public schools for a period equal to the length of their studies – two or four years. But to create a sustainable pipeline of teachers, we need them to stay longer than that, and based on our research there are other barriers that need to be addressed. Support from school leadership teams is essential, as is a united front on the part of the school, to reject racism and discrimination. Schools and leadership teams must genuinely see cultural and linguistic diversity as a positive attribute, rather than a deficit. Cash incentives during their studies isn’t going to be enough of a drawcard to stay in a harmful work environment.

From left to right: Dr Rachael Dwyer (she/her) is a Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her scholarship is focused on creating social change, through decolonizing, arts-based approaches to teaching, advocacy and research, and sharing her scholarship in ways that impact policy and practice. Dr Rachael Jacobs (she/her) is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts Education at Western Sydney University and a former secondary school teacher. Her research interests include assessment in the arts, language acquisition through the arts and decolonised approaches to embodied learning. Professor Catherine Manathunga (she/her) is an historian who draws together expertise in historical, sociological and cultural studies research to bring an innovative perspective to educational research, particularly focusing on the higher education sector. She has worked for over 32 years in universities throughout Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Professor Daniel Harris (they/them) is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and Co-Director of Creative Agency research lab: www.creativeresearchhub.com. They are an international expert in creativity studies, creative methods, affect theory and autoethnography. They are committed to the power of collaborative creative practice and social justice research to inform social change.  Dr Jing Qi (she/her) is Manager of Community Languages Teacher Education Program in the School of Global, Urban and Social Sciences at RMIT. Jing draws together experiences in multilingual, transcultural, and technological studies in her current educational research projects in the areas of teacher education, international education and teacher education.