The Federal government recently launched two high profile campaigns to attract people into the teaching profession.
The first seeks to raise the status of teaching through a series of rather saccharine videos showcasing inspirational classroom teacher stories as “Be That Teacher” “Be That Teacher”. Costing a whopping $10 million this glossy marketing strategy aims to elevate the positive, that teachers are important and they can make a meaningful difference in the lives of young people. The second campaign provides significant scholarships for those undertaking teaching degrees, a response to the fact that university admissions for teaching degrees have slumped by 20 per cent this year. Only 50 per cent see the degree though.
Both these initiatives are admirable. These campaigns are misplaced. I believe this both as a teacher educator in Western Australia and as an active researcher in the field of teacher wellbeing and retention.
These campaigns fail to address the specific issues which have led to the teacher shortage in Australia, of which the federal Education Department are conservatively projecting the country will be short an estimated 4,100 teachers by 2025.
Stressed, demoralised, leaving the job
The facts are clear – teachers are feeling stressed, demoralised and many are leaving the job because their workloads are unmanageable. Teachers work excessively long hours and their overall health and wellbeing has hit rock bottom. Most teachers would tell you they have pretty poor work-life balance. Over the last two years I have noticed a substantial shift in the public discourse of teachers work. Both policymakers and media now acknowledge teachers struggle under the weight of unrealistic expectations and mounting responsibilities of modern teaching.
This shift in public perception about the work of teaching has been triggered by a labor force crisis in the school sector, with teacher well-being (or more commonly ill-being) becoming an important issue that needs addressing. What’s noticeable in both ministerial pronouncements and the media cycle is an acknowledgement that when teachers are persistently stressed and emotionally burnt out by their work, they leave. Consistent evidence about teachers’ feelings towards their work collected by education researchers, teacher unions and independent organizations are agreed — teaching is currently one of the most emotionally difficult professions and mirrors much of the service care sector, such as social workers and nurses.
Our teachers are toiling away as security guards, counselors, data administrators, co-parents, citizen makers and babysitters for the economy. Teachers are at the material face of increasingly diverse communities, weaving learning conversations with an ever-expanding array of neurological, linguistic, cultural, gendered, social and behaviorally diverse young people.
At risk of violence
At worst teachers and school leaders appear to be more at risk of becoming victims of – or intimidated by – violence. A newly published report into the state of public education in WA by the SSTUWA, WA’s teacher union, reveals that in 2022, school based violent events are occurring once every forty-five minutes, or 11 times per day. These highly stressful events can involve assaults with weapons, and many require medical assistance or the police. These issues are exacerbated in schools that are socially and economically disadvantaged or in regional and remote locations.
No wonder so many teachers describe their work as emotionally ‘fatiguing’, ‘draining’ or ‘exhausting’ and walk away from the profession. In Western Australia, the SSTUWA reports that as many as 86% of teachers are seriously considering leaving the profession. Policy makers have been slow to recognize that persistent schooling reforms focused on audit, accountability and data performance regimes have created the conditions for an unprecedent wave of teacher demoralization, burn out, attrition and psychological distress. Teachers feel untrusted by parents, leaders, and policy makers. Teachers’ professional autonomy has been eroded. This is why the “Be That Teacher” campaign has landed with a dull thud amongst some practicing teachers.
What teachers say
One area of my research is examining the discussions of teachers on Reddit, specifically an online forum where Australian teachers can discuss issues related to their work. On the r/AustralianTeachers forum their comments demonstrate cynicism and derision at the campaign. One teacher comments:
“Oh look, teachers are so special, and they watched Dead Poets Society once, and now come to work everyday for just the love of children, so there’s obviously no need to pay them a decent wage and working conditions”
“Yeah, the whole thing feels like an event in the Martyrdom Olympics. Go for Gold! We don’t need better conditions and less admin, just stories that hit you in the feels”
And a third:
“Pay teachers more. Bring in nationally approved behaviour management systems. Reduce workload. Stick the smoltzy ad campaigns up the govt’s butt”
Fed-up and want reform
These comments show that teachers are clearly fed up and want tangible reforms in their sector. I read these comments as a powerful signal of professionals who are in a state of emotional crisis and we should pause to deeply listen to these people who perform a vital service in our communities. Overall, our public-school teachers are doing an amazing job in very challenging conditions. Despite these issues, they remain committed and caring professionals who desperately want education reform to ensure they can deliver high quality learning experiences to their communities and provide a strong foundation for the future of Australia’s young people.
In order to stem the tide the tide of teacher attrition, policy reforms must focus less on attracting newcomers to the profession and more on retaining those currently teaching. They can do this by radically rethinking teacher workload. As a starting point they must unburden teachers from unnecessary administration. If we do not address the root causes of why teachers are leaving, even newcomers will not stay long in the job and the funds from these expensive government campaigns will be wasted.
Dr Saul Karnovsky is a senior teacher educator and course coordinator at Curtin University, Perth which is located on Noongar Country. He is an active researcher in teacher wellbeing, attrition and retention taking an ethical and critical perspective on the profession.