teacher retention

So wrong: Inspirational campaigns will never work. Here’s why

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”

Another writes:

“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.

Second year teachers: Now I know what I don’t know

The National Teacher Workforce Action Plan offers ways to deal with current teacher shortages across Australia, with a conspicuous focus on rapidly attracting more teachers to the profession and ensuring that they receive support and mentoring as they transition into their first year of teaching.  

However, when we interviewed a small group of early career teachers in their second year of teaching and their mentors, we found these second-year teachers are in just as much need of mentoring as their first-year teacher colleagues. 

This raises significant concerns. Schools and systems focus their attention and funding on formal and intentional mentoring for the first year of teaching, believing that by the second year, teachers have found their way in many respects and are not in need of formal mentoring opportunities. 

Will recommendations for supporting early career teachers through mentoring and induction in the  National Teacher Workforce Action Plan just continue to focus on teachers as they initially transition into the profession? Will ongoing mentoring needs of teachers as they progress to the second year of their careers continue to be neglected?

We need a well-considered approach to mentoring that acknowledges the ongoing yet evolving professional needs of teachers beyond the first year of teaching. Without that, we risk enticing more teachers to the profession only to lose them when they don’t get adequate support.

Schools face challenges (time, funding) in providing extended mentoring support.

But there is another challenge – understanding what it is that second-year teachers need from mentoring. Much of the research undertaken in the field of mentoring generally occurs with teachers in their first year of teaching or does not seek to differentiate between early career teachers across those first few years. 

In being more aware of what early career teachers in their second year of teaching need, and bring to the profession, a targeted approach can be implemented that could in fact save time and money and prevent the loss of teachers from the profession before they have even had a chance to shine. 

We collected data from 15 second-year early career teachers and their mentors in Brisbane Queensland, via a survey, field notes, and professional learning artifacts to find out what they saw as essential mentoring for teachers in their second year of teaching. Their insights serve as an important provocation for those involved in the development and delivery of mentoring programs for early career teachers. 

These second-year teachers explained that, 

While the first year is hard, the second year can be even harder because in first year, you don’t know what you don’t know, and you get this support. But by the second year, you start to realise what you don’t know and you start to see what you are doing wrong or haven’t been doing! 

These second-year teachers felt that at the very time they needed support to navigate this growing professional awareness and a clearer understanding of what they needed to learn and develop to become a stronger teacher, the mentoring support ground to a halt. 

       Yeah, and now [in my second year] I need more help but everyone expects me to know it as I’m no longer a first year.

They felt that this was despite more being expected of them as second-year teachers, including the huge workload involved in putting together a portfolio of their practice to move to full registration. These second-year teachers described this year of their careers as “make or break”. 

Our work showed that these second-year teachers toggle between still wanting explicit and specific support and advice to address immediate concerns and “solve problems” and wanting the opportunity to engage with a mentor to “explore”, and “consolidate” and “refine” their practice. They wanted to have equal ownership over the direction of mentoring conversations and saw themselves as fully capable of contributing their own ideas to mentoring conversations, while concurrently needing access to a mentor for specific guidance. 

Mentors seemed to be eager for the second-year teacher to take the lead in mentoring conversations and generally felt that second-year teacher mentoring should be less about addressing immediate concerns and fixing problems. They felt that second-year teachers should be “challenging” and “establishing” themselves, and “expanding their repertoire” of practice. 

Even though the early career teachers did not necessarily disagree, and indeed were eager to engage in mentoring that would support them “to try something new”, there was still an aspect of the mentoring that still seemed to be rooted in survival. Early career teaching does not stop being challenging at the end of the first year, and yet, teachers in their second year can easily fall through the cracks.  Schools and systems setting up and implementing mentoring programs need to consider beyond the first year of teaching and recognise it as both a time of ongoing challenge complicated by accreditation requirements, and pedagogical and professional exploration. Second-year teachers represent a unique group of teachers that unless nurtured in the ways that meet their needs, may end up among the growing numbers exiting the profession.

From left to right: Dr Ellen Larsen is a senior lecturer (Curriculum and Pedagogy) in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. She has had a long career as a classroom teacher, school leader, and mentor in state and independent schools and has developed and implemented research-based professional learning programs across Queensland with teachers at all career stages. With research interests in professional learning, early career educators, teacher identity, and educational policy, Ellen is committed to working with schools to develop quality mentoring programs in the contemporary teaching context. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Dr Hoa Nguyen is an associate professor in the School of Education, specialising in teacher education/development, mentoring, and TESOL education. She co-leads the Teacher Education and Development Research Groupinthe School of Education at the University of New South Wales. She has experience teaching and training pre-service and in-service teachers in Asia and Australia. How works extensively with teachers to develop their capabilities as mentors and has a strong commitment and passion to develop teachers’ professional learning. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Dr Elizabeth Curtis is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. Elizabeth’s work and research with pre-service teacher education and beginning teachers includes professional experience, mentoring, philosophical inquiry, and values and care in education. Elizabeth has vast experience in not only teaching and researching but also in leading program innovation and change across early childhood, primary, and secondary contexts at two Australian universities.

Associate Professor Tony Loughland is deputy head of school (research) in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. He is an experienced educator who likes to work with teachers to work with theory in ways that enhance practice. His research interests lie in teacher professional learning across the continuum from graduate to lead teacher.  He is currently leading projects on using AI for citizens’ informed participation in urban development, the provision of staffing for rural and remote areas in NSW, and Graduate Ready Schools. You can find him on LinkedIn.

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 jenna@aare.edu.au 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