teaching workforce

It’s so dramatic: what new play Chalkface gets very right about being a teacher

Chalkface is a new play about teachers, currently being staged by the Sydney Theatre Company and playing at the Sydney Opera House.

Written by Angela Betzien, Chalkface is advertised as a black comedy in which an ‘old school’ teacher clashes with a bright-eyed newbie. As a researcher of teachers’ work and a head teacher Science, we hoped the play would be a fresh take on the profession we live every day; that it would make us laugh, and maybe even have something insightful to say.

We went to see Chalkface last Saturday evening and overall, we think that the play gets a lot right.

From the peeling paint, to the old mis-matched chairs, out-of-service hot water tap and enormous tin of Nescafe Blend 43, the set is without question the quintessential public school staffroom in Australia. There is even a resident rat* eating through the precious limited stock of coloured paper in the supply cupboard. Meanwhile, one teacher tells the newbie teacher to note the school’s general scent, which he describes as “old fart”.

Between us, we’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of schools. While some are newer or better-resourced than others, we can tell you that this is generally a pretty accurate representation of public education in NSW. (The “old fart” smell in particular seems, curiously, universal.)

What the accuracy of the play’s set, and jokes about lack of resources reflect, however, are a systemic underfunding and lack of maintenance of government educational facilities which will not be news to any local audience. It is well known Australia has a problem with educational equity, and the play takes frequent jabs at wealthy private sector schools. While the teachers in the play guzzle Blend 43 and rotate cleaning shifts, for example, the private school up the road has apparently just hired a full-time barista for its staff. The contrast here is stark, and while not all private schools are hugely wealthy, some of them certainly are and despite years of debate about developing a ‘needs-based’ funding system, we aren’t there yet.

Chalkface doesn’t end its commentary on education policy with resourcing, however. The school principal wants teachers to focus on NAPLAN preparation at the expense of richer learning activities, as he angsts about the possibility of losing students to other schools. This experience has a sound basis in research; the marketisation of education through the ongoing encouragement of parental ‘choice’ and the displaying of NAPLAN results on the My School website has had well-documented flow-on effects of ‘teaching to the test’.

Nicknamed ‘Thatcher’, the principal is renowned within the school for his austerity, even stealing kids’ lunchboxes from the lost and found. His anxiety about the school’s budget reflects not only an overall lack of funding, but also the current positioning of principals as school ‘business managers’, having a larger share of financial responsibility for the running of the school. Our bright-eyed newbie teacher, for instance, is on a temporary contract, which she is told is because she is cheaper; the rise in fixed-term contract work in teaching is also a current issue for the profession.

The relationship between ‘Thatcher’ and the rest of the teachers in the school is, indeed, fractious. The principal establishes a ‘suggestions’ box which is derided, by everyone other than him, as a “black hole”. Again we see resonance with current themes in policy and research: under autonomous schooling conditions, principals in NSW have been described as chronically over-worked, their attention diverted from engaging with staff perspectives and working conditions.

As for the teachers themselves, the divide between the ‘old’/experienced, and young/‘new’ teacher may seem stereotypical, yet also raises important questions around teacher burnout. One of the discomforts we felt while watching Chalkface was the way in which the teachers, especially those more experienced, talked about their students. Usually these were jokes but they were always disparaging, and not always funny. ‘Deficit’ talk – where students and/or their families are described as lacking, either in intelligence or desirable social norms – is indeed rife in teaching and probably does rear its ugly head most frequently in school staffrooms. It can serve to support cycles of poor academic outcomes for populations of students experiencing forms of educational disadvantage. It can also be linked to burnout, as indeed the younger teacher in the play identifies: one of the three dimensions of burnout is ‘depersonalisation’, and we see much of this in the staffroom talk of Chalkface.

Also of concern is the raft of rather alarming health conditions the teachers experience, caused by their jobs. One has a damaged coccyx from having a student pull a chair out from underneath him; another has spent the summer holidays in a psychiatric ward after being locked in a cupboard overnight by a student. These are extreme examples. They are funny, but they are also not funny, reflecting genuine, current concern with teacher wellbeing.   

There are some positive outcomes in Chalkface. The two women teachers who are the main characters learn and grow from each other, and it’s genuinely enjoyable to see them do so. But that is about it. Ultimately, nothing is done about the inequity the school faces and the difficulty of these teachers’ jobs. In fact, most of the teacher characters leave this under-resourced school by the end of the play.

Chalkface lands on a description of pedagogy as the “art and science of hope”. Generally, the play feels authentic. It made us laugh, and sometimes grimace in frustrated recognition. But ultimately, its ending portrays a bleak situation for public school education. We hope this part isn’t accurate, although we worry that it is.

*Spoiler alert: it turns out, it’s not a rat.

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy. 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.

Nigel Kuan is Head Teacher Science at Inner Sydney High School. He holds a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Physics Education and a Masters of Teaching. Nigel has presented at Teach Meets and other practitioner forums, and takes a particular interest in student engagement and scientific literacy. 

Header images from the Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Prudence Upton From left to right: Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville, Catherine McClements and Nathan O’Keefe in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chalkface, 2022.

Just like us: why Australian students need teachers from everywhere

Our dwindling teacher workforce makes headlines every week and new Education Minister Jason Clare calls it “a massive challenge”. A wide range of strategies have been proposed: increasing the respect and reputation of teaching as a job, raising completion rates in university teaching programs, attracting more mid-career professionals into the teaching, offering bursaries, paid internships and reducing university fees for students studying teaching. There are also conversations about keeping teachers in the classroom by making the pay more competitive. 

Another option on the table is to fast-track visas for teachers from overseas. But can recruiting teachers internationally work?

Australia hasn’t previously welcomed teachers with overseas qualifications, especially those from language backgrounds other than English. The English Language proficiency scores required by AITSL are higher than is required for migrant doctors (and any other profession we could find). Likewise, the English proficiency scores to enter an Initial Teacher Education program are higher than for any other degree, including HDR programs. This creates expensive additional barriers for non-native English speakers, and could be considered discriminatory, given that native English speakers aren’t required to demonstrate the same level of proficiency.

These barriers are impacting the level of diversity of the teaching profession.  Less than one-fifth of of teachers (17 per cent) identify as being born overseas, compared with 33.6% of the wider working-aged Australian population. Further, it reinforces  a deficit view of teachers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, overlooking the contribution that such teachers might make to school communities. 

Teachers in countries such as China are highly respected. In Japan and South Korea teachers are well paid and valued as highly educated professionals. Australian ITE programs go through rigorous accreditation to ensure that new teachers have the knowledge and skills they need to be effective teachers, as do other countries. Some countries require all teachers to hold Masters degrees, some require teachers to be bilingual or multilingual. Overseas teachers may actually be more qualified, not less.

A diverse teaching workforce allows culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families to see themselves reflected in their education system. Students will find role models that reflect their life experience, allowing them to feel more comfortable and more able to flourish in learning environments where their home culture is valued. Teachers from racial minorities can understand the experience of racism, and help prevent it from happening, as well as offer empathy to students experiencing prejudice. Studies from the USA have found that teachers of colour are more likely to have higher expectations of students of colour. Studies also found less absences and less disciplinary issues when students of colour were taught by teachers of colour. Most importantly, racially diverse teachers can play a key role in challenging stereotypes about racial minorities among the wider community. In short, everybody benefits from a diversified teacher workforce. 

However, our current highly homogenised workforce doesn’t allow for these benefits to be realised. While the few teachers that we have from minoritised and racialised backgrounds bring much needed diversity to the workforce, they can become victims of racism themselves. They regularly fend off criticism about everything from their accents to their dress, skin colour, religion or beliefs. Their pedagogies and knowledge of curriculum are often subject of criticism, whereas for their white anglo colleagues, nuances in teaching practices are accepted as part of individual difference in the profession. 

There’s sadly a lack of information about cultural diversity among teachers. Country of birth is a crude measure of diversity, and AITSL admits that it currently doesn’t have more detailed information.

Examining the experiences of teachers from different cultural groups, especially with regards to their intentions to remain or leave the profession, will become available in the ATWD in future, and will provide insight into our understanding of cultural safety in schools for students and teachers of different cultural groups. (ATWD report, 2021, p. 18)

However, we also need a far greater understanding of the contributions CALD teachers can make to school communities, and the circumstances that contribute to schools being the kinds of places where diverse teachers – and diverse students – can thrive.

Welcoming teachers from overseas can do much more than address our teacher shortage. While there does need to be some briefing and orientation into Australian teachers’ legal responsibilities, our curriculum and expectations of teachers, we can find ourselves enriched by a workforce that is more representative of our multicultural, multilingual population and our globally-oriented curriculum. More than just a solution to the teacher shortage: A diverse teaching workforce would add value to Australian schools.

Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in Creative Arts Education at Western Sydney University and a former secondary teacher (Dance, Drama and Music) and primary Arts specialist. Her research interests include assessment in the arts, language acquisition through the arts and decolonised approaches to embodied learning. 

Dr Rachael Dwyer is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy in the School of Education and Tertiary Access, University of the Sunshine Coast. She is also the president of the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME), Queensland Chapter.

Desperate and despondent: the truth about the way we treat immigrant teachers

In the battle to fix teacher shortages, much is made of recruiting teachers internationally. Three researchers reveal what happens when non-native English speaking immigrant teachers try to join the local workforce.

As Australia faces a serious shortage of teachers, how do we treat teachers who come to Australia as non-native speakers?

Non-native English speaking immigrant teachers (NNESITs) comprise around 10 % of teaching workforce in Australia today but we know little about their professional experiences impacting their professional selves. 

Early results of a large-scale study of 16 such teachers, analysing the narratives of their professional experiences across sectors, reveal this: they are treated unequally and inequitably from pre-migration up until they access their profession in Australia. 

Some take years to secure jobs.

Their experiences of marginalisation and differentiation repeatedly challenged them to claim their professional identity before and after migration to Australia. This continued in varied forms within their professional contexts and beyond. 

The key unique challenges involved are meeting requirements of the English language multiple times, getting their experiences and teaching qualifications fully recognised, and in some cases accepted even after their qualifications were recognised and upgraded to those of local equivalents.Then, despite meeting all eligibility criteria, these teachers still don’t get work. 

These challenges impacted them differently at material, social, cultural, emotional, and psychological levels. Even after accessing the profession, they were constantly judged by their non-native status, non-native English language uses, and their ethnicities.This leads them to feel like an imposter

Some did experience assistance in developing their professional identity but in our research we are focusing on the data of how the constitution of the professional identity of these teachers in Australia was challenged throughout the stages of migration and settlement, and how that impacted their professional identity. 

Before and after migration, these immigrant teachers (NNESITs) faced many professional challenges because of their cultural differences. Their professional status drastically dropped from a very high professional and social status to the one of the lowest. For instance, they had to meet English language requirements multiple times, such as for the purposes of immigration and for teacher registration. This also involves the change of requirements while applying for or renewing visas and applying for migration and  teacher registration.

For example, a high school teacher, Laura said, for migration, she “took the IELTS test (one of the many requirements for a Secondary Teacher) four times. … applied for reassessment of the result of the fourth take”. She had to spend around three months of her salary to pay for the fees for IELTS tests and review. 

The English language requirements stipulated by for NNESITs by VIT (Victorian Institute of Teacher) and AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) are both linguistically and racially discriminatory because the requirements do not apply for native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) from BANA (Britain and the Australasian and North American nations). 

Despite meeting all criteria, including gaining Australian qualification/s, getting an English language teaching teaching job was a monumental hurdle for them. Despite the English language and English language teaching being similar around the globe, it took months to years to access the profession before and/or after meeting the country-specific criteria. Most of them had no choice but to work in discriminatory cash-in hand, and/or low paid unskilled sectors: hospitality, cleaning services, children’s and aged care services, call centres, taxi industry and community services.

Raphael reminisced,

“I wanted a job. It didn’t matter what job I did. So I went and applied for a job as a train conductor … my first job in Melbourne. I’ve never found it hard to get a job, but I was willing to do some very, very low paid work. … I was a taxi driver for 10 years.”

A highly revered teacher from India, Mahati, landed a job in a Sri Lankan grocery that still haunts her like a nightmare, “cooking, cleaning, packing, selling, etc – the worst time of my life!”

Frida felt utterly despondent and “discouraged” finding herself unemployed after having been employed full time in the Philippines and internationally “since graduating from university”.

Failure to show Australian job experiences led Mandy to determine “I would apply for any kind of job [to] create income …”.

Jasha almost gave up and thought “I would never find a stable and interesting job”.

The impact of working in professionally unrelated and exploitative industries, the teachers’ professional identity was negatively impacted, their self-esteem and professional spirit were greatly diminished. 

Some were not called for job interviews until they had Australian qualifications and volunteer teaching experience, and some were repeatedly rejected after they were interviewed. Even after upgrading her teaching qualification at a renowned university in Melbourne, another high school teacher, Jigna, could not set her foot in a high school. 

“I started shortly as a casual relief teacher. … I got an interview for a teaching position at a public school in Cranbourne. I was unsuccessful on the grounds of lack of experience. Then again, I was interviewed telephonically by SERCO, but could not be successful on the grounds of lack of Australian experience. I took up employment as a Coordinator for an after-school Program (OSHC) with Camp Australia. It utilised my VIT licence and got me into a school. However, it was far from a teaching career.”

Now a TAFE teacher, Jasha believes “some schools even today are looking for ‘native speakers’ only”. She had a job interview for “TESOL training to international students” but shortly after the interview finished she received an email: “Unfortunately, the position has been filled.”

Some of our participants, despite being qualified and/or experienced high school and primary school teachers, chose to be employed in TAFE, community and ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) sectors because they did not wish to be unemployed.

Immigrant teachers face many challenges to reconstitute their professional identity in Australia. If Australia wants to utilise immigrant teachers to address the current teacher shortage, then it must address institutional and micro socio-cultural and professional barriers to entry. To accept NNESITs’ cultural professional repertoire as assets rather than deficit is the first step. Customised transition programs such as mentorship  and ongoing support within and beyond professional contexts are also essential to transition and develop them further in new interculturally enriched processional context. It is both ethical and ecological to recognise and fully include NNESITs as legitimate teachers within Australian teaching sectors. It is suggested to engage in intercultural dialogue productively and to listen and be open to those who appear to be culturally and professionally different and be responsible to them. 

When immigrant teachers no longer suffer the discrimination and marginalisation due to their cultural, linguistic and racial difference, they are then assured of equal rights and empowered to freely negotiate their professional identity. 

Nashid Nigar teaches Master of TESOL and Master of Education programs at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She is a PhD candidate at Monash University, investigating immigrant teachers’ professional identity in Australia. Amongst her study interests are teacher professional identity and theories, career development, academic literacy, curriculum development, and English language teaching and learning in intercultural contexts. 

Alex Kostogriz is a Professor in Languages and TESOL Education at the Faculty of Education, Monash University. Alex’s current research projects focus on the professional practice and ethics of language teachers, teacher education and experiences of beginning teachers.

Mahtab Janfada is a Lecturer in Language and Literacy department at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, She coordinates subjects in the Master of TESOL/Additional Languages and Master of Education programs. Mahtab’s research captures Critical and Dialogic philosophy and pedagogy, and Academic Literacy in the plurilingual context of education.

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.