Teachers say it’s crazy now. That’s not even the whole story

By Mihajla Gavin and Susan McGrath-Champ

The crisis facing teachers and the teaching profession over the last decade at an international level is well-established in both the academic literature and industry reports.

Borne by compliance-driven and bureaucratic policies that have heightened accountability and scrutiny over teachers’ work, a large body of evidence has documented the negative impacts felt by teachers resulting from these policies. This includes excessive workloads and intensification of work, elevated stress and burnout, and diminished health and wellbeing. Flatlining salaries and poor professional respect have also culminated to create a disincentive to enter into the profession. 

These pressures have contributed to a growing teacher shortage internationally. The situation is so dire the United Nations (UN) has recently recommended an urgent call to action to transform education systems and the teaching profession globally.    

The UN described the COVID-19 pandemic as having “turned the world of work upside down”. On top of the pressures experienced pre-pandemic, it is crucial to understand how the work of teachers changed post-pandemic. In a recently published article, we explored the legacy impact of the pandemic on school teachers’ work.  

COVID-19: Disrupting a profession in crisis

Teachers’ work changed fundamentally due to COVID. In a matter of weeks following the World Health Organization declaring a worldwide pandemic in early 2020, governments began directing schools to shut down and shift to remote teaching and learning of students.

This experience of remote learning for teachers was fairly short-lived, particularly compared to other sectors where working-from-home has increased and sustained beyond pre-pandemic levels. But empirical studies in Australia and internationally documented the significant disruption faced by teachers from this dramatic shift to their normal ways of working. Teachers’ stress and anxiety increased substantially during the pandemic, workloads grew, and resilience was challenged. 

To ensure continuity of learning, teachers had to very quickly upskill in new technological platforms and systems, working around-the-clock to support their students, despite reports of many teachers feeling very unprepared and overwhelmed. EdTech companies seized the pandemic as an opportunity to further roll out digital technologies and online learning support to help schools during intense remote learning while profiting significantly. 

The teacher workforce shortage problem was made even more acute by the pandemic, mirroring the ‘great resignation’ trend occurring elsewhere in the world of work where millions voluntarily quit their jobs in a re-evaluation of their life and career decisions. 

Post-COVID: Sustained impacts for the teaching profession? 

The World Health Organization announced in mid-2023 that the pandemic was no longer a public health emergency. As economies and societies moved to recover from the global pandemic, the opportunity is ripe to consider how ways of working have fundamentally changed, or not, from the world of work being ‘turned upside down’. 

In a recent article, we outlined a research agenda to understand ways in which the pandemic may have marked an inflection point in disrupting education systems, specifically its sustained impact on teachers’ work and workload. We were curious to understand how the pandemic reshaped or hastened existing thinking and practice around teachers’ use of technology, delivery models of education, and more flexible ways of working. While it is difficult to establish direct causal links, we were interested to understand the ways in which teachers’ work and workload has been changing in light of these complex crises and the impact of these global trends. 

As experts in work and employment, we looked to broader patterns of change happening in the world of work, which the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated, such as remote and flexible work, automation, and augmentation to work roles and content of work, to understand what was happening to teachers’ work. Our call for further research on these trends was complemented with an interview-based project with school teachers and leaders in New South Wales, in which we share some emerging insights, to understand how the pandemic has changed teachers’ work. 

How is teachers’ work changing?

Classroom teaching remains primarily a face-to-face learning experience in physical environments for five days a week with a relatively small number of students (unlike the massification of higher education), supported by online learning. 

There are some early signs of departure from notions of fixed time and place for learning. While in interviews, some teachers mentioned that “I don’t think that fully online is the answer”, there are examples of ways that schools are experimenting with hybrid or blended ways of learning. Flexible arrangements in the form of a four-day school week have been introduced and tested in states such as Queensland in Australia and Missouri in the USA as a way to save teachers’ time and manage costs and staff shortages

Advancements in artificial intelligence have activated discussions around enabling teachers to work more efficiently and effectively through automating repetitive tasks and standardizing processes. ‘Time-saving’ strategies for teachers have also been proposed in policy solutions like the NSW Department of Education’s ‘Quality Time’ Program which uses online tools of ‘banks’ of curriculum and lesson planning material to support teachers’ lesson preparation. 

Yet, these developments have potentially major impacts for how teachers carry out their work and in understanding the way the ‘job’ of teaching is changing. And further questions remain on the implications for students’ learning and needs around social and emotional connection, as well as impacts on parents and local communities from changing models of learning. 

Always on, always available

For example, concerns have been raised about the ways the pandemic intensified the expectations of teachers (and other professional workers) to be ‘always on and available’ to work. This was a concern directly raised by teachers in our interviews, with one reporting the encroachment of work activities on their ‘personal’ time: “it’s crazy, it just feels like it’s never ending, you feel like you’re just constantly on your computer”. In response, new industrial and policy provisions in New South Wales and Queensland are empowering public school teachers with the right to ‘digitally disconnect’ to limit non-urgent communications, protect teachers’ non-work time, and support their wellbeing, with this right to become available for other workers Australia-wide under new legislation.

Many teachers also anticipate online delivery of learning to continue in the future, yet have tempered this with caution of the knock-on effects for students, as one teacher commented: “I can definitely see these online platforms, like this online delivery of content being really big in the future. I definitely think that’s going to take over most of content delivery “teaching”. But there’s still such a need for relationships and that social interaction.” 

Careful consideration needed

Technologies and emerging work arrangements are changing the way that teachers carry out their work, which has been intensified with the pandemic. But careful consideration is needed of the implications of these trends so that teachers’ professional autonomy and expertise is protected and so that there is due consideration of the impact of changes on teachers’ workload and working conditions. 

Mihajla Gavin is a senior lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney.Her research is onl education reforms affecting teachers’ conditions of work. Find her 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.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Teachers say it’s crazy now. That’s not even the whole story

  1. Einstein described doing the same thing and expecting a different result as insanity. It is unfortunate that teachers, and the teaching profession, continue to just document poor conditions, and expect that somehow that will result in an improvement in conditions. It hasn’t and likely will not.

    The COVID-19 pandemic did effect educator’s work. But those who had trained in online delivery, in preparation for an emergency which kept students from campus ,were able to cope better that those who did not.

    Technical developments, such as e-learning & AI, will continue to impact what educators do. So those who train school & vocational teachers, as well as university academics who teach, need to teach these skills. They also need to teach professional skills for dealing with workloads. This is not to excuse governments, and employers, from their obligation to provide a safe workplace. But just wishing others will do the right thing will not make it happen, we have to stake what steps are in our control.

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