Burnout is blamed for an exodus of teachers contributing to ‘a teacher shortage crisis’ in Australian schools. The teacher burnout argument offers a ‘convenient’ explanation of why teachers leave – they burn out as external pressures wear them down. Yet, framing the problem as one of teacher burnout diverts attention from ‘the moral crisis’ with which our teaching workforce has been grappling for years.
The moral crisis is rooted in despair when teachers face persistent and chronic challenges to the values that animate their work. It emerges when the ‘call to teach’ as a moral practice meets an inequitably resourced education system that prioritises test-based accountability and top-down engineering of teachers’ work.
The teacher shortage crisis
The crisis talk has brought attention to some of the most legitimate grievances of teachers in Australia. Inadequate remuneration, unsustainable workloads, administrative burdens, and growing bureaucratic requirements have had irrefutable negative effects on teachers’ morale and their sense of career optimism.
The teacher shortage crisis has also highlighted the importance of retaining teachers who are already in the job. This has led to a focus on improving teachers’ working conditions. At the same time, front-end-focused measures are introduced to address teacher supply issues. These policy solutions, including the recent Labor’s Plan to Fix Teacher Shortages, are aimed at making teaching a more attractive career option.
While these measures deal with elements of what has contributed a teacher shortage crisis, they remain largely oblivious to a less visible moral crisis that has haunted the teaching profession, a crisis rooted in tensions between the view of teaching as a caring practice driven by a sense of calling and education policies, school practices and working conditions that sit in tension with the call to service.
A spectre is haunting teaching — the spectre of a moral crisis
A burnout explanation of why teachers leave the profession would lead to solutions that aim, at least in principle, to alleviate what burdens teachers, and burns them out. The New South Wales’ plan to support high-quality lesson planning is an example of such solutions. Universal access to centralised learning materials is offered to “free up lesson planning time each week” (Premier Dominic Perrottet).
From a teacher burnout perspective, this policy response is adequate as it alleviates ‘the burden’ of lesson planning. This is, however, a problematic proposition. Many teachers view creating engaging lesson plans as part of their core work, something that provides them with the ownership of their practice.
A moral crisis explanation provides an alternative explanation of what wears teachers down and paves the way for their exit decision from teaching. Teachers may leave not because they burn out and have nothing more to offer; they leave because their call to service is consistently challenged by the realities of an inequitably resourced school system that pursues top-down engineering of their work.
Viewed as such, teachers’ exit decisions can be interpreted as an ultimate act of dissent; it is a refusal to bear witness to and endure dehumanising conditions that undermine their professional autonomy, compromise their wellbeing and overlook what they cherish most in their work: making a positive difference in the lives of children and young people through the actual practices of teaching and learning.
To exit, therefore, may not be a symptom of burning out. It can be an exercise of agency and a rejection of the top-down recipes that ignore the moral core that orients teachers’ practices.
Addressing the moral crisis
Addressing the moral crisis requires attending to what has eroded the fabric of education as a public good. This includes the school choice model and funding inequities that have created a two-tiered education system in which the least-resourced Australian schools cater for the most under-served students and their communities. Many of these schools have unsustainable working conditions that require teachers to forego their own wellbeing to do their job well. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the least advantaged schools in Australia are six times more likely to report teacher shortage problems compared to more affluent schools.
Attending to the moral core in teaching also requires a return to a view of education as a domain of possibility, agency and growth. It needs doing away with policies that prioritise compliance with centralised systems of monitoring tied to narrow test-based accountabilities. These practices have been shown to adversely impact on teacher morale and student wellbeing. We need to put the trust back in our teachers and their professional judgements. To do this, an audacious reform project is needed to rekindle an old flame amidst the ferocious onslaught of forces that codify teaching in purely managerial and technical terms.
Revisiting the teacher shortage crisis through a moral lens is more than reframing an existing problem in new terms. It requires us to attend to the values that sustain teaching as a caring form of practice. The moral argument disrupts the narrative that equates exit to a deficit in resilience and adaptability. Instead, it brings the focus back on teachers duty of care (for self and the other), and their agency to say ‘no’ to the conditions that dampen their morale, compromise their wellbeing and stall their care work.
Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer in Pedagogy, Professional Practice and Teacher Education at La Trobe School of Education. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. Babak’s current research is focused on the challenges that teachers face and the types of support that they need stay in the profession, especially in the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. Twitter: @DadvandBabak