I almost never post on Twitter. Sometimes I like other people’s posts, but I’ve been a reluctant Twitter user. However, last week I posted this statement: There is no ‘teacher shortage’. There are thousands of qualified experienced teachers who are no longer teaching. There’s a shortage of respect and proper compensation for teachers allowing them to actually teach. In fact, as full disclosure, I paraphrased this from something posted by Professor Kara Mitchell Viesca | College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with whom I’ve worked. By the time I woke up in the morning, the tweet had gone viral. It’s been liked more 229.5K times, shared 44.2K times and commented on 1,937 times.
Nearly all these comments were posted by teachers or ex-teachers who emphatically agree that a change is needed in how we frame “teacher shortages”. These comments were from all around the world, mainly from the US but also from Australia, Canada, the UK and elsewhere. I haven’t yet sifted through all the comments, which keep on coming.
Overwhelmingly, these teachers (or ex-teachers) perceive the discourse of “teacher shortages” as misguided and even hurtful. As they point out, there are thousands and thousands of well-prepared, passionate, skilled, knowledgeable teachers. Comments on the original post recount how much they put into their teaching, how well qualified they are yet how little they felt valued. The constant criticism of teachers is something Nicole Mockler has written about recently, in her review of media representations of teachers.
Those who posted explained how much they loved the kids in their classrooms, created and taught creative, content-rich lessons. Many said they had been fully planning to teach for the rest of their lives. In other words, there was never a ‘shortage’ of good teachers who might have stayed had it not been so hard. They grieve their loss of career. Many say they didn’t really want to leave teaching, but as widely reported, they could just no longer teach how they wanted to – nor in some cases could they maintain their mental and physical health under current conditions. Teachers talked about the pressures of only ever receiving impermanent contracts, of endless reporting, of unreasonable workloads dominated by non-teaching tasks, of being on the receiving end of constant teacher-blaming. They also wrote about the de-professionalisation of teaching and their loss of autonomy.
Some mentioned other reasons for leaving, such as poor student behaviour but by far the majority of comments simply responded ‘truth’ or ‘yessss’ or ‘agree’. The sadness on the part of teachers who no longer feel they can remain teaching is palpable from these responses.
Some teachers who have left the profession have found a way around those pressures by taking advantage of government schemes, both in Australia and elsewhere that are designed to address teacher shortages but may have created a different set of problems. For instance, in Victoria significant funding has been allocated through the Tutor Learning Initiative https://www.vic.gov.au/tutor-learning-initiative-2022-information-for-prospective-tutors which employs part-time tutors in schools to ‘catch up’ students who are academically behind since the pandemic. One unintended consequence was that exhausted and often very experienced teachers took the opportunity to take well-paid tutoring jobs that relieved them of the parts of teaching they liked least, such as duties that could be carried out by administrative staff. Again, the ‘resignation’ from teaching cannot be perceived as a ‘teacher shortage’ but as a kind of redistribution of talent. Good or ‘quality’ teachers have chosen to move sideways (in fact downwards, taking less pay and security but with less stress) to stay in schools.
In fact, there is no lack of research on why teachers leave. There have been numerous teacher attrition and retention studies over a great many years. Except for pandemic related workforce issues (sickness and lockdowns) we’ve been warned for a long time that we needed a teacher workforce renewal strategy, not just because of an ageing workforce but because of the increasing accountabilities and pressures on teachers. These issues are widely reported, not just by other researchers, but in recent reports such as the Grattan Institute report Making Time for Great Teaching.
Along with Amy McPherson, Bruce Burnett and Danielle Armour, our recent review of twenty years of government, ITE and private initiatives to attract and retain a teaching workforce conservatively found 147 government, ITE or partnered initiatives that have been trialled over the past twenty years. One recommendation is that understanding the retention of teachers at key ‘walking point’ moments would assist policymakers in designing longer-term, more impactful interventions to attract teachers towards hard-to-staff schools (especially when they are considering leaving the profession).
This review of the many initiatives that have already been funded and implemented is just one research project repeating what seems to be clear. Incentives may attract people including career-changers, to teaching, but it’s a whole of system issue. The problem isn’t Initial Teacher Education on its own, which has been graduating very good (sometimes great) teachers for many, many years. The problem isn’t a lack of smart, passionate, and committed people who want to be teachers. But the well may go dry – we can’t keep looking elsewhere for teachers if we aren’t able to keep them in the profession. There’s little question that this is a crisis. We do need teachers in front of students; and there is no doubt teaching workforce issues are urgent. But sending teachers our there more quickly or prescribing curriculum to ‘help them manage their time’ is a misunderstanding of what’s going on. And by the way, school leaders agree. There were many comments from Principals as well.
I want to make it clear that I had not expected this post to go viral. I have been coordinating social justice teacher education programs such as the Nexus alternative pathway into teaching for a very long time . I see amazing schools and dedicated teachers ever day who are doing remarkable things under difficult circumstances. I am ‘for’ teachers and schools.
If 229.5K isn’t evidence enough of how teachers are feeling I’m not sure what is. I’m also very reluctant to focus only on “teacher grief”. Let’s also tap into the stories of teachers who remain in schools, especially now. Let’s find out what their working lives are like. Their lived experience will tell us how close they are to walking, why they stay, what keeps them going. Nobody knows how to find solutions better than those most affected.
On August 8, the Minister for Education Jason Clare published the Teacher Workforce Shortages Paper in advance of the Teacher Workforce Roundtable to tackle the national teacher workforce shortage
Maybe we should stop using the term teacher shortages.
We have a teacher workforce issue without a doubt. We need more teachers urgently. But some of us are nervous about recruiting new teachers at the same time as we are sorting out their workplace conditions.
Jo Lampert is Professor of Social Inclusion and Teacher Education at La Trobe University. She has led alternative pathways into teaching in hard-to-staff schools for over 15 years, most recently as Director of the Commonwealth and State supported Nexus M. Teach in Victoria, a social justice, employment-based pathway whereby preservice teachers work as Education Support Staff prior to gaining employment as paraprofessionals (Nexus). She tweets at @jolampert.