Why that one tweet went viral (and what we must do now to fix “teacher shortages”)

By Jo Lampert

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 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.

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

3 thoughts on “Why that one tweet went viral (and what we must do now to fix “teacher shortages”)

  1. Great post – thanks for putting your views out there, Jo!

    And then, there are those of us who sit huffily waiting to move from provisional to proficient teacher status. That’s me. I graduated in 2011, then tried working in teaching on-and-off until August 2019 until NESA (NSW teacher rego authority said NO, we will not accept any evidence from you over just two terms to gain proficiency. That’s all you have before your provisional accreditation expires.

    So, I left teaching.

    I cried in the car talking about it to my partner. Incredulous.

    I’d taught in more than 20 years, fielded constant calls for CRT teaching work, had long stints in some schools, but not one principal was willing to support me to achieve proficiency, to observe my classes, to sign any lesson plans or assessments I’d created/delivered. I kept asking. If a school fobbed me off, I would pack up and offer my services elsewhere. I didn’t have time to waste.

    This is what I heard from principals: I’m too busy, about to retire, ask teacher X about it (wasn’t someone who could supervise me, just another teacher … another dead end) or we’ll think about it and let you know later. When I did find a school that said ‘yes’ to supervision, that futzed around, deflected my questions/pleas for over a year, never assigned me a mentor, in fact they weren’t even aware I was primary trained and not maths trained. They were TOO busy to worry about my quest for proficiency.

    As a CRT teacher, you fall through the cracks because most of us don’t have a mentor, we just fill holes.

    Finally last month, I decided to TRY again. Re-accredited. Once again provisional, but I have two years to gain proficiency.

    I’ve found a school that’s said ‘yes’ – it’s a high school. Despite the behaviour management challenges, I’m there one day a week. I can afford no more in teaching – it pays just a third of what I earn as a writer and I need to pay my mortgage. I’m hoping to create a nest-egg with writing so I can take on a temp contract, work a few days a week next year, to notch proficiency.

    I might fail, but I have to try.

    There’s no way I would ditch my writing business for the uncertainty of full-time teaching.

  2. Bill Blaikie says:

    Poor pay, poor working conditions, authoritarian structures, stifling set curricula. It’s time to create decent settings, democratic processes, progressive curricula, trust and dignity in teachers and teaching, AND link pay structures to parliamentary backbenchers pay. As a very rich country this should have been done decades ago.

  3. Roslyn Happ says:

    Teacher shortages – Kind, cooperative team work will make a huge difference.

    I have taught science in high school, music in primary school and still teach piano privately.
    My passion now is to use that experience to encourage positive changes in our education system, making it more joyful, more cooperative and therefore more sustainable.

    Teaching can be and should be healthy for both students and teachers.
    This requires real support from admin to deal with ‘difficult’ and ‘different’ students as well as parents so that those difficulties do not upset smooth running of the daily activities with the majority of the class. Principals and Deputies should be there to ‘know’ and care for the teachers, their students and the parents. If they were doing that well, then many of their other ‘problems’ would disappear, including staff shortages.

    DOTT in primary school needs to be overhauled. Rather than time to do more administrative duties, it should be time to ‘observe what the specialist is doing’ and follow up with routine practice. This is actually DOTT anyway. As a music specialist, I have worked with teachers who do this, and the results are truly amazing … plus it is really good fun. For example, a class teacher can begin each day with a musical game or dance, followed by five minutes recorder practice and a song, before settling down to spelling. This is such a simple ‘habit’ with profound positive effects on self-discipline, lifting the general mood of students … and creating a calm happy atmosphere in which to learn; not to mention the learning of musical skills to a deep level.

    The opposite of this is for the class teacher to neglect this kind of activity altogether because they feel inadequate to do it. The music teacher is virtually unable to progress skills because they are not practiced … leading to students hating music … which causes them to play up … which causes the music teacher to resign.

    In my primary school, we all had to read aloud to the ‘Headmaster’. We said a poem and sang each morning in the classroom, with emphasis on clarity of pronunciation. We had no music teachers, specialists of any kind, or teachers’ aids. Hence, it was the headmaster’s job to pick up problems with students and work out programmes to help them. Far too much is expected of the classroom teacher today, and specialists are used very inefficiently. Drop Naplan and go back to this … much cheaper and less stressful. Cut down unnecessary admin tasks of the Principals and Deputies so that they have more time to use their skills and experience with the children … the real focus of our education. Listening to the children read and talking to them will give them feedback which might lead to ‘helping a class teacher’ improve some aspect of his/her teaching.

    Classroom teachers, specialists and admin should all ‘work together’, with a sense of appreciation and joy in their cooperative effort. After all, the three C’s of success are simply ‘Cooperation’, ‘Commitment’ and ‘Concentration’. We can so easily ‘do better’ with a few simple changes of focus, backed by caring, helpful administration.

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