Why we need to back Aussie teachers

Are Aussie Parents Backing Teachers Enough?

Australian education is facing a crisis – we have 53% of qualified teachers choosing not to teach and 20% of graduates who will never teach. What’s going on?

The Teacher’s Perspective

At 17, high school dux Sylvie Banks* told her parents she wanted to become a teacher; they told her to ‘aim higher’. Two teaching degrees later, now in her 40s and a mother to four, she says she never expected the lows.

When my working class parents found out I was planning to study education at university, they laughed and mocked me. I was surprised; they seemed to devalue the very people who had helped me achieve so much. To keep them happy, I enrolled in a communications degree. Teaching stayed close to my heart though, and after three years of study, I swapped to a diploma to teach secondary english and history.

In my final weeks, I was assigned to a high school in a low-socioeconomic area of Sydney with a high percentage of recent immigrants.

I knew after my first lesson I was out of my depth.

In my senior english class were students who looked much older than I was; my colleagues explained that many students lie about their age to get into school, and most had never had a formal education. Many could not read or write.

I encouraged the illiterate students to draw a picture and then tell the story to the class. One young man got up with a drawing of a woman engulfed in flames, and told how when his mother’s application for Australian immigration was refused, she set herself on fire in front of him. He came here as an orphan. I hid in the storeroom and cried.

On my first lunchtime playground duty, the police were called to remove a local gang of youths suspected of selling drugs in the school grounds. Later that afternoon, they smashed up the teachers’ cars in revenge.

I ran screaming back to my uni supervisor and asked to change schools.

Her response was swift: “If you can’t handle the reality of education in Australia, don’t become a teacher.” I couldn’t, so I didn’t. And so my career as a book editor began.

My career flourished, but I could not surrender my desire to be a teacher. I believed education was the single greatest way to improve quality of life, promote equality, reduce crime and enhance democracy. After I had my own children, my desire to ‘make the world a better place’ grew stronger.

I re-enrolled in a new dedicated teaching degree and balanced part-time study with full-time work and full-time motherhood.

I powered through the degree with enthusiasm and hope; and prepared for my Department interview meticulously. I wanted to work in the public school system because I believed that was where the greatest difference could be made to people’s lives.

I arrived at the interview nervously holding my paperwork. After a long wait, a man asked me to sit at a small desk. He ticked boxes and stamped my approval to teach. He sensed my ‘green enthusiasm’ and his expression changed.

He looked at me sympathetically and said, “If I was you, I would think very carefully before you leave your lucrative career. As a teacher, your income will plummet…you’re going onto a waiting list behind thousands of unemployed teachers. At best, you’ll be on the casual list for a decade or get the worst schools.”

I walked from the building feeling like the sky had fallen on my head. And it wasn’t about to get any better. I did manage to get myself on a casual list at a large high school in a middle-class suburb, where I went to work for precisely four weeks and four days. I quickly discovered that modern day teaching is one percent subject matter and 99% classroom management. At the end of my first day, I went home and stared in disbelief at my lesson plans.

“How do teachers achieve their goals under these circumstances?” I wondered.

The next day I learned that most teacher-posed questions are quickly answered by Google from a student’s mobile phone. That violence between two 17-year-old boys was not something I could stop. That “f#@! you, miss” wasn’t as shocking to the rest of the staffroom as it was to me. That ‘inclusive education’ sometimes meant schools (unofficially) grouped all children with spectrum disorders into one super-challenging class. That computer-room lessons were a chaotic environment of coding, games, YouTube and typing swear words in 48-point bold type.

In the staffroom there was discontent, resources were sparse, absenteeism was prevalent and there was always that one teacher who had just given up, and moved through the day with slouched shoulders and downcast eyes. The ‘good’ teachers spent truckloads of their own money on resources, and worked around the clock.

I went home each night, more exhausted than I had ever felt in my life. One interaction with a student during this time still plagues me: “Hey Miss, didn’t you get almost 100 in your HSC? Why did you just become a teacher?”

I called my aunt, an experienced schoolteacher. She was pragmatic and suggested I leave teaching for a later life stage when I didn’t have the demands of my own young family because “teaching takes every ounce of energy you can muster”.

Her final advice still haunts me.

“Teaching exposes you to the very best and the very worst of society; it takes courage and resilience to return to the classroom every day. When children do well, parents and students are quick to take the credit, but when they don’t, teachers are interrogated. More and more of society’s ills are laid at the feet of the education system every day, but the profession is not revered, resourced or remunerated adequately.”

With that advice, for the second time in my life, I walked away from something I believed in.

The Advocator’s Perspective

Adam Voigt is a former school principal. He is the CEO of Real Schools and works with Australian schools in long-term partnerships to build strong, sustainable and relational school cultures.

Sylvie’s story is a harrowing and difficult one for a lifelong educator, such as myself, to read. It is the story of a passionate, intelligent and hard-working young person with so much to contribute to our schools – who won’t be. But, more pertinently, there’s nothing particularly surprising to me about Sylvie’s tale.

My post school-principal life takes me into dozens of Australian schools of both public and private sectors and across all phases of learning to train and partner with our teachers and school leaders.

In each, the prevailing experience is that teaching is getting harder. In each, the gap between what we must do and what we know must be done is widening. In each, the evidence to back up this anecdotal evaluation is mounting.

We now have 53% of qualified Australian teachers who are choosing not to teach. That’s okay, at least we have plenty of new ones coming through, right? No.

These days 20% of graduating teachers don’t even bother to register with their states’ relevant board

This means they will never teach for even a day.

And so the big question is posed: “Do we have a cohort of people attracted to teaching who are soft, lacking in the necessary grit and devoid of personal resilience or have we created a profession into which smart, passionate people simply decide it is untenable to go?”

My fervent suggestion is that it’s the latter. Houston, we have a problem.

Armed with this awareness of the problem, we need to examine what exactly is driving teachers away from the role, or at least driving them to sleepless nights and reduced performance. The literature on this topic is clear.

There are three key stressors at the top of the list:

  1. Student Behaviour: Teachers are not lying awake at night worried about what has happened during that day – they are worried about the absence of a plan for it to be any better tomorrow. Our schools are screaming for high quality, relevant in-service support on this problem and it’s time we provided it, in lieu of giving them more to do. Workload: We’ve included a vast array of programs from coding, to swimming, through to drones and even healthy eating that diminish the role of parents and leave schools doing too many things, none of them well.
  2. Workload: We’ve included a vast array of programs from coding, to swimming, through to drones and even healthy eating that diminish the role of parents and leave schools doing too many things, none of them well.
  3. Issues with Parents: This is the tough one. Somehow, across the last 30 years or so kids went from getting into trouble twice if they ‘played up’ – once at school and another at home – to parents and teachers arguing over how many detentions little Charlie really deserves. These are not mere ‘tiffs’ either, evidenced by school principals now being in the same risk of physical injury at work as firefighters and commercial fishermen.

As parents, we should be supporting, challenging and advocating for our schools to focus on these three areas. We need to come back into a trusting home-school partnership geared not around perfection and agreement but a shared determination around learning and citizen building.

At the end of the day, this is what’s going to facilitate your child being taught by Sylvie – and not by the tired, drained, distracted and despondent workforce that we’re currently fostering.

The Researcher

Dr Merryn McKinnon, an academic from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, has spent more than a decade researching what is needed to support teachers.

When talking to science teachers, I often ask the question: “If you could have one thing to help you teach, what would it be?” Without fail, the most commonly occurring answer is, “time”.

My research shows me that schools have become an exercise in administration, over-burdening teachers and detracting from what they are actually hired to do: teach. In the first five years, post-graduation, it is estimated that between 30% and 50% of teachers will leave the profession.

How can we, as a nation, look at that rate and say the system is okay?

Mentoring and supporting new teachers has been put forward as one means of helping retain teachers. But this is again asking teachers to do more, with less.

I remember one new teacher saying that the teachers in his department “were so stressed and busy that they didn’t have the time to support new teachers”. This introduction to their first year of teaching leaves many new teachers feeling “very frustrated, and a little overwhelmed”, and some leave the profession before the end of their second year.

If the solutions and strategies to improve education constantly fall back to teachers, without removing any of the other impediments and barriers, how can we expect anything to change? It is very difficult to support, motivate and inspire others when you do not feel any of those things yourself.

The teaching research literature has been saying largely the same thing for over 20 years: the only thing that has not adequately adapted and changed to allow this best practice to occur is the education system itself. Until the system addresses the long hours, the administrative demands and the status of teachers, nothing will change, and we will keep losing our best and brightest teachers to other professions, just like Sylvie.

Why then are we not asking for the school environment to help these professionals to properly do the job we are trusting them to do?

As a community, we must ask our government to adopt the systemic best practice for our schools. As parents, we must be active participants and contributors in our children’s learning – explore, play, experiment, read together. But furthermore, we need to remember that as parents, grandparents and carers, we are still the biggest influencers on our children and their attitudes.

They are watching and listening to everything we do.

So what value do we place on teachers and education? What behaviours and attitudes do we ourselves exhibit?

*Names have been changed

Words by Kim Richards / Image by Faustin Tuyambaze