Five days a week, Karl* goes to work as a high school teacher, planning lessons, marking tests, and dealing with admin. Then, on Sundays, he puts on his uniform and works a sixth day at a local shop.
It’s a long week even though, technically, he’s a part-time teacher.
Despite only being contracted to work two full days at the school — and three half-days — the amount of unpaid overtime needed to prepare for the next day’s classes quickly fills the spare time.
Which is exactly why Karl chose not to take on full-time teaching when he recently graduated, despite a widespread shortage of Australian teachers.
“I kept hearing horror stories of the first-year — early teachers they burn out, they struggle, and I was concerned about it,” he says. “I haven’t sat through a degree so I can do a job for a couple of years and then burnout. I want to do this for a long time, so I need to pace myself.”
Horror stories, like those that led Karl to choose his phased entry into the profession, have become all too common in the teaching industry.
Correna Haythorpe, the national president of the Australian Education Union (AEU) which represents public school teachers across the country, believes the attrition rate for teachers could be as high as 30 per cent within the first five years in some parts of the country.
The cause is often chalked up to “burnout”, a far-reaching condition that can be driven by ballooning workloads, the expansion of responsibility and periods of high stress, like the COVID pandemic.
“The big word that I would use to describe what’s happening to teachers is demoralisation,” says Gabbie Stroud, a former teacher (or “recovering teacher”, as she describes it) and author of a book about her own burnout.
“But how that’s happening is broad and varied: it’s increasing workload, it’s data collection, administration and standardization, and all of those activities that take teachers away from the core business of teaching.”
These issues and more will form part of a roundtable discussion between national, state and territory education ministers on Friday, as they look for ways to attract new teachers to the profession, retain existing staff and stem the chronic shortages plaguing schools.
It comes as Department of Education modeling revealed demand for high school teachers was set to outstrip graduates by more than 4,000 over the next three years.
An issues paper published by the department ahead of the meeting described the staffing challenges as “unprecedented” and the “single biggest issue” facing all school sectors.
While COVID had exacerbated the issue, it said that it was only one part of the problem and perceptions of low pay, unfavorable working conditions, and increasing workloads were also partly to blame.
All these factors contributed to Karl’s decision to go part-time, despite choosing to get into the industry precisely because he saw an opportunity for increased job security.
Even in his first year on the job, he says he’s regularly working upwards of five hours above what he is contracted for each week — a situation he describes as a “pretty common story.”
“I’ve got a lot of teachers around me, and even when they’ve got 10 or 20 years experience, they’re going: ‘yeah, wow, this is nuts’,” he says. “There’s a lot of dazed looks, I don’t want to overstate it, but people are walking around like the walking dead, really knocked around.”
How did we get here?
While teacher shortages — especially in certain regions and for particular subjects — aren’t new, Haythorpe says the current situation “is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
“We’re in a perfect storm right now and this is happening right across the nation. It’s not only schools in rural and regional locations that are experiencing shortages,” she says. “There’s no doubt that we’re at crisis point.”
Stroud, who left her job as a primary school teacher in 2016 due to what she believed was burnout, says she prefers the term “teacher drought” to shortage, because “when we think about a drought then we start to think about what’s happening in the environment to cause this”.
“I suspect that if everyone who held a teaching degree went back into teaching, we would not have a shortage. So, something has driven them out,” she says. And what’s particularly alarming, she says, is how quickly early career teachers are tapping out.
So, what’s causing it? People we spoke to for this story repeated that workload is the major — if not the number one — issue. According to Haythorpe, teachers are frequently working in excess of 50 hours a week (the standard full-time working week is 38 hours), a figure which is only growing. “COVID exacerbated that but it didn’t create the problem,” she says.
Many teachers also report feeling unprepared to enter the classroom, she says, due to increased expectations to deal with behavioral issues and the need to keep up with changing curriculums.
Earlier this year, a Grattan Institute survey of more than 5,000 teachers and school leaders found more than 90 per cent of teachers felt they didn’t have enough time to prepare adequately for classroom teaching and many said they felt overwhelmed by expectations.
It’s a familiar story to Chris*, who left his job in a mainstream high school after almost 30 years due to a case of burnout that left him in need of psychological treatment. Asked what led him to that point, he rattles off a long list: loss of status, bureaucracy, isolation, and as always, workload.
“If people didn’t have mortgages to pay, there would be no senior teachers left,” he says. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the workload … smaller classes, less administrative burden.”
Stroud echoes a similar sentiment, that more money isn’t the answer for teachers already in the deep end. “Burnout is burnout, demoralization is demoralization,” she says. “The day I left that classroom, you could have told me it was a million dollar a year job and I still would have left.”
How does pay stack up?
The reality, however, is that when it comes to employment money does matter — especially when it comes to attracting high-achievers to the profession and retaining experienced teachers with a myriad of transferable skills.
It’s also part of the equation for Karl as he considers when he might want to make the move to full-time. “Do I want to risk burning myself out for $75,000 a year? No. Once I’m worth $100,000 a year, is it worth maybe increasing it then?” he says. “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it is the extra spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.”
According to a 2019 report from the Grattan Institute, the starting salary for most classroom teachers in Australia is between $65,000 and $70,000, topping out at just over $100,000 after about a decade in the workforce. While the starting salary is competitive with other professions, over time teachers quickly fall behind their peers in other industries.
Among proposals to be discussed on Friday is a plan to give some senior teachers a 40 per cent pay bump to take on so-called “master teacher” roles. Paid teaching internships for professionals from other industries are also on the table.
“One thing is certain, we’re not going to fix this problem by just doing the same thing time after time,” federal Education Minister Jason Clare told the ABC last week. “We’ve got to look for new ideas that are going to help not just fix the shortage of teachers but also raise the performance of our kids.”
The Grattan Institute has previously recommended a similar framework to retain and attract people to the workforce, including the creation of two new expert teacher roles that would be paid at a significantly higher salary.
“One of the really key strategies, we believe, to support the workforce going forward is to get much better at recognizing teaching expertise,” says Jordana Hunter, education program director at the Grattan Institute.
“We’ve called for several years now for a reboot of the teacher career structure to introduce an instructional specialist position — a person who is able to demonstrate exceptional, subject-specific teaching practice and has the ability to work with other teachers in their school .”
Haythorpe of the AEU acknowledges the need to find ways to attract teachers to the classroom, but worries about proposals that “pit teachers against teachers”.
“One of my concerns with the master teacher proposal is it really focuses on a small, select group of teachers. This is a problem for everyone and we need appropriate pay and conditions for everyone in the profession.”
So, what’s the solution?
When it comes to workload — something Hunter also says she hears time and time again — the Grattan Institute argues there needs to be a rethink of how teachers can best be supported so they’re able to focus on students.
“One of the things we’ve looked at is how we can free up teacher schedules, so they can really focus on teaching,” Hunter says.
This may look like redeploying teaching assistants and other non-teaching staff to take on extracurricular and supervision activities, allowing teachers more time for lesson planning and academic preparation.
Hunter says they also heard from more than half the teachers they surveyed that they feel like they’re expected to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to lesson planning. “It’s really hitting students hard … this lack of time for teachers to think really carefully about how they’re going to deliver their lessons because instead they’re scrambling on Google and Pintrest.”
One way to alleviate this pressure, according to the Grattan Institute, could be the creation at a school level of high-quality lesson plans that are made available to all teachers to draw upon.
While there are plenty of details to be worked out, Hunter says one thing is clear: there’s no point reaching for a band-aid solution to the shortages without also dealing with the problems on the ground. “Obviously we need to address shortages, but we also have to make it a rewarding job now and keep the great teachers we already have in the classroom,” she says. “Because it’s one of the most important jobs in Australia.”
But while education leaders discuss where to go from here, the reality is already being felt in schools as they scramble for relief teachers and class numbers blow out.
For Gabbie Stroud, that means she could soon find herself somewhere she thought she’d never be again: at the front of the classroom.
A recent newsletter from her child’s school on the NSW south coast included a line begging local parents with a teaching degree to consider coming back to the classroom. “These are heartfelt pleas coming from our schools saying: ‘we’re not coping’,” she says.
So reluctantly, after six years out of the classroom, she’s signed up for casual relief teaching.
“I know it’s the right thing to step up and lend a hand,” she says. “But I don’t feel great about it. This is not the right way, none of this is the right way.”
*Not real names.