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The past year was always going to be tough for Australian schools. Reports indicated a serious teacher shortage heading into 2020, with more than 30% leaving within their first five years in the job. When school heads nationwide were quizzed on their biggest challenges for The Educator’s 2020 Education Report, their replies contained all the usual suspects: lack of time, large workloads, relatively low rates of pay, student mental health and wellbeing, and the never-ending tangle of red tape and bureaucracy. Throw in remote learning during the pandemic, and schools really had their work cut out. One report found two thirds of primary and secondary teachers working longer hours than usual, and an annual report into principal health and wellbeing released last May showed one in three principals were verging on burnout.
Yet amid all of this, many schools have managed to create positive working environments that support staff and students – evidenced by low rates of turnover and high rates of tenure and employee engagement.
From a flood of submissions for its 2021 5-Star Awards for Employers of Choice, The Educator handpicked 25 schools that have gone above and beyond to support staff through an especially trying time. This support translated into hard data: among the winners – spanning public, independent and Catholic schools – the average rate of tenure was eight years, and turnover was around 6%.
Michael Smith, deputy principal of Marsden State High School in Queensland – which has an employee turnover rate of just 3% – says retaining staff is down to the clear support a school provides.
“The early years of teaching are tough as you try and get your head around every-thing. It is easy to feel alone and isolated and sink under the pressure of the job,” he says.
“Setting structures in place that encourage and support a teacher to connect and seek help are very important.”
At the heart of all the Employer of Choice schools lies a philosophy well summed up by St Stephen’s independent school in WA: “The staff are the core of who we are, and the school believes in developing and rewarding its people beyond just providing an office and a pay cheque.”
Of course, where pay cheques are dictated by state governments, these schools have been creative in finding ways to acknowledge the immense contribution of their staff. As well as the usual entitlements, added benefits have been many and varied. They have reflected a belief in taking care of physical and mental wellbeing but also in the importance of work-life balance and giving back to the community. Benefits included paid leave for employees wishing to participate in a volunteer program, twice weekly yoga classes, end-of-term retreats to allow early-career teachers to reflect and unwind; three days off a year to deal with urgent private business; on-site gyms and more.
For one of this year’s winners, giving staff space to mentally unload is essential. Cook School in NSW explains that students are referred to the school due to significant externalising or internalising mental health concerns, meaning teachers need extra support. “We debrief as a whole staff every single day, as upsetting and distressing things can occur when working with a student cohort with significant mental health issues,” says principal Dave Hobson. “We need to ensure people can be heard, be supported, have a laugh or a cry, let it go and not take it home with them.”
In addition, says Hobson, if there has been an incident, or it has been a particularly tough day, teachers know they can ‘tap out’ and have an executive staff member cover their class during the time it takes for them to regroup. “It doesn’t happen often, but just knowing support is there is a huge protective factor for staff.”
Communication was high on the agenda for all schools, especially during the COVID-19 lockdowns, with plenty of online meetings and wellbeing events to keep staff informed, connected, and to maintain a sense of collegiality. At Brighton Grammar in Victoria, “the headmaster personally called academic and professional support staff to encourage them to practise self-care, which displayed his commitment to provide a healthy and collaborative working environment”.
Victoria’s Carey Baptist Grammar even established its own TV channel during lock-down to “assist with connecting the school community in a new, fun forum and provide a different way for the broader community to be connected”.
The learning never stops
There was a strong focus on professional development, and schools offered a range of learning opportunities for teachers, including professional/academic conferences; online learning/blogs; peer coaching or mentoring; master’s degree study and qualifications; secondments, acting posts and placements.
Marsden State High provided an online professional learning library for staff to access teaching and non-teaching practices. “All the research says that a quality teacher will have an incredible impact on student outcomes. Without a strong culture and emphasis on staff development and performance, a teacher will not grow and improve their practice, and as a result the outcomes of the students in front of them will suffer,” says Smith.
Schools were judged in several categories, many of which overlapped, like leadership and career progression. At Ormiston College in Queensland, for example, teachers can hone their leadership skills by taking on more responsibility as team leaders, heads of department, house coordinators, year-level coordinators and senior teachers. The senior teacher roles in particular offer the opportunity for leadership development to classroom teachers. The college’s 25 senior teachers account for 25% of staff. The knock-on effect is a “highly engaged and collaborative work environment of shared expertise”.
Many schools took pride in the number of senior leadership positions that were filled internally and actively encouraged staff to apply for these roles. Collaboration was seen as key to leadership, as was providing leader-ship opportunities at every level. At Toorak College in Victoria, “The importance of leadership cascades to our Toorak Leader-ship Team (TLT) consisting of staff who hold positions of responsibility across both the Education and Operations teams. Our TLT is the conduit between our staff, students, community, executive and board, and is pivotal in leading the success and direction of our school.”
In the classroom
There was strong dedication to technology and innovation, with many schools providing staff with one or more devices, including laptops, phones, PCs and tablets. A common theme was regular training to expose staff to innovative teaching methods and increase their confidence in the use of technology. Some schools have dedicated IT support staff/technicians to help teachers navigate their online tools.
As Beenleigh State High School put it, “To participate in a knowledge-based economy and to be empowered within a technologically sophisticated society now and into the future, staff and students need the knowledge, skills and confidence to make ICT work for them at school, at home, at work and in their communities.
“As the school is located within a low socio-economic environment, many students do not have access to technology. To facilitate teachers’ online curriculum and pedagogy, the school operates an equity pool where students are able to borrow a computer for the day.”
Allowing teachers to fully focus on students by removing time-consuming administrative tasks and giving these to non-teaching staff where possible, was also key for some schools.
“As a leadership team we have invested considerable time into streamlining administrative processes and constantly looking to see what has been superseded or doubled up on so people aren’t doing additional chores,” says Hobson.
This has proved extremely fruitful, even in an environment as challenging as the one at Cook School, he says. “When your entire class is comprised of students who were not successful or were deemed too complex to support within a number of mainstream settings, and they are all in a room together and on task and achieving outcomes, it’s the most wonderful sense of accomplishment for a teacher, almost superhuman!”
- All Saints' College
- Cook School
- Lauriston Girls' School
- Lowther Hall Anglican Grammar School
- Marsden State High School
- Mater Dei College
- St. John's College, Nambour
- Scotch College Adelaide
Attracting and retaining top teaching talent is an ongoing challenge for Australian schools, so recognition as an Employer of Choice is a badge worn with pride. To find the 25 schools with employee initiatives that stood out as the best, The Educator invited all schools operating in Australia to self-nominate based on their initiatives and achievements across a number of key areas. Submissions had to include both quantitative and qualitative evidence to demonstrate a school’s performance as a leading workplace. The key areas deemed critical to a positive employee experience were remuneration; training and professional development; career progression; diversity and inclusion; access to technology and resources; communication; leadership; work-life balance; health and wellbeing; and reward and recognition. The survey ran from 1 to 26 February 2021.