Finding our teachers and keeping them

Finding our teachers and keeping them

by Robyn Collins

One of the greatest professional and moral challenges principals face is to appoint the best teachers for their school. As one former principal I respect very much says, "Which student deserves the mediocre teacher?" Thanks to Covid-19, the task of meeting the challenge of recruiting and retaining great teachers has become more difficult than ever.

Teacher shortages in secondary subject areas such as English, languages and the STEM disciplines have been reported for so many years now that they have almost reached endemic status – despite government-funded incentives to fill the gaps. More teachers are more likely to leave the profession early due to excessive workloads and poor work-family life balance, and fewer seem willing to teach outside major capital and regional centres. The COVID pandemic, which has dramatically altered teachers’ work and workplace conditions, has exacerbated these trends.

How, therefore, can principals access the workforce they want, and how will they retain the best teachers? Where is the workforce of the future, and just who is responsible for building it?

Educators are their own best advocates

Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions anyone can undertake. Most teachers will tell you that, on the whole, they love their work; and yet how often do we make this plain to others? How many of us encourage our best young people into teaching? How many of us talk about the intrinsic rewards of working with young people when we talk to family, friends and the community?

Advocacy also means defending the profession. We have all heard our profession denigrated, heard that we have too many holidays and told we only work from 9-3. Advocacy means we should never let these comments pass. We need, at our fingertips, responses to these criticisms. We need not to be defensive but to calmly explain how much time is taken in preparation, paperwork, administration, other non-classroom duties, counselling students, marking and discipline.

Ask parents and community members how much work it takes to look after one child or more and let them imagine looking after 25 at once. Where is there another profession that has 25 ‘clients’, some of them irrational or emotional, at the same time? Ask the accountant, doctor, engineer etcetera how he/she/they would cope with looking after 25 demanding clients at once.

Look for opportunities to advocate to universities, politicians and the community – regularly and constantly. Demonstrate your expertise. Ask them the same questions you might be confronted with at interview and ask them how they would manage the situation. Be prepared to ask probing questions when non-professionals suggest how you should teach or when they complain about the curriculum.

If you are a leader, make sure you equip your staff to confront difficult questions, ensure you have a clear understanding of how and why you use particular pedagogy and make sure everyone in the school – staff, students and parents – does as well. Trust your staff to do the right thing; and provide honest feedback when they don’t. Protect them from unfair outside criticism.

The voices of expert classroom practitioners must be heard. Leaders must equip teachers with the skills to advocate for the profession and must apply relentless pressure on politicians of all parties and all states and territories to read the research from schools and listen to the views of the experts who, in my opinion, rest largely in schools.

It is time for educators to realise just how very talented they are – and to shout it from the rooftops.

Working conditions must be improved

Over the last decade, at least, the work of teachers has become more complex and intense and yet we are offering many of them contracts, instead of permanency, housing them in inferior classrooms and making them responsible for more and more of society's problems.

School administrators need to make as many staff members permanent employees – including ancillary staff – as their budget can afford. All the advocacy in the world will not attract people into teaching if they do not have the kind of job security that allows them to apply for home loans or appropriate rental accommodation. Lobby governments and education departments to pay teachers a salary commensurate with their skills, and other professions.

Where it is impossible to pay more, look at other working conditions. Reduce unnecessary administration. Remind employers and governments that the job of teachers is to teach, not to fill in forms. If you are a leader, ‘run interference’ for staff when unnecessary work pressures come from outside the school.

Employers and school leaders must give teachers more time. The latest international education indicators from the OECD show that Australian teachers are some of the hardest working in the profession. Students in OECD economies receive an average of 7.636 hour of compulsory instruction in primary and lower secondary, ranging from 5334 hours in Poland to almost 11,060 hours in Australia, and Australian class sizes are relatively large by OECD standards.

It is not just that teachers are over-worked. In a recent survey by Grattan Institute of 5442 teachers and school leaders across Australia, 92 per cent of respondents said they “always” or “frequently” did not have enough time to prepare for effective teaching; and about 68 per cent said they lacked enough protected planning time. Lack of time for teachers to prepare for effective teaching is undermining the education of students. Just as disturbing is Grattan’s finding that “school principals reported feeling largely powerless to make a difference.”

The Grattan research identified several strategies for reform that are worthy of consideration if we are serious about recruiting new teachers and retaining them, including:

  • Use non-teaching staff to supervise extracurricular activities and give teachers more time for classroom preparation. This could save teachers an estimated two hours a week.
  • Access to pre-prepared, high-quality curriculum resources could save teachers an estimated three hours a week. While government agencies such as ACARA, AERO and ESA make available online a range of free classroom resources (as well as professional development resources), teachers could also work collaboratively on resources for a particular year level, or teachers could be responsible for teaching a particular unit of work across multiple classes.
  • Scheduling two or three more planning days in term breaks would reduce workloads in term time.

As a profession, we must also explore ways we can work together to assist our colleagues in rural and remote areas. Whatever problems present in urban schools, we can be sure these are magnified in rural schools where access to permanent teaching staff, resources and professional development is more difficult and more expensive.

The profession has the power to bring about important changes and advocate for them relentlessly. It is time educators in schools stood up to initiate the radical structural changes that must be made if Australian schools are to attract the teachers we need – and keep them in the profession.

Robyn Collins is a former teacher and school principal. She is an education consultant and also edits Independence, the biannual journal of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia. Robyn also contributes to AHISA’s aspirant leadership program. The following is an edited version of a recent briefing prepared by Robyn for program members.