Who will teach Australia’s children?

Australia demands a qualified, dedicated and capable teaching workforce to prepare its youth for tomorrow, but will this workforce comprise of long-serving, permanent teachers, or will it rely on an increasing number of casual teachers in the near future?

Teachers are quitting the workforce. Countless reports indicate that up to 50% of teachers leave the occupation within the first five years. Exhaustion, disillusionment, low pay, long hours, poor student behaviour, parental pressure and increasing administrative demands are driving many young people away from the profession.

Some of these teachers might take time off to study, find a new occupation, travel or simply recover from the trauma of modern-day teaching. Many of them may also return to teaching on a casual basis because they still have bills to pay, and because they wish to remain in touch with education with thoughts of returning to the job full-time.

Casual teachers earn a reasonable daily rate and are not burdened with the same pressures of daily planning, preparation and marking. Nor do they have to complete reports, deal with parents, attend every staff meeting or collect data on all of their students. Essentially, casual teachers are not requited to complete the endless administrative tasks which drove many of them away from the occupation in the first place.

The result could see an increasing number of Australian school students taught by casual teachers.

Is casual teaching easier?

No. Casual teaching may require less administration outside of the classroom, but the demands in the classroom are greater. An Aussie tradition is to ‘muck up’ when the regular teacher is away, so the casual teacher deals with more challenging behaviour from students. Sometimes it’s an absolute nightmare. Casual teachers often accept this trade off in return for the chance to do their job, get paid and do something they could never do as a full-time teacher – leave the job at work.

Why is casualisation a problem?

Casualisation is akin to high rates of teacher turnover. Students see different teachers regularly, and each teacher has a different personality and teaching style. Teachers new to the class may not know exactly what was covered, or how it was taught, in the previous class, and will spend time catching up the previous lesson – or simply learning the names of the students.

In addition, each individual teacher may not be a subject expert. Schools attempt to match casual teachers to the subject in which they are trained, but this isn’t always possible, Consequently, the students are supervised but not necessarily taught.

The greatest disadvantage of the casualisation of the teaching workforce is the loss of a personal connection.

‘Teachers teach people not subjects’

This saying reminds teachers that they must see their pupils as people before they regard them as learners of a particular subject. All teachers accept this role. It is the role of mentor, older sibling, counsellor, confidante, role model and, sometimes, parent. This connection with a student can only be established over time and after regular meaningful contact, and this connection is very difficult to establish as a casual teacher.

Also, if more and more teachers are casual, who will fill the roles of home-room tutor, year co-ordinator or subject co-ordinator? The aforementioned positions all entail a degree of personal mentoring and counselling of students which is vital for their general wellbeing and academic performance. If more teachers are casual, fewer will accept the responsibility of ensuring the emotional wellbeing of the students.

Casual teachers move from class to class, subject to subject and school to school. An increase in casual teachers across Australia will leave a dearth of trusted adults in schools and increase the pressure on primary school students who are developing the foundations of their education, and on secondary school students who are negotiating adolescence.

Special needs

Students with special needs will also suffer in a casualised school system. Students with special needs require individual activities or teaching strategies, and the most effective strategies are developed over time and after consultation with support teachers, the student, parents, special needs experts and the full-time teacher. A casual teacher simply cannot cater for the individual needs of every student in a class they have never met. It’s impossible.

How can this be prevented?

The best way to prevent the casualisation of the teaching workforce is to keep teachers in the teaching profession. Fortunately, the methods required to achieve this are not at all complicated.

Pay teachers more

This demand is made and ignored year after year. Even after the enormous pressure placed on teachers during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, teachers in Australia still have not been promised a pay rise.

Teachers are lowly paid. Lowly paid in comparison to the hours worked and the pressure of their occupation. Lowly paid according to the importance of their role in society. A mid-level teacher in NSW earns around $80,000 per year; the same amount earned by some Sydney bus drivers. Poor wages drive many teachers away from the occupation.

Low wages also create problems for schools. Lowly-paid teachers cannot afford to live in expensive suburbs, even if renting. Thus, teachers working at schools in wealthy suburbs face a very long commute from more affordable suburbs, and schools sometimes struggle to find staff on a regular basis. Teachers could live closer to school, but their meagre wages will disappear before they can even dream of buying their own home or living without financial stress.

Increasing teacher’s salaries would also improve the standing of the occupation in Australian society. Teaching is a profession, but is paid much less than other professions, and is thus regarded as inferior. Australia is a capitalist society and the worth of a job is linked to its salary. Teachers in Australia are respectful, but not respected. In a capitalist society, teachers also have bills to pay and should be able to do so comfortably in return for educating the next generation of the country.

Fund schools adequately

Schools are not funded sufficiently in Australia. Government schools lack resources to provide a variety of meaningful activities to students, or even to teach the students basic skills and knowledge. This places more stress on teachers and forces many of them to buy essential resources out of their own pockets, dipping into their meagre wages.

Funding schools adequately would improve academic outcomes and in turn improve job satisfaction among teachers. This would keep many of them in the occupation for longer.

Stand up for teachers

Society as a whole needs to stand up for teachers. Not just through uttering vague statements reminding teachers that they are ‘valued’ and ‘important’. Teachers are too smart to be fooled by empty words. Society, education departments, individual schools and sometimes individual principals need to stand up for teachers.

Teachers need to be defended from parents. Many parents now attack teachers every time their child is reprimanded or punished, or when they receive unsatisfactory grades. These attacks are usually verbal, but often physical. While parents of the past would support the actions of teachers, now they attack teachers. Unfortunately, even the most ill-informed and unreasonable parents wield enormous power in schools and can destroy a teacher’s career, as well as their general wellbeing.

Principles, schools and education departments need to stop giving in to parents.

In addition, teachers need to be defended in their interactions with students. Every year, the daily behaviour of students seems to worsen. Every year, the power of teachers to deal with that behaviour is diminished. Defending teachers does not mean bringing back capital punishment. Never. It means allowing educated, trained and experienced teachers to take reasonable action to hold children accountable for their behaviour and to stop them acting in a way that destroys their own learning and the learning of other students in the class.

All of these measures would keep teachers in the profession for longer, and prevent the casualisation of the workforce.

Paper work

Paperwork is a frustration for every occupation, including teaching. The administrative load is increasing and falls under two categories: data collection and self-defence.

Data collection is ‘on trend’ in modern education. It is not a trend initiated by teachers. It was initiated by bureaucrats. Teachers are now forced to collect and report data on student attendance, behaviour, exam results, assessment results, homework, classwork…on top of their daily tasks of planning, preparation, marking, student feedback, playground duty…

A great surge in administrative tasks has created an enormous workload for teachers and has not helped a single child learn. The data goes to schools, educations or government departments, and appears to exist only to bolster a politician’s press release.

Data is also a necessary weapon of self-defence. Teachers are forced to justify every action they take in dealing with students and parents. Teachers are filling out endless forms and databases to justify every action they take at school in fear of criticism from students or parents. Data entry allows teachers to pre-empt complaints from students or parents which could see them reprimanded, suspended or even sacked.

If a secondary student refuses to read the set text in their English class, the teacher must make a note. The teacher must prove that they have advised the student to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, because the class if studying ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. When the student proudly and publicly states that they are never going to read the novel, the teacher must create written evidence that they did everything possible to encourage the student to read the novel. When the student flies into a mad panic three days before the due date of the assessment task for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the teacher must provide yet more written evidence that they offered support to the student to help them pass an assessment for a novel they refused to read. The teacher must then use this written evidence to defend themselves when the parents complain to the school that their child is not able to complete the assessment task. The teacher must use the written evidence to defend themselves when the parents demand extra tuition for their child in the teacher’s lunch time or free period, so that the student who refused to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ can pass the assessment task about ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. One wonders if this is what Harper Lee had in mind when she wrote the classic?

Australia faces the real possibility of a casualised teaching workforce and further erosion of overall academic standards. Teachers must be enticed to stay in the occupation, and this can be done through increasing teachers’ salaries and school funding, standing up for teachers, stripping parents of the power they wield over schools and removing the administrative load forced upon modern teachers.

Image: Element5digital

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