How to solve Australia’s teacher shortage.

Australian schools face an unprecedented teacher shortage and myriad solutions have been proposed to find more teachers. None of them will work.

None of the proposed solutions will succeed unless one simple action is taken.

Primary and secondary schools are struggling to find teachers to deliver lessons to students throughout the country, and students are missing out on an education that was already truncated due to COIVD-19 lockdowns. Many schools cannot even find casual teachers let alone permanent teachers to deliver lessons. According to a recent article by Ruby Cornish from the ABC:

To date, teachers have taken more than 350,000 days of sick leave — up from 215,000 days during the same period in 2020, according to the education department. 

And in the words of NSW Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos:

We are losing teachers every single day. Every single day hundreds of classes are being interrupted.

Politicians have proposed myriad solutions:

Subsidised housing

Subsidised housing would allow teachers to live close to their school if it is in an affluent area. Yes, even teachers of rich kids are underpaid. Currently, teachers of schools in affluent areas must pay an enormous portion of their income to live close to school, or face a long commute to live somewhere affordable.

University students

2,600 final year education students have been given permission to work as casual teachers in NSW schools, despite not being formally qualified. Some of them are excellent, some are not. Teaching is one career in which years of experience make an enormous difference to performance. The scheme helps student teachers, who can start paying off their uni fees, but does it help the students?

Is this legal?

When student teachers do practicums (prac) they are not allowed to teach a class of students without a fully-qualified teacher being present for legal reasons. Has the law been changed?

Corporate staff

Non-qualified teachers have been accredited to teach. Accreditation is normally only given to fully-qualified teachers with legitimate degrees and only after they have submitted notarised qualifications, plus Working With Children Check and other documents, to the relevant authorities. Now, corporate staff are being accredited despite having no qualifications or experience. It doesn’t help students, and it dismisses the years of valuable experience of existing teachers.

FIFO Teachers

New South Wales proposed flying teachers from cities out to regional and remote areas where the shortage is felt most acutely. The government would cover the cost of flights, and pay the teachers for their work. The duration of the contract was not specified, but Gavrielatos quickly exposed numerous flaws in this opportunistic political announcement:

Well, where are they going to find the teachers from? What schools, from what cities? We have a shortage.

Also, where are these FIFO teachers currently living? They’re likely to be renting, and would have to pay dead rent while teaching in the remote location. They would expect accommodation to be provided to compensate for the dead rent, so the government would have to cover flights and accommodation. Also, casual teachers in urban areas are likely to be working already, because there’s a huge teacher shortage, so would give up work at existing schools to go bush – and they would expect to be paid a lot more than they earn at urban schools. This costs the government even more money.

Victoria is apparently offering Melbourne-based teachers up to $700 a day to teach in regional schools. The incentive applies to teachers relocating from metro areas, interstate, or overseas who work in a regional role for at least two weeks. Other financial incentives are also involved.

However, it doesn’t appear to cover accommodation.

What’s harder than finding teachers? Finding and affording rental properties in major cities. If teachers leave their current rental to take up this offer for say 1 term, they then have to find, and afford, a new rental back in the city.

Loophole?

There is a potential loophole in Victoria’s plan. A current teacher in a regional school could quit their job upon learning of this plan. They could then re-apply for exactly the same job and earn $700 a day instead of about 350 – 400 a day. If they’re prevented from doing this due to technicalities, they’re likely to be upset that they are earning less than casuals despite committing, sticking around and devoting themselves to the students despite all of the disruptions and challenges at their school. There’s a reason these schools are understaffed.

Where is the reward for staying committed to the profession and to regional students?

Retired teachers

Retired teachers have answered the call of desperate schools. If retired teachers are happy to go back into the classroom, that’s great. They would also be prime candidates for FIFO teaching. However, haven’t they already done enough? Haven’t they earned a rest?

Career change

Governments are also attempting to lure professionals from other careers into teaching. Prior learning credit would be given to professionals who would be accelerated through a teaching degree. They might come, but will they stay?

Free University

High achieving secondary students are also being lured to teaching. Governments are offering to pay some or all of the students’ university fees to entice them away from other professions. This will attract some students. However, it exposes one fundamental flaw of all of the aforementioned proposals: teacher retention.

Teachers are leaving the profession because of poor conditions. What are those conditions? They are far too many to list here. Bright students might be attracted to teaching with free university study, but will they stay if conditions are so bad? These students are bright enough to succeed in another career, and bright enough to know that.

All of these methods have been suggested because schools are so desperate for teachers and/or because a politician thinks it will help them win the next election.

What do all of these suggestions have in common?

They all cost money.

And therein lies the solution to the teacher shortage.

Pay teachers more.

Higher wages will bring teaching into line with other professions.

Higher wages will convince some teachers to stay in the profession. Poor conditions also need to be improved, but many teachers will put up with these conditions for lucrative salaries. Doctors, engineers, lawyers and architects don’t love every aspect of their jobs. Dentists even more so.

Australia is a capitalist society. Young people make career choice based on salary, and society makes assumptions about careers based on salaries. Low pay is one reason Australians don’t respect teaching or teachers, and this in turn causes some of the terrible conditions under which teachers work.

Teaching is a job. It is a vocation, a profession, a craft and a passion. It is also how teachers pay the rent and support their own families, and cover the costs of their daily lives. With the increased cost of living in Australia, the first step to attracting and retaining capable people to the profession is to pay teachers more.

Image: Element5Digital

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