Attracting and Retaining Australia’s Teachers
Amanda Heffernan, David Bright, Fiona Longmuir
It is difficult to reflect on the position and experiences of Australian educators right now without considering the impact of COVID-19 on their work. The global pandemic has reshaped and reframed not only how teachers feel about their work and their experiences, but also the way we think about and talk about education more broadly in the media, politics, and in our communities. We have seen articles and memes about the rise in public respect for teachers as a result of parents supporting their children to learn from home. We have seen teachers being referred to as frontline workers who are vital for a functioning economy. We found ourselves wondering, what does this say about the place of schooling in our society? Teachers are being hailed as heroes at the same time as they are being sent into workplaces with little hope of physical distancing. We have seen some states where teachers are being asked to take cuts in hard fought and won pay and conditions, and reports of teachers losing jobs, as a result of the economic effects of the pandemic.
We conducted research last year about teachers’ experiences and about public perceptions of the teaching profession. We were inspired to do this by concerns about issues related to the attraction and retention of teachers. We wanted to consider questions of how great teachers can be encouraged to take up the job and how they can be supported to thrive and stay in the profession.
We know that, more often than not, teachers go into the job as a calling and that this can have deleterious effects on their conditions and their day-to-day experiences (for example, doing significant amounts of additional labour ‘for the kids’ or for the ‘love of the job’). We wanted to know more about the ways teachers were feeling about their work, and what might be affecting their plans to stay in the profession.
We surveyed 2,444 Australian educators (ranging from early childhood to senior schooling, including classroom and specialist teachers and school leaders) to ask them about their experiences and their perceptions of their work. At the same time, we conducted research across a nationally-representative sample of the public to ask them about their perceptions of the teaching profession. We were surprised to find how high public levels of trust for teachers were, while at the same time unsurprised about some of the particular challenges facing the profession today. While 93 percent of the public responded that they trusted teachers to do a good job, this is not translating to teachers’ perceptions of how they are seen by the public, with 71 percent of teachers feeling that the Australian public does not appreciate them. This serious disconnect between public perceptions and teachers’ feelings of appreciation is an important area for further investigation.
We focus in this article specifically on aspects affecting teachers’ work and their intentions to remain in the profession. You can see more detail and other elements of the findings in our report here.
Teachers’ intentions to remain in the profession
Our survey paints a bleak picture of teachers’ intentions to remain in the profession. When we asked how long they intended to remain, only 42 percent of teachers indicated that they had no intention of leaving. Many teachers (38 percent) indicated that they planned to leave after teaching for 1, 5, or 10 years. A further 18 percent of teachers stated that they would leave the profession if they could. Further, just over half of the teachers we surveyed (53 percent) said they would not recommend teaching as a career.
We asked those teachers who indicated that they planned to leave the profession to elaborate on their reasons for this decision. Their responses included:
- Excessive workload
- Increasing challenges and extended responsibilities of teaching
- Excessive hours worked
- Impact of teaching on health, wellbeing, family and relationships
- Lack of appreciation, recognition and respect for teachers
- Work conditions, including precarious and casualised employment
We have particular concerns about the impact of this on equity for students in schools deemed ‘difficult to staff’ (those schools in rural and remote locations, and schools that are particularly complex). Many of these schools are already understaffed and experience difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers. Our research suggests that under current conditions, attraction and retention will remain a challenge, exacerbating educational inequity for these students.
The effects of teacher workload
Overwhelmingly, teachers described their current workloads as being unmanageable. Out of the 2,444 responses, 75 percent suggested that their workload was not manageable. Only 42 respondents (2 percent) strongly agreed that their workload was manageable. Participants described heavy workloads that had increased over time as a result of additional administrivia, data generation and reporting, planning and preparation, and the broad spectrum of responsibilities that schools hold in communities today (including pastoral care and supporting students and families dealing with challenging and complex circumstances). This reinforces findings from recent research with teachers from New South Wales that showed their work significantly conflicted with family responsibilities and achieving work-life balance.
One participant in our study described the challenges involved as a result of rising administrivia:
The biggest challenge would be the amount of administrative tasks that we are required to do. This leaves minimal time for planning for face to face teaching sessions and student feedback. There is a major lack of time for teachers to complete their work to a good/high quality unless much of it is done outside of working hours.
Another participant commented:
Although I am able to get through my current workload with my current non-contact time allocation, more work quality could be drastically increased with more planning and preparation time. As it currently stands, to be able to really excel at my job and for the students to get the absolute best outcomes, my work significantly increases to far beyond my paid hours. With increased non-contact time for teachers, I firmly believe that student outcomes would be greater.
We found that the extension (into outside of traditional working hours) and intensification (pace and intensity) of teachers’ work were significant issues frequently reported by respondents. Participants described working long hours that extended into their evenings and weekends, leaving little time for personal lives and other commitments. One participant described the extension of their work as follows:
I am currently finding a distinct lack of balance between my work and family life. I take work home to mark every day, I plan, prepare and organise each afternoon for the following day and am exhausted after each day falling into bed. I work hours every weekend and during the holidays. There's little switch off time.
Participants also noted their concerns about the long-term effects of working at high intensity for long periods of time. The implications of these heavy workloads were a recurring theme in participants’ comments about their own health and wellbeing and the wellbeing of their own families. One participant commented:
I love spending class time with my students, but teachers now have so many other tasks that the actual teaching does not feel like a significant part of my job anymore. Coupled with that expectations of teachers, poor understanding by the Australian public of what school teachers do and periods of extreme workload, I don’t think school teaching is a career that’s good for wellbeing.
Heavy workloads hold significant implications for teacher stress, burnout, and subsequent attrition, with heavy workloads cited as a contributing factor in teachers’ intentions to leave the profession. Australia’s teachers reportedly work longer hours than teachers in other OECD countries and there are lessons to be learnt from countries with lower hours and higher levels of teacher wellbeing.
Teacher satisfaction with their work
What stood out as an unexpected finding - despite what we had already discovered about teachers’ intentions to leave the profession, the levels of workload and burnout they were experiencing, and the increasing intensity and pace of the role - was that teachers are largely still satisfied with their work. Knowing that job satisfaction is closely associated with intentions to remain or leave the profession, we asked teachers how much they agreed with the statement Overall, I am satisfied in my role as a teacher. We found that most respondents were satisfied in their roles (56 percent agreed, and a further 10 percent strongly agreed). However, we were concerned to see that a third of teachers were unsatisfied in their work (30 percent disagreed, and 4 percent strongly disagreed).
We have some theories about why satisfaction in the role is still high, even when intent to leave the role is higher. We believe that when teachers are able to do the work they went into the role to do, teaching remains rewarding and aligns with their goals and motivations. The problem that we keep returning to when discussing these findings is that the pressures of the role, the complexity of the work, and the personal and physical impacts of teaching are outweighing that level of satisfaction for many teachers. Participants commented that they could not see themselves as physically being able to continue in the job at the current pace, and having to make difficult decisions between their work demands and their personal lives (including time for their children, partners, or families and friends).
We do believe that this finding of satisfaction suggests that if some of the pressures of the role and the challenges associated with teaching can be addressed, subsequent reduction in intentions to leave the profession would follow.
Public perceptions of teachers and teaching
Despite these findings from the teachers we surveyed, our public survey found that there are generally positive perceptions of teachers in the community. Our public survey respondents felt that teachers in Australia were moderately (63 percent) or well-respected (19 percent) and moderately (60 percent) or well-trusted (33 percent). Despite this, the majority of public respondents indicated that they would not recommend (30 percent), or were unsure (29 percent) about recommending, teaching as a career to a young person in their family. When asked to elaborate on why they would not encourage a young person in their lives to take up teaching as a career, the most commonly cited reasons were negative perceptions of teachers’ wellbeing, workload, and remuneration. When we consider this finding alongside that from our teacher survey where just over half (53 percent) indicated that they would not recommend teaching as a career (39 percent disagreeing and 13 percent strongly disagreeing with the statement I would recommend teaching as a career) our concerns about attracting future teachers are heightened. As discussed above, this stands in contrast to teachers’ responses about generally being satisfied with their jobs, and supports our concerns that teaching in its current form is not seen as a sustainable career by those in it. We have been working closely with governments and policymakers to share these findings and advocate for the profession. We have shared participants’ voices and experiences with the media and through other public channels, and have been overwhelmed by the interest and response. We hope that the events that have unfolded over the last six months have also reminded the public what important and complex work teachers do.
Amanda Heffernan is a Lecturer in Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Her research focuses on the contemporary challenges of principals’ work, and what that means for how we can better attract, support, and keep school leaders within the profession. She has a particular interest in leadership in complex school settings, including those in rural and remote areas. Amanda is a former public-school principal who now works with future and current leaders, policymakers, and international researchers to highlight the important and complex work of educational leadership today. She tweets @chalkhands.
David Bright is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His research investigates how educational practices are mediated by perceptions of social, cultural and linguistic difference, and explores how difference can be re-imagined to create new possibilities for democratic education. David has a particular interest in the cultural politics of English language teaching, international schooling and international student programs. He very rarely tweets @d_a_bright
Fiona Longmuir is a Lecturer in Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, with a background of 15 years of teaching and school leadership in Victorian government schools in disadvantaged, urban communities. Fiona has examined school leadership in a range of local, national and global contexts. Her research interests consider intersections of educational leadership, transformative change and student voice which she has explored in secondary school programs and alternative education settings where leaders prioritise student agency, belonging and connection. You can find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona
This article appears in Professional Voice 13.2 Learning in the shadow of the pandemic.