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The teacher shortage in Australia is at a crisis point. More teachers are leaving or considering leaving the profession than ever before as burnout hits an all-time high. On the other end of the spectrum, enrolments in teaching degrees are declining as more become wary of the pressures of the career path.

Scientia Associate Professor Rebecca Collie, School of Education, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, is an educational psychology researcher investigating teacher motivation and wellbeing. She says teaching has become more complex in the past decade. Teachers now face greater demands, but this has not been accompanied by the provision of more time and support to manage those demands.

“Teaching has intensified greatly as teachers are asked to take on more and more,” A/Prof. Collie says. “There’s just not enough time in the day for teachers to do everything they need to, and this means that many feel overworked and underappreciated.”

A National Teacher Workforce Action Plan has been proposed by education ministers to address the teacher shortage with a big focus on recruiting new teachers. Performance-pay incentives and making teaching degrees cheaper are among some strategies that have been floated. However, A/Prof. Collie says for a plan to be effective, it must first address the working conditions for current teachers.

“This is important for retaining teachers, but also because any attempts to attract new teachers to the profession will be stymied by a ‘revolving door’ of teacher turnover if current conditions aren’t improved,” A/Prof. Collie says.

Addressing poor teaching conditions

Many teachers in Australia report experiencing poor working conditions, including high workloads. It’s not uncommon for teachers to work late into the night and on weekends, causing significant stress and leading to attrition.

“What teachers are being asked to do is a lot different now than it was a decade ago. It includes a lot more administrative and compliance work,” A/Prof. Collie says. “What hasn’t kept pace is the time teachers are afforded. It just adds other tasks to everything they’re already doing and takes away from the time to effectively prepare, plan and collaborate in relation to the core business of teaching.”

A/Prof. Collie says teachers can also struggle to deal with disruptive student behaviour and regularly changing or unrealistic expectations from government and professional bodies, parents and school leadership.

“Disruptive students can be very stressful for teachers, particularly early career teachers who may be still developing the skillsets to deal with different student needs,” A/Prof. Collie says. “When you factor in the changing demands placed on them from the top down and the bottom up, it is understandable that many teachers feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

depressed female teacher touching her head in classroom

Many teachers experience stress from high workloads, disruptive student behaviour and unrealistic expectations. Photo: Shutterstock.

The result is a poorer learning experience for students and growing dissatisfaction for teachers, A/Prof. Collie says.

“Our research shows it’s central that teachers have the time to build quality interpersonal relationships with students to engage them in their learning. These relationships are a big reason why teachers enter the profession and why they stay, but teachers just don’t have as much time to develop them as they had in the past,” A/Prof. Collie says.

Fostering a supportive teaching environment

A/Prof. Collie says that while reducing these poor working conditions is vital to solving the teacher shortage, efforts must also be made to foster a healthy and supportive environment for teachers to thrive.

“Reducing poor working conditions simply creates a neutral environment. So, at the same time, we must improve the things that make teaching a great profession to begin with,” A/Prof. Collie says.

Research indicates the opportunity to have input in decision-making within schools and positive interpersonal relationships with both students and colleagues are factors that play a crucial role in ensuring teachers remain engaged in the profession.

“Those things play an essential role in teacher happiness and wellbeing. If teachers are happy at work, they’re more effective at work and want to stay at work,” A/Prof. Collie says.

It’s also essential for teachers to have access to professional learning and mentoring opportunities relevant to the different demands they face across regions and schools, A/Prof. Collie says.

“Giving teachers professional learning opportunities, effective feedback and mentoring so they can continue to build their skills is essential and this is something we need to make sure is accessible to teachers in all schools,” A/Prof. Collie says.

If we hope to address the teacher shortage long-term, we must ultimately listen to what teachers say, A/Prof. Collie says.

“There’s an excellent cohort of skilled teachers telling us this is why we want to leave or have already left,” A/Prof. Collie says. “If we don’t deal with the root causes, if we don’t improve working conditions, then teachers – current or new – just aren’t going to stick around.”