Australia/August 22, 2022/By Maani Truu/Source: https://www.abc.net.au/
It was a burning desire to give back that carried Kate* through a career change and a four-year teaching degree as a mature-age student.
In other words, she seems to be exactly the type of person education ministers are desperately calling on to join the profession as they attempt to stem the chronic teacher shortages plaguing schools.
But after only a handful of years in the classroom, Kate’s already worn out and considering giving up on full-time primary school teaching — and the reason isn’t workload pressures or burnout from the job, though she’s experienced that too.
“I’ve worked for seven years and I’ve not been able to get an ongoing contract,” she says. “I have run out of energy to get on the interview bandwagon again.”
Earlier this month federal Education Minister Jason Clare held a crisis meeting with his state and territory counterparts after government modelling revealed that demand for secondary teachers was set to outstrip graduates by about 4,100 over the next three years.
The result was a commitment to sign off on a national action plan focused on getting more people to sign up for the profession, preparing teachers for the workforce, and retaining current teachers, before the end of the year.
“We don’t have enough teachers at the moment and part of the reason for that is burnout — people that are worn down by the job,” Clare told the ABC on Wednesday. “Last week was about listening to teachers and getting their advice about the things that we can do as a government … to encourage more people to want to be teachers.”
But as ministers call for more people to sign up as teachers, Kate’s story represents the paradox at the heart of the debate: that even in a national shortage, some teachers are still grappling with ongoing job insecurity that threatens to push them out of the profession.
While there is limited national data on the rates of temporary and casual contracts within the education system, a report published last year by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) says there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest these employment categories are becoming increasingly common, with one-third of teachers in New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory reporting that they were not permanently employed as of 2018.
One in four teachers said they were on temporary contracts specifically, 83 per cent of which had a duration of one year or less.
Job insecurity was most common among teachers under 30, with more than 60 per cent not on permanent contracts, according to the report.
“At uni, they didn’t really make it clear to us how hard it would be to find a job. We thought we were professionals, we’d done four years of uni and we thought we would find work,” Kate says.
“And just going from contract to contract is a nightmare.”
A juggle behind the scenes
David Adamson has been the principal of Essendon Keilor College, a public high school in Melbourne, for 16 years. He says that this “contract issue” isn’t helping attract new people to the profession — but, as he explains, it’s also not a straightforward problem.
As the person responsible for hiring staff, he’s privy to a range of legitimate reasons why temporary contracts are necessary. Often it’s to backfill a permanent teacher while they are on long service, illness or parental leave, or to buffer against uncertain funding.
“We try to put as many people as we possibly can into ongoing positions, but we’ve always got to balance that against people who we know are on leave that might be returning,” he says.
Adding to the complexity of the issue are lengthy parental leave provisions in a profession where, according to AITSL data, women make up 78 per cent of the workforce. In Victoria, teachers are entitled to up to seven years of unpaid leave and are only required to inform the school of their intention to return the following year months before.
This necessitates a delicate juggle. On one hand, it means temporary teachers who expect their contract to be extended could find themselves out of work at the last minute. On the other, if principals don’t plan ahead by flagging with temporary teachers that there is ongoing work, those teachers are likely to look elsewhere and the school could find itself scrambling to fill the gap.
“It’s a good thing that people get seven years, but it can create planning difficulties for you if you’re trying to plan in the short term, at least, and you’re not sure if people are coming back,” Adamson says.
Some schools may also employ a “try before you buy approach” for teachers, especially those with limited experience. This means trialling new teachers on temporary contracts before offering ongoing employment. “We try to avoid that because we don’t think it’s fair to the teacher, but there’s always that risk, isn’t there?” Adamson says.
Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association, says the pressure to permanently employ only high-performing staff is related to growing expectations on principals to deliver results.
“The job has gotten much more complex, and one part of that complexity is around pressures on performance, NAPLAN, PISA and all that type of data,” he says. “So there is the option now, that a lot of principals try a teacher, see if that teacher fits the school, see if they like the school, and see if they’re performing well before they actually take them on in a permanent role.”
What’s harder to predict, he says, are changing attitudes to work and what he sees as a growing desire for flexibility that’s also driving increases in temporary and casual contracts.
“It’s a multifaceted, complex issue and it’s not just if you pull this lever, that happens — it doesn’t necessarily work like that,” he says.
But he’s also concerned about the impact it’s having on the workforce, especially teachers like Kate who are being pushed to the brink of leaving the profession: “We need to look after our people to the best of our ability.”
Jumping through hoops
Over her time in the workforce, Kate says she’s applied for more than 100 positions. Not one has resulted in a permanent role.
She was employed on temporary contracts at one school for three years, where she hoped she would eventually be made permanent. “And then towards the end of the year I was told there was no vacancy, there was no role for me,” she says. “I just felt so worthless, that my five years of teaching and my three years at that school meant nothing.”
It’s a situation Gabbie Stroud, an author and former primary school teacher who left the industry in 2016 due to burnout, has heard time and time again.
Along with increasing workloads, administration, and class sizes, she says the rise of contracted work is having “a huge impact on how teachers are feeling”.
“It makes your year of teaching, your contract year, very performative — you are just jumping through hoops trying to prove yourself in order to win the position again next year,” Stroud says.
A 2021 report into the rise of temporary teaching contracts in NSW schools found teachers on temporary contracts work similar hours to their permanent peers, but feel like they’re working harder — possibly due to the precarious nature of their roles.
“We have a situation where about half the graduates from initial teacher education are failing to get a permanent job, and you put that together with what we found in our research — that they feel bitter and scarred about it all, that they feel they have to work harder to get a permanent placement — and that doesn’t bode well for longevity in the profession,” says Dr Rachel Wilson, an associate professor of education at the University of Sydney and co-author of the report.
Not only is it wearing down individual teachers, she says, but the creeping numbers of temporary teachers are eating away at what were previously some of the profession’s main drawcards: security, permanency, and stability.
“This strange phenomenon is part of why we have a teacher shortage and why we’re in this pickle.”
In an issues paper published ahead of the roundtable meeting, the Department of Education recognised that teachers employed casually or on short-term contacts may also have less agency, resources, or training which could make it more difficult to plan lessons, resulting in more hours worked.
Then there’s the time it takes to keep up with applications, which Kate says can take up to three hours each.
And even if you do get an interview, she says, there’s no guarantee it’s what she calls a “real job”. What she’s referring to is the advertising of contract positions where there’s an incumbent in the role who is likely to return, making it harder to eventually secure a permanent position.
“I’ve sort of said that I don’t want to go back to [full-time] teaching, I’d be happy to do casual relief teaching — but I’m also looking at drawing down super and selling my house, so I’m at a different stage of life to all these young kids that are trying to get a mortgage,” Kate says.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m an older teacher, but I can’t get back on that merry-go-round.”
Younger teachers hit hardest
While Kate is approaching the end of her working life, the vast majority of teachers on temporary contracts are younger.
Teachers aged between 40 and 60 were almost twice as likely to hold permanent, ongoing positions compared to their peers under 30, according to the AITSL data, while almost half of the teachers in their 20s were on a contract of one year or less.
Correna Haythorpe, the national president of the Australian Education Union (AEU) which represents public school teachers and principals across the country, says around 72 per cent of teachers are starting their career in casual or contract work and this combination of insecure employment and increasing workloads is contributing to the current workforce shortages.
She’s calling on the Commonwealth and state governments to address what she sees as a “system issue” and ensure the availability of permanent and ongoing work for teachers, particularly given the current workforce crisis.
Rachel Wilson says insecure employment can be “a career-stopping issue”, especially when it comes to younger teachers who are most likely to be affected. This is because it’s often when people might be looking to take out a bank loan or buy their first home, which is much harder to do on a short-term or casual contract.
Wilson believes stories about the availability of ongoing roles are filtering back into the university cohort, which may also be leading to low rates of completion in initial teacher education courses.
“If you see graduates ahead of you heading into casual or contract jobs, it might be enough to put you off,” she says.
As states and territories confront the looming crisis, Gabbie Stroud says they need to address the desires and needs of teachers, who want to “craft a career, not just go contract to contract”.
“That doesn’t value someone who’s spent four years at university getting a degree,” she says.
*Not real names