NSW teacher: ‘Shortages are harming the profession, learning’

August 15, 2022
Teachers rally for better conditions, Newcastle, in June. Photo: Niko Leka

School teachers in the underfunded New South Wales public school system face greater and greater workloads due to widespread staff shortages.

This drove tens of thousands of teachers to go on strike on June 30 — the third state-wide action in seven months — to demand better pay and working conditions.

Adam* has been a full-time maths teacher at a public high school in rural NSW since January. He told Green Left that students at his school are often left without teachers because of shortages.

“Working in a rural area — [the number of] uncovered classes are insane,” Adam said. Uncovered classes are when teachers are not available, meaning that students are left with minimal supervision.

Despite being considered one of the more relatively well-staffed schools in the area, Adam said his school has “one or two [uncovered] classes most days. On a good day, there’ll be no uncovered classes — that’s rare.

“At another local school, there are 250 kids per period [lesson] that just have to go sit in the library and get supervised by a librarian. That was an eye-opener for me.”

There were 1657 full-time teacher vacancies in NSW on June 10 — 67% higher than the same time last year.

Adam said this has a “huge” impact on education, due to many students “missing 2–3 periods of English a week and 2–3 periods of maths a week. Add that up at the end of the year, they’re missing so much education and there’s no time to make it up.

“There are kids going to school and still missing out on education. That’s just unfair.”

Shortages have led to high levels of “out-of-area teaching” — teachers teaching subjects outside their field such as a history teacher taking a maths class.

A NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) survey of more than 10,000 teachers in April revealed that 27% were currently teaching outside their field. About 56% said they had taught out of area in the past.

Adam — a NSWTF member — said pay and workloads were the main reasons for the teachers’ strike on June 30.

He criticised the state government’s decision not to raise teachers’ salaries to match inflation and to keep them capped at an annual wage growth of 2.5%. “In the long run it’s really a pay cut, because it doesn’t match the cost of living.”

Adam highlighted that the significant workload ends up being completed outside of paid work hours. “The pay doesn’t align with the hours you put in through the week,” he said. “We get paid 35 hours a week and no matter how much overtime you do, that’s what you get.”

Adam said he gets paid from “8:30[am] to 3:30[pm]”, but usually works “at least an extra hour a day, minimum”.

“I know some teachers who don’t leave until at least 6 or 7pm. That’s all unpaid work.”

This reflects the findings of a 2018 University of Sydney report which revealed that, on average, classroom teachers work 55 hours per week. This includes the work outside of face-to-face teaching, such as lesson planning, marking and administrative tasks.

The NSWTF April teacher survey revealed that only 12% believe their pay reflects their expertise and responsibilities.

Adam said that the preparation required for teaching means that “teachers need more planning time”. He said that due to workload pressures at his school the “older teachers are concerned for the younger teachers.

“Keeping young teachers in a job and encouraging young people to choose teaching as a degree are huge challenges right now.”

The numbers of university enrolments and graduates from teaching courses have declined.

An April poll of adults in NSW found that 61% believed teaching was a less attractive career option for young people than it was a decade ago. It found those who considered teaching as a career but ended up choosing another profession said teachers’ workloads (72%) and pay compared to other jobs (63%) were factors in their decision.

The Department of Education (DoE), in a supply strategy briefing in 2020, said that: “On average, teacher pay has been falling relative to pay in other professions since the late 1980s and this makes it a less attractive profession.”

Adam said a lot of younger teachers do not want to stay in the profession when they see “people the same age doing the same hours for a lot more money and a lot less stress”. Graduate teachers are increasingly leaving the profession: about 9% of permanent teachers leave within the first five years, according to the DoE.

The NSWTF April survey found 70% of teachers were reconsidering their future in the profession due to the workload. Adam said the increasing workload can mean less extracurricular activities, such as sports and hobby groups. This is also “a result of teachers being undervalued”, he said.

“Teachers don’t have to do that stuff: they do it because they like it — because they like teaching. We do before-school training: we don’t get paid for that — we do it because we like it. But if teachers don’t feel appreciated, that can easily stop, because there’s no one else to run them.”

Adam said the teacher shortages are “probably going to get worse if things stay the same. I can see why a lot of teachers are dropping out. If teachers don’t feel valued, education suffers and the kids suffer.”

[Adam* is a pseudonym.]

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