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Rita Hodgson is an experienced primary school teacher at a state primary school in Melbourne’s outer west. She says a large proportion of students enrolled in her school come from families who have low socioeconomic backgrounds.
In her opinion, teachers at her school are doing a great job.
“The quality of teachers that are at my school is excellent. That is not to say that that is something state-wide for every school. Certainly there’s a lot of talk about teacher performance and the quality of teachers in education. I am a parent myself and I hear playground conversations and it’s very common to hear parents complain that it is the teacher who is not performing, not the students.”
Ms Hodgson explains that a teacher’s role is so broad and complex that often they’re expected to perform tasks that would normally be assigned to parents.
“There are some parents that might not have the skills to deal with issues directly related to their children and seek the help of teachers and schools to help them develop those skills. I’m talking even basic hygiene issues, basic homework set-up, helping them with their homework. So not only are we needing to improve student’s outcomes, we’re there to help parents as well. That’s a lot of pressure for teachers.”
University of Sydney Acting Pro Dean and President of the Australian Literacy Educators Association Professor Robyn Ewing has spent many years mentoring classroom teachers and addressing parent groups. She says many educators are frustrated by the backlash from some parents who believe their children’s school performance rests solely on teachers. Professor Ewing explains that there are many mediating factors that are responsible for some student’s poor learning outcomes.
“Sometimes it’s because they don’t eat breakfast or because they’ve been up and had really late nights and they’re exhausted, they haven’t been sleeping or that their social and emotional wellbeing more generally is at risk for a whole lot of reasons. And I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t be accountable but there are a whole lot of other factors like poverty and like inequity in terms of resourcing of schools etc. that are responsible for our students not doing as well as we’d like them to do.”
In July, the Federal Government announced a trial of a national Literacy and Numeracy test for students of teaching. Former Education Minister Christopher Pyne said it would give education providers, employers and the public absolute confidence in the skills of graduating teachers.
However Professor Ewing says measures like these are fuelling anti-teacher sentiment - making the profession less attractive to future candidates.
“And I think if you look at way the status of the profession has fallen over the last 50 years that’s an indicator of how important that is to people. I think people still want to go into teaching but there is a huge attrition rate suggesting that teaching is not all that early career teachers expect it to be.”
She fears that the physical and emotional toll on teachers could discourage those less experienced from staying in the profession.
“In those first few years of teaching the research shows how quickly that motivation changes; because they can’t get a permanent or a full time job, because they’re not teaching in their particular subject area, because of the condition in the particular context. As with any profession, you need to feel that what you’re doing is worthwhile, that it is making a difference.”
Primary school teacher Rita Hodgson agrees. She believes that decent working conditions lure the best people in the business.
But she says at the moment, conditions in the teaching profession are less than ideal.
“Teaching needs to be more attractive, there needs to be, not just pay increases, but time. There’s very little time given to teachers during the working hours to prepare for lessons. The extra hours they put in during the week, on weekends; that’s quite often forgotten. And then meetings and yard duty are all factored into the conditions of what makes for a very stressful profession. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why we might not be attracting as many people into the profession as we used to.”
Maintaining a healthy teacher supply is a matter of concern to the Australian Council for Educational Research’s (or ACER’s) Dr Paul Weldon. His recent study found that our student-aged population is growing at an alarming rate and that from around 2018 our schools will likely have difficulty finding enough teachers to fill their vacancies.
“To take Victoria as an example; we had around about 450 thousand students in primary school in 2001, so I think growth was at about 2 per cent. But the growth from around 2010 has increased to something like 24 per cent; it’s a huge increase. Which means statistically that you’re looking at 448 additional primary classes in Victoria each year for ten years. And that of course will flow through to secondary schools in around about 2018.”
The concern over teacher supply in the next few years has been compounded by the gradual decline of male teachers in secondary schools, most of whom are teaching specialist subjects. According to ACER’s study, if the supply of specialist secondary school teachers is not addressed, Australia’s education system could face a crisis.
Dr Paul Weldon explains.
“Certainly physics and chemistry currently have higher numbers of men; and over half of them are over 50, so that’s a concern. And given that the majority of teachers even at secondary level now are female, that does suggest that those areas, which still on the whole, are male dominated, are going to cause a problem in terms of finding supply over the next few years.”
He adds that by 2018, the proportion of secondary school teachers required to teach outside their specialty subject areas will increase.
Primary school teacher Rita Hodgson explains that teaching outside your field in primary is not uncommon; she’s a specialized art teacher who also teaches performing arts.
She says ‘out-of-field’ teaching exposes teachers to a challenging range of conditions.
“Obviously if you have further experience in a specialist area, then of course you are going to have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the curriculum and the context knowledge that you’re delivering. When you don’t have that context knowledge, it is difficult to deliver the program. The teachers do need that extra support, whether it comes from network meetings or professional development, teachers are required to have a deeper knowledge, and when you don’t, it does cause some stress as well.”
Meanwhile Professor Robyn Ewing is calling for more robust discussions with educators, community members and politicians about the challenges ahead for Australian teachers. She believes these matters are not being addressed effectively and is worried people in the profession will burn out or simply leave.
“There are some teachers who are very stressed because they don’t feel they can do everything that is expected of them and that has got to work against them being able to do their best. Now, I think there’s a lot of work to be do on sustaining them in the profession because I think our attrition rate suggests that a lot of great teachers are leaving the profession and it’s not just about retirement.”
Professor Ewing says the first step to achieving quality in education is to offer professionals in the frontline increased recognition, support and resources.
“Well they’re going to need ongoing professional learning that really takes account of the expertize knowledge and understandings that teachers already have and builds on that. We make it possible for teachers to get the resources they need. We don’t have people who are bureaucrats and policy makers, who don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom, making the decisions. We actually involve the profession in a meaningful way, because they know."