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Empty classroom

Long-term vision the key for teacher shortfall

Speak to anyone who is passionate about educating young people and it’s a fair bet the talk will soon turn to the problems plaguing the profession: the chronic shortage of teachers that is having a devastating effect on schools, especially those in rural and remote areas; the rise of out-of-field teaching, where educators teach outside their area of expertise; the crippling workload, the growing expectations, the stagnant wages, and the declining prestige of what has long been termed the “noble profession”. 

Such is the magnitude of the problem that the big-ticket item on that list – the nationwide teacher shortfall that is tipped to descend to a dearth of more than 4,000 secondary teachers by 2025 – has caught the attention not only of teachers, education experts and politicians; it’s also a topic of discussion amongst the bean counters in executive government. 

“When there are dispassionate non-educators such as the Productivity Commission saying things like, ‘We’ve got an education problem’, you know that we’ve got work to do,” says Dr Paul Kidson, Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership and Head of Discipline of Postgraduate Education in ACU’s National School of Education. 

“In 30-plus years of being involved in this great profession, I’ve never heard language like that from people who are not educationally-oriented, and who are not party-political, but they’re simply saying that we’ve made an enormous investment in education for the national good, and we’ve not got much reward in return.”

The national discussion around the issue therefore provides a rich opportunity to find solutions to problems that are years in the making, he says.

“These actuaries are saying that the accountability on the system has been nowhere near as great as the accountability on schools. Principals, on the other hand, are subjected to enormous scrutiny and accountability for large-scale policy outcomes like NAPLAN and PISA test results," says Dr Kidson, a former principal who is also a senior investigator in ACU’s Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey.

“That suggests it’s time we turned the spotlight back on some of the systems at play here, and realise this is a compelling challenge that we have to deal with at a systemic and structural level.” 

In late 2022, when education ministers from around the country agreed on a National Teacher Workforce Action Plan to address the issue of teacher workforce shortages, Dr Kidson responded with his own assessment of the strategy. In a short essay on The Conversation, he praised the “inclusive and aspirational tone” of the plan, while warning there is “a danger politics will confuse the matter”. 

“The educational lifespan of a typical student these days is around 13 years, while the lifespan of an education policy is only around 18 or 24 months,” said Dr Kidson. 

“Educational policy-making has been too driven by who holds political power at any given moment, and that means we’re doomed to short-term fixes that aren’t always effective and aren’t always in the national interest.”

With all these issues in mind, we sat down with Dr Kidson for a Q&A on the nationwide teacher workforce shortage. Here’s a snapshot of what he had to say.  

The challenges related to the teacher shortage have been labelled as “unprecedented”. What is causing the shortfall?

“The short answer is that this is not an emergent problem – it’s been coming for some time, and there’s a large smorgasbord of causes and reasons. A big issue is the changing nature of expectation that is being placed on schools. We have pressures related to school performance and standardised tests, and there’s whole range of administrative tasks that make teaching more time-consuming and demanding than it has been in the past. On top of that, when societal problems come along, they often get placed at the feet of schools. So we’re asking schools to do all these extra things, but they have no more time and no more resources available to deliver them. 

“Under such pressure to perform, we have an increase in stress among teachers and principals, often leading to burnout and poor mental health and wellbeing. Most teachers go into education because they want to make a difference in the lives of young people, and when they’re constrained because of administrative and bureaucratic tasks and all the other pressures, some of them just think, ‘I’m not quite sure this is really what I want to do’.”

Low teacher salaries are often cited as a reason for the shortfall, and raising salaries is mooted as potential strategy for fixing the problem. What’s your view on this?

“Being able to show teachers that we value the work they do is important, and one way of doing that is through increased remuneration. Another significant way is ensuring that the working conditions under which teachers operate is up to a certain standard. We often talk about a range of support services, things like mental health services, community and allied health services… in some schools, there is a dire need for these broader network supports, but we’re dragging our heels on providing these supports on a needs basis. 

“At the same time, we’re seeing unfortunate rises of parental aggression, intimidation and offensive behaviour towards teachers and school principals, behaviours that we would not accept as appropriate in any other workplace. So you might say, ‘Here’s $150,000 to go into that job’, and unfortunately many teachers will reply, ‘That’s great, but it only deals with some of the problem.’ It’s more complicated than just pay levels.”

So in your view, increasing teacher pay won’t solve the problem? 

“I think it’s really important that we change the discourse, and certainly things like remuneration play into that. Nobody is going to come away and say, ‘Please give me a 10 per cent pay gap.’ But at its core, if you entrust your child into the life of another adult, by very definition, you’re showing some level of trust and respect towards that person and that profession. Unfortunately, that often gets undermined by certain trends and strongly held views about teaching. There is this caricature that as a teacher you only work six hours a day and 40 weeks of the year, and I have an open invitation to anybody with that view to come and spend a day in a school, because they’ll be rapidly dissuaded of that perspective.”

One of the major issues we’ve seen increasing since the pandemic is teacher burnout and attrition. How do we keep the teachers we have? 

“What we’ve seen for a long time is that the supply of teachers hasn’t been as much of a problem; it’s the retention that’s the main issue and there’s a large attrition rate in the first five years. Teaching is a very selfless and generous profession. These people are out for the needs of others, but in many cases they’re saying to us, ‘I don’t have enough fuel in my tank to do all that’s expected of me’. 

“So if you ask principals and teachers, they’ll tell you fairly rapidly what to do. There’s a good metaphor around gardening: You don’t start by planting; you start by weeding. You pull things out before you put something in. Unfortunately we have had over a decade where more is added and nothing gets taken away, and yet we still only have the same five days in a week and 40 weeks in a year. So let’s get rid of some of the low-value tasks that we’re asking teachers to do and let them stay focused on what is important. Once we’ve done that weeding, then we can plant a few things that focus on valuing of the profession.”

How do we rekindle some of the value we used to apportion to the teaching profession, that has perhaps been lost over the years?

“There’s no quick-fix, but again, we have this irreconcilable discourse that needs to be dealt with: On the one hand, we’re saying that teachers should be respected because they’ve got this disciplinary knowledge, and on the other, parents and caregivers will say, ‘You’re just a teacher and you don’t know anything about my kid’. In my 11 years of being principal, I became increasingly direct in saying to parents and caregivers, ‘This sort of response is not helping your child’. That’s not easy for them to hear, but it’s becoming more frequent with some parents. So until this genuine educational partnership is re-established, it’s going to continue to be a source of conflict, and that serves nobody. It certainly doesn’t serve young children.”

In terms of the structural issues you referred to earlier, what role do they play in the problems plaguing education and the teaching profession?  

“Australia’s education system is a bit of an outlier internationally for a whole range of reasons, one of which is the increasing inequity in our educational structures. Right from colonial settlement, we’ve had a very segmented approach to education. Even within government school systems, there is a great level of stratification. That means there are concentrations of advantage in certain schools and areas, and disadvantage in others. So you get short-term solutions like governments providing bonuses for people to go and teach in the challenging areas where there are pockets of disadvantage, but teachers generally don’t want to teach there. 

“That’s why I believe that the problems we face are best dealt with at a systemic level. Hopefully some of the reforms that are currently being discussed will shift the dial somewhat, but at present we simply don’t have a large-scale view of education that will set us up for the future and avoid the crises that are being predicted. 

“We need to have a broader horizon and take a perspective that says, ‘This is in the interest of the nation as a whole’.  We need a long-term vision that takes the political machinations out of education policy-making, and looks for national solutions to the problems we face right now, and the agility required to deal with the problems we’ll face in the years to come.” 

Dr Paul Kidson is senior lecturer in educational leadership at ACU. His diverse career in education includes teaching in NSW schools, as well as 11 years as a school principal. He moved into academia in 2017, exploring how school leaders can work within and critically transform their complex professional lives. 

Dr Paul Kidson

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G