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  • Writer's pictureGrace Davidson-Lynch

I should have become a teacher (but I didn't)

Australia, like many other countries, is about to be plunged into a teacher shortage.


This week, I've seen article after article attempting to explain this new calamity and its origins. In NSW, the Guardian is reporting that 2021 left more than 70 public schools with staff vacancy rates of 20% or higher. Regional and city schools will truly feel the effects of mass vacancies when the school year begins on the 28th January, as NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet says, "in the classroom on day one of term one," no exceptions. The other states aren't fairing much better. In Queensland, despite delaying the start of the school year by a week, the government is making up their shortfall by giving temporary accreditation to 320 student teachers. While this solution is nothing new, that's 50% more temporary teachers compared to last year’s figures, and 80% since 2019. But the worst is yet to come. When schools across the country open next month, teachers and students will get sick. Get ready for more chaos for these long suffering students, whose education and faith in the institution has been permanently damaged by this pandemic.


There are lots of factors that have caused the current dearth of teachers in this country. Teaching is a noble profession, one that is intensely rewarding and offers plenty of holidays- so where have they gone? It may appear that teaching is just another vital profession facing massive shortages as a result of the pandemic. According to a recent study by the University of Melbourne, the pressure that 2020 put on teachers was overwhelming. Of the teachers surveyed, 66% reported that they worked more hours per week throughout lockdown than before the pandemic, some working an additional 20 hours. With the average teacher already putting in around 50 hours of (sometimes unpaid) work, that's an enormous burden to bear during such a difficult time. On top of that, teachers were forced to confront challenges around internet access and student engagement that are unique to online learning. Of course, if your home contained a student during 2020, you also understand the perils of educating during unprecedented times.


But the truth is that the teacher shortage started a long time before this pandemic did.


The signs were there in 2019. The number of students entering teaching degrees fell by 8.8% between 2017 and 2018. However, due to the lack of data available at the time, experts were divided on the causes and nature of the developing crisis. Pay was one of those causes- while entry-level teachers fare pretty well, making around $65,000 a year, this does not increase with experience. In fact, according to data from the Grattan Institute in 2019, you are more likely to become a high-income earner in your 40's with no degree than you are with a bachelor degree in teaching. But, back in those Halcyon days before the world ended, alarm bells were not yet ringing for everyone. The words of Maurie Mulheron, former President of the NSW Teachers Federation, are haunting to read in 2022-


There's a massive oversupply in most years because [universities] have lowered entry scores into teaching degrees... There is a shortage in some specific subject areas such as maths and science, but that's been the case for a long time... We've got to do proper workforce planning, which hasn't been happening at the state or federal level and we should absolutely be encouraging people to come into teaching.


If this pandemic has taught me anything, it has taught me that people don't panic about a problem until it's way too late to fix it. So, like so many already weakened institutions, the teaching profession is now in full blown crisis. And as I read about the collapse of Australian education, somewhere in the back of my mind, I can't help but feel a pang of guilt. I haven't directly caused any teacher shortages, but I know that when the experts talk about those people that should be teachers but aren't, I am one of them.


For a few months in high school, before I decided to foolishly follow my dreams and become a playwright, I thought I could be a history teacher. This was 100% inspired by two wonderful HSIE teachers I had. They were engaging young women who made learning into a joyous experience for me. The first hint I ever got that maybe teaching was a lot harder than it looked was during a Society and Culture class in Year 11. My teacher, Ms H, was being tormented by a pack of boys that were shouting and carrying on at the back of the classroom. I only saw her yell occasionally in all those years I had her as a teacher- that day was one of them. After a brief attempt to silence them, she returned to her desk and they erupted in new peels of aggravating laughter. I remember looking at her, head resting on her hands at her desk, the classroom overwhelmingly loud- she was an educator defeated.


I realised at age 17 that being a teacher must suck. I knew they worked long hours, and knew from all the strikes that used to happen that they were unhappy with their pay. But the worst part was watching Ms H, one of the best teachers I ever had, slowly be dragged down by it.


As I've gotten older and started working, my reasons for avoiding the profession have become a lot less philosophical. On average, high school teacher make just under $80,000 a year, or around $37 per hour. I have the potential to make significantly more money part-time per hour running my own business as an English tutor. I also get to choose my own hours and students, and I'm not saddle with other responsibilities like unpaid school activities and lunchtime duty. Plus, becoming a teacher would have meant completing another degree, which would mean more debt and qualifications for less rewarding work. Besides, as someone who also works in theatre, why would I want to take on all that extra responsibility when I only intend to work part-time as an educator anyway?


But I do love teaching. I have taught many, many students for over 5 years. I have received great feedback and helped students achieve excellent results. Plus, I have an Honours degree in an Arts subject, and have lots of experience in academic writing. But I can’t become a teacher without at least 2 years of additional study. My separate pools of experience in academia and tutoring do not come together to create a recognised qualification. I can teach at a university, but not at a high school.


So, I do feel a little responsible for the current crisis. Am I just an opportunist skimming my living off the top of the hard work that real teachers put in 50 hours a week? Would I be more noble and financially normal if I had abandoned my theatre dreams and freelance career to become a full-time English teacher? Am I blindly underqualified because I didn't spend my early 20s getting a Master's degree?


As workers trying to get by in a capitalist society, it's very convenient if we feel guilt for not trying harder to hold up the institutions that are failing because of ineffective leadership. The second I can become a casual teacher with my current qualifications, I would do it. But as it stands, teaching is just not a viable career path for many Australians. We may have applauded them for surviving online learning and diseases in the workplace, but how can we immediately expect them to return to their highly skilled, low paying, time intensive professions without any consequences?


Well, here they are. Let's hope someone finally does something about it.



Images

School desk image © Wix Media


References

McGowan, M & Rose, T 2022, '‘Clash of two crises’: fears for NSW schools as Covid pandemic and ongoing teacher shortages collide', The Guardian, 19 Jan, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jan/19/clash-of-two-crises-fears-for-nsw-schools-as-covid-pandemic-and-ongoing-teacher-shortages-collide>.

Marsh, S, Meacham, S, Noble, F & Swain, S 2022, 'School COVID-19 plans to differ between each state and territory', 9News, 20 Jan, <https://www.9news.com.au/national/coronavirus-back-to-school-update-national-cabinet-covid19-rapid-tests/4d33de7d-01e8-40ae-b871-89d7a4d926a9>.

Singhal, P 2019, 'Profession in crisis': warning about teacher shortage risk', Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April, <https://www.smh.com.au/education/profession-in-crisis-teacher-shortage-predicted-in-next-four-years-20190417-p51f2q.html>.

O'Flaherty, A 2021, 'Soaring numbers of university students, unregistered teachers fronting classrooms to plug shortages', ABC Radio Brisbane, 9 Dec, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-12-09/preservice-teachers-rushed-through-registration-to-meet-demand/100683334>.

Nolan, J & Sonnemann, J 2019, 'Three charts on teachers’ pay in Australia: it starts out OK, but goes downhill pretty quickly', The Conversation, 3 Sept, <https://theconversation.com/three-charts-on-teachers-pay-in-australia-it-starts-out-ok-but-goes-downhill-pretty-quickly-122782>.

Ziebell, N, Acquaro, D, Seah, WT & Pearn, C 2020, Australian Education Survey: Examining the impact of COVID-19 Report Summary, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, pp. 14-, <https://education.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/3413996/Australian-Education-Survey.pdf>.

Carabetta, G & Wilson, R 2022, 'COVID-19 and schools: we're heading into a teacher shortage crisis', University of Sydney, 19 Jan, <https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2022/01/19/covid-and-schools-australia-teacher-shortage-crisis-education-expert.html>.

Cumming, S 2022, 'Queensland schools 'preparing for the worst' amid concerns of teacher shortage' ABC Gold Coast, 20 Jan, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-20/will-there-be-enough-teachers-in-queensland-when-school-resumes/100757200>.

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