The status of teaching in Australia has suffered a significant slump in recent years. Good news stories from the profession are few and far between and the respect for teachers, who were once considered pillars of the community, has been slowly eroded.
That's according to Tania Aspland, who claims that morale in the industry has become so low that recruitment and retention have subsequently become major challenges. So much so, in fact, that the government has launched an inquiry and the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) recently held a forum to search for solutions.
Aspland, president of the ACDE, is well placed to lead the inquiry into what has changed in recent years and what can be done to help.
Having entered the profession in the 1970s she remembers a time when a career in teaching was heralded and encouraged.
“I was the first in the family to go to university,” she says. “I came from a working-class family so I had a lot of support and was held in very high esteem by my family, my friends and even my neighbourhood.
“In my working life, I’ve seen the teaching profession go from something that’s held in very high esteem to something that’s really not.”
Time for action
Earlier this month, Aspland chaired the ACDE’s Status of Teaching Forum, in which representatives from a variety of education stakeholders (including teachers, leaders, universities, government, unions and the media) set about identifying why the profession has suffered so much in recent years.
Aspland found encouragement in the mutual recognition that action was required and that everyone was pulling in the same direction.
“What we’ve had in the past,” she says, “is unions, employers, universities all promoting their own agendas. Bringing together 200 people into the one room made it very clear that we’re all on the same page and we’re all working very hard to elevate the status of teachers.
“If we do that together as a community, we will have much greater results than we have at the moment.”
Identifying where the problems lie is less straightforward, however. Aspland cites issues at various points along a teacher’s career path, from making the decision to become a teacher (something that is often discouraged), to seeking a clear trajectory of career development.
However, each element impacting the status of teaching appears to stem from the same root cause; the fact that teachers currently in the profession are struggling.
“There were a number of problems that were highlighted that were causing teachers enormous stress,” Aspland continues.
“Extra work, challenging students, what they see as senseless reporting of data that distracts them away from their core business, which is teaching and learning.”
Celebrating good teaching
Although universities and the media were identified as two parties occasionally guilty of adding to the problem of poor PR, Aspland highlighted the need for the profession itself to generate more positive messages for potential trainees.
“Employers can do it and universities can do it, but it’s the profession that needs to step up and promote itself, and encourage people to come into the teaching because it’s such a worthwhile career.
“When a person comes to them and says ‘I want to be a teacher’, they need to encourage them rather than discourage them.”
Tackling issues affecting current classroom teachers was agreed upon as the first step in addressing a multitude of other related industry problems. So, what can leaders do?
1. Create clear career pathways
While the teachers at the ACDE forum highlighted pay as an issue, it was progression rather than starting salary that was the main concern.
“It’s recognised that teachers have quite a good starting salary,” says Aspland. “But that it flattens out after about seven years and there’s no career trajectory for them to pursue.
“This is why some of them are leaving, because there are more opportunities for promotion elsewhere.”
2. Encourage students who want to teach
Aspland is in no doubt that a lack of encouragement given to previous want-to-be teachers has added to the current lack of trainees.
“In Australia, primary pupils often suggest they want to be school teachers,” she says, “and when they get to senior secondary, they are actually discouraged by their teachers and their families. The profession needs to promote itself more actively.
3. Do what you can to relieve workload stress
The problem that trumps almost all others is that many teachers are unhappy; it’s difficult to promote a profession when workload pressures and mental health issues are so prevalent.
“Teachers are by far the biggest group who submit work claims for stress and burnout, even beyond doctors and lawyers,” says Aspland. “So, there’s a message to all employers that things aren’t good in the workforce, that there is far too much pressure on teachers.”
4. Celebrate good teaching
Reframing the teaching profession as a worthwhile and rewarding one will take time, but schools celebrating the success of teachers in the community can go a long way addressing this issue on a local level.
“We need to get out more stories about successful teachers, and the diversity among the profession, so that journalists and the public can see that it is a worthwhile career and people who work in teaching are very satisfied,” Aspland continues.
“Leaders in schools can do a very important job of promoting their school and their staff, and the opportunity to become part of the profession as a life-changing exercise.
“To come into a school and become a professional teacher can in fact change peoples’ lives and you can have a very rewarding career because of it.”
Tania Aspland is a former primary school teacher and president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education’s Status of Teaching.
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