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How to fix the teacher shortage
Pay is only one component
I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere right now, but Australia is currently facing a teacher shortage. In New South Wales, the teaching unions believe part of the solution is a pay rise — or at least not a real-terms pay cut. Pay is important. Teachers need to be able to live a comfortable life where they can afford housing, food, travel, and where they don’t worry about going out for a coffee. However, few enter teaching for the big bucks. Teachers’ salaries need to be enough to take the issue off the table and to signal to them that society values their work and that’s about it.
It is expensive to give all teachers a real-terms pay rise and this is perhaps why politicians keep reheating the idea of performance pay. The reason nobody has ever made this work is that it is hard to measure performance. To outsiders, it may seem obvious that gains in test scores or lesson observations could be used, but test scores are not reliable and observations are not valid. I taught during a period in the UK when ‘Advanced Skills Teachers’ were paid more to stay in the classroom, rather than move into management, and to support colleagues. All this resulted in was a cadre of teachers who could perform the latest pedagogical fads and whimsies, while the rest of the staffroom rolled their eyes.
Unfortunately, there is often little connection between what academics, bureaucrats and even school leaders think is good teaching and the available evidence.
Differential pay could perhaps work, but instead of performance, we would need to pay more in the subjects where there are the greatest shortages and nobody has the stomach for that.
For obvious reasons, pay takes up a lot of space in these discussions, but there are other issues that anyone wishing to fix the teacher shortage will need to address — short of somehow bringing on a major recession.
To enter teaching in Australia, you now have to pass a minimum two-year university course. This is too long and it’s not as if universities have much wisdom to pass on to trainee teachers anyway. A candidate with a good degree should need to study for no more than a year to enter secondary education and there should be options to learn on the job, with a reduced workload, reduced pay and access to online units of study.
One of the supposed justifications for all this training is so that teachers are better able to meet the needs of diverse learners such as those with a disability. I am sceptical that much of any use on this topic can be learnt in the abstract on a university campus from people who are not practitioners and, besides, no amount of training will enable teachers to do the impossible and turn that ineffective mainstreaming into the golden sunrise of inclusion.
Through my request for teachers’ stories of inclusion regimes in Australia’s schools, I am already hearing about paperwork that takes ten hours to complete and teachers with 25+ students in their care attempting to manage children who strip out of their clothes or try to run away. We are often told that we should not ‘problematize’ children or ‘attempt to correct their differences’. This works well in with some disorders — such as a child with Tourette’s — but I really do think we need to try to ‘correct’ the kid who takes their clothes off or worse. Otherwise, what exactly are we supposed to do?
In fact, if you wanted to engineer a teacher shortage, one way would be to demand teachers do impossible things.
A connected issue is that of student behaviour. Surprisingly often, academics conflate behaviour with disability, as if every child with a disability presents with behaviour problems and every child exhibiting behaviour problems must have an underlying disability. I don’t think this is an accurate reflection of reality. I think students behave poorly for many reasons.
However, we do know from large-scale survey evidence that students behave particularly poorly in Australian classrooms. Do you hear much discussion of this? No, because it is a taboo topic — one of the reasons we are in this mess. Sometimes, we read veiled references to teacher ‘stress’ and clearly, an obvious cause of this would be constantly dealing with challenging behaviour. Who wants to do that? Not enough people, it seems.
We cannot keep ignoring this issue. We need a strategy.
When it comes to workload, the culture of schools is as much at fault as any government policy. We need to reduce the amount of planning by sharing it among teachers and/or buying it in, and we must abandon the fetish for creating three or four different versions of each lesson plan as a sacrifice to the great god, Differentiation. And we need to do less marking.
Address all these issues and I think we will find the problem is solved.