In his viral 2002 poem ‘What Teachers Make,’ Brooklyn slam poet Taylor Mali summarises emphatically that “teachers make a goddamn difference.”
It’s an ideal and a value that all good teachers aspire to — after all, they have one of the most difficult and important jobs in our society; educating the next generation.
Still, you wouldn’t have thought it during the pandemic when, instead of respect, many teachers were faced with attacks on all sides. Parents, politicians, and the media blamed teachers for being ‘afraid’ to go back into classrooms and for failing to keep up with the demands of a rapidly changing world.
It’s a criticism that grates on the teaching profession, and for the past two years, the pressures of the pandemic and the lack of understanding have led to teachers leaving in droves. Meanwhile, new grads are being rushed in — in ever smaller numbers — to fill the gaping holes in our education system.
Pay, working conditions, and a lack of support for the mountains of extra paperwork and box-checking exercises are cited as primary reasons for the exodus. It’s why, for the second time in six months, teachers in New South Wales have gone on strike.
Thousands of public school teachers marched through the Sydney CBD on Wednesday, while walkouts took place across the state. Teachers are refusing the NSW government’s request to wait until after the election and the budget to discuss pay rises, saying that salary and working condition support cannot wait.
Teachers Federation union President Angelo Gavrielatos has said that the situation in education has become “unsustainable” and that “more than 70% of teachers are reporting that they’re considering options other than teaching”.
Behind the headlines and the attempts from the government to calm or reject concerns, very few of us know what actually goes on in classrooms, what kind of conditions teachers have to put up with, and how they are managing to cope both mentally and financially.
We’ve spoken to two teachers in NSW, including one who was on strike on Wednesday, to understand a little bit more about what it’s really like on the front lines of the education sector.
Both teachers asked not to be named for career concerns, with one saying that doing so was “against my code of conduct” while the other said that even her social media profiles were heavily monitored by her employer.
Here’s what they had to say.
Miranda*, Catholic High School Teacher of 20 Years
“The whole concept that people have of teachers working nine to three is a myth, but I think we all know that.
“It’s really hard to determine a teacher’s hours. Even though legally we’ve got to be there between 8:30am and 3:30pm, a teacher might stay there till five or six, or they bring their work home with them. Nine to three just doesn’t exist.
“All I’ve heard in the media over the last couple of days is, ‘I really have a lot of respect for teachers, but let’s admit it, they get 10 weeks annual leave a year,’ which, although that’s technically true — we’re not face to face — we are working.
“My mum’s a teacher and I can’t remember a school holiday where we weren’t in the classroom, setting it up, or marking, or doing something extra.
“Legislation has made it so that we have to do all this extra training, and now they’re talking about teachers having to jump through more hoops. There’s a massive teacher shortage, they should be trying to attract teachers but instead, they’re deterring them.
“The Catholic schools haven’t gone on strike yet, but it looks like it’s happening. We’re in a bit of a stalemate.
“Teachers just want to be allowed to teach, and [extra paperwork] takes so much time away from meaningful lesson planning and meaningful marking and all of those other things that we should be doing. Instead, we’re doing paperwork for what really feels like the sake of paperwork. We don’t feel supported by the government at all. [Education Minister] Sarah Mitchell just does not support teachers.
“I’ve been doing this now for almost 20 years and I definitely feel like there is less and less support. I mean, there’s a reason there’s a teacher shortage. There was a teacher shortage before COVID, so we were already low on teachers. At my school, we’ve got — off the top of my head — four positions that are still not filled from the beginning of the year. So there are kids that, for some subjects, have not had a teacher at all.
“The casual staff are just beyond their limits. Casual teachers just want to be retired or want to cut back, they don’t want to be doing five days a week but they’re so dedicated that they’re taking on all these kids and their issues. The pandemic was not kind to them; they got no money during all the lockdowns when the school was closed.
“We’ve got student teachers, who should still be at university, who are teaching. They’re melting down because they’re not ready to be in a full time teaching role. That’s put a lot of strain on them.
“When the pandemic broke out, I’ve had 32 kids in my classroom, and I’m being told by Scott Morrison to suck it up and just get in there so that mum and dad can go and do their real jobs.
“Principals were hearing about lockdowns, or changes to deadlines and things like that, through the media, like everyone else. Every time Sarah Mitchell said ‘I sent an email to everyone,’ that was not true. No one got any communication about it. We were hearing it on the news just like everyone else
“My leadership team were very supportive, with everyone’s health coming first and foremost. Principals copped a lot of the blame, but at the end of the day, they were there every day on the frontline. The support staff too. We had support staff on less than minimum wage and they were there every single day during the pandemic.”
Erica*, Public School Relief Teacher of 5 Years
“Each full-time teacher is entitled to two hours of relief from face to face (RFF) teaching. During those two hours, the RFF teachers take over the classroom teacher’s class and teach the subjects that have been assigned to the RFF teacher.
“The role of an RFF teacher requires extensive planning because the job requires you to teach multiple grades a day. This means that you are dealing with students from different age groups who all have different learning needs and quite possibly, behavioural needs as well.
“There were many surprises during my first year of teaching. The long work hours, the high amount of non-teaching admin work and the amount of money I was having to spend on my students. I was either spending money on teaching resources that the school would not provide due to lack of funding, or I would be spending money from a welfare perspective for students who would have no food to eat for recess and lunch.
“At the school I am currently working at, each staff member is also responsible for providing their own laptops as there are no computers set up in the school for staff to use.
“When I was teaching kindergarten, back in 2019, I had spent quite a bit of money at Office Works because the kindergarten resources were required to be printed in colour and laminated, which took several hours of personal time to complete. There were times when it almost felt like I was just working to fund my classroom, as I was spending most of my spare income on my students.
“I was also surprised how hard I have to work to keep my teaching qualification. All full-time teachers are required to complete 100 hours of professional development every five years. If you are a recent graduate like me, then you are expected to also write an accreditation report that provides evidence and details on how you have fulfilled each teaching requirement over the course of your career. If you are lucky, your school might give you extra time off to finish your accreditation report, but for most, this has to be completed in your own time. Failure to complete any of the above-mentioned requisites may result in the teacher’s accreditation being suspended and, quite possibly, being demoted back to beginner’s salary to build experience all over again.
“As part of our teacher qualification maintenance, we are also required to pay an annual fee of $100 to NESA (NSW Education Standard Authority). For some newly graduated teachers, if they were to graduate in October and pay their fees in November, then, despite only having paid the $100 for two-to-three months of teaching, come first of January, that teacher would be required to pay the annual $100 fee again despite only having recently paid for it.
“Other surprises also included the expectation in taking on extra-curricular activities especially when you were employed on year-to-year temporary contract.
“In my first year of teaching, I was surprised to see how long teachers worked each day. I would be receiving emails right up till 10:00 at night. I would see teachers arriving at school close to two hours before our required start time and leaving school at around 6:00pm or even later. Then the hours would get further extended if we were to plan an extra-curricular activity such as the athletics carnival or the school disco. There would be many factors that would keep adding more and more work hours, despite not getting paid any overtime.
“With my school having a student start and end time between 8:30 – 2:30, my day will start from around 7am and I could continue working right up till 5pm, or longer if I were to continue my work at home.
“The lack of overtime pay draws attention to the fact that we are NOT compensated for the work and time that we put in to this profession.
“We are seeing an increased number of interactions with difficult parents and students especially as students learning/behaviour/emotional needs are increasing.
“This profession is a great passion of mine and I do what I do because it gives me a great sense of fulfilment to watch students grow and learn. However, what needs to change is for me to have more time teaching, and less time fulfilling admin and paperwork that does not benefit the students’ learning.
“I was one of the teachers who went on strike on Wednesday and I believe we should continue to strike till our voices are heard and changes are made. Our demand to see an increase in wages by 5% is very reasonable because the Reserve Bank of Australia has stated that inflation rates match our demand. Our current 2.5% pay increase per year is only going to get us a pay cut over the coming years. What we are asking for is not only going to benefit teachers, but benefit students as well. The profession is no longer desirable for the younger generation which is resulting in a lack of teachers.
“I will end with this; a lack of teachers today will result in a lack of a generation of workers in the future. It is in the best interest of everyone that our voices are heard and our demands for both teachers and students are met.”