Teaching is an intense, demanding job.
As parents, if we want highly trained professionals prepared to inspire, nurture, teach and develop our children and our children’s children, we need to dial down our demands and step up our support.
Last year’s Monash University research indicating up to 70 per cent of Australian teachers are considering leaving the profession because they do not feel their work is respected or appreciated should prompt a collective rethink.
Teachers, schools and students thrive in an environment of positive partnership and respect.
So while the crisis facing teachers in Australia is not unique, the extent of our malaise is deeply troubling.
A March 2023 McKinsey & Company report found almost a third of US educators were also thinking about leaving the profession, citing inadequate pay, unsustainable work expectations and lack of wellbeing and uninspiring leadership.
In Australia, Monash University academic Dr Fiona Longmuir last year cited additional pressures including complexity of learning, behaviour and social needs of young people, increasing administration and data collection tasks, limited support from school and system leadership and an overloaded curriculum.
Murdoch University’s Dr Kirsten Lambert has written about the level of abuse teachers were experiencing at the hands of parents.
Teachers were particularly damaged not just by unwarranted parental abuse and harassment, but by lack of protective action from school and system leaders, which compounded the problem, according to a Queensland Teachers Journal article published early in 2021.
The vast majority of parents, thankfully, would never stoop to these lows.
As the principal of an all-girls pre-kindergarten to Year 12 Anglican school, I count myself a fortunate beneficiary of a generous and supportive parent community.
However, all of us as parents might want to reflect on the impact on teachers of our consumer expectations, how we apply this to education and the impact of this behaviour, however unintentional, on already overworked teachers. I would hasten to add, there is nothing wrong with high expectations accompanied by high levels of support.
But a hardworking teacher, driven by a desire to care for students and encourage their development, overloaded with administrative tasks and then abused for their effort, is likely to find themselves not just demoralised but seeking opportunities elsewhere.
The Productivity Commission review of the National School Reform Agreement, released in December, revealed previous initiatives had “done little, so far, to improve student outcomes” and, buried within its many recommendations, were concerns about the impact on student outcomes of teacher shortages, teachers being forced to teach subjects they were not trained in and teacher access to quality and evidence-based resources.
The national teacher workforce action plan’s five priority areas are improving teacher supply, strengthening initial teacher education, keeping the teachers that we have, elevating the profession and better understanding future workforce needs.
But Monash University’s Dr Longmuir says this will only succeed if teachers’ working conditions improve and the tenor of discussions about the profession becomes more positive and respectful.
Teachers in the Monash University study suggested reducing educators’ administrative burden, providing more specialist staff to help with student social and behavioural challenges, reducing class sizes, better pay and a seat at the policy making table.
McKinsey & Company acknowledged “compensation is a top driver for both attrition and retention” but was “likely to be insufficient” without increased investment in other forms of teacher support, including extra specialist and administration staff.
These reforms will take time and our teacher shortage crisis is now.
And that crisis has a direct impact on student outcomes.
As parents concerned about our children getting quality education, it is within our power to support our teachers and our schools. At the very least, we can take responsibility for not adding to the problem.
We need not just to be kind, but to demonstrate respect and gratitude for our teachers, their expertise and their capacity to make good decisions in the interests of our children.
We should consider the impact of our own behaviour, the behaviour of our children and the right of a teacher to feel safe and be treated with dignity at work. A teacher has a right to non-working time.
We should consider the broader context of a teacher already working overtime to educate our children and whether our request/demand is warranted, fair or constructive.
We should consider supporting school disciplinary strategies designed to deliver consequences for the disruptive behaviour of our children.
We should consider whether we would tell a pilot how to fly a plane, a surgeon how to conduct an operation or a CEO how to run her business.
Teachers are highly trained, well-educated professionals who are fast becoming an endangered species.
How we treat them matters.
Helen Aguiar is principal of Perth College, an Anglican girls school in Mount Lawley.