Before joining his colleagues on the picket lines today, Glenn Lowe, a high school head teacher in the Wollongong Catholic diocese shared with Education Review his experience of the teacher shortage crisis.
Wednesday was a busy day for Lowe. The head teacher's school day started at 8:00am with a leader meeting from which he had to leave early to do a roll call, before jumping straight into his double Year 12 class for periods one and two.
During these two periods Lowe also had next to him two out-of-faculty teachers that he had to assist, meaning 40-plus students were under his responsibility in addition to his Year 12 class.
Lowe was then supposed to have a ‘proper break’ during recess, which did not happen as he had to stay behind to talk to a student in need.
“I ended up with only 10 minutes at recess: in our agreement, we're supposed to get 20 minutes uninterrupted for a break.
“I actually managed to go to the toilet during that time, which was good, and I had a cuppa,” Lowe told Education Review.
The head teacher then moved on to his double class with Year 10, in which more students came to his door from another class before being taken by an out of faculty teacher.
In the afternoon, the day kept on going with some religious education and a last period “off” to catch up on the administrative tasks he hadn’t been able to complete until then.
Lowe ended up finishing them at home where he sat for a couple of hours in the evening to “to get the things done that couldn't possibly get done when I was on site”.
“It's not sustainable,” Lowe said.
Like thousands of his colleagues across the country, Lowe’s job is affected by the teacher shortage crisis, an issue that has been ongoing for years but exacerbated by COVID-19 and Influenza.
According to Lowe, the COVID-19 crisis brought to a head the situation that teachers had been suppressing for a long time, as they had taken on the habits of “squeezing-in” more and more tasks during the time and allocation that they had.
“We've been filling the holes with our own time and our own wellbeing,” Lowe said.
“I think the coronavirus and working remotely showed a lot of teachers that it doesn't have to be that frantic, it doesn't have to be that hectic every day.
“But now, you don't come to work sick any more, you stay at home when you're sick. Those are the things that COVID has caused a shortage of.
“And some people have just gone, ’I'm not doing that any more. That's stupid. I can't actually have a life and have that level of stress every minute of every day.’"
Teacher shortages have been around for over 10 years but we’ve been able to fill these gaps, Lowe said, but now, schools have difficulties finding replacements.
“That's when you start collapsing classes and putting people together and trying to plug holes with personnel that you can get your hands on.
“If there is no one, classes are unsupervised and put in the library.
“We have a supply of casual teachers, but we don't have enough and they often are people that aren’t trained in your faculty.
“You end up with people that are outside that discipline, and they're doing the best they can, but they don't have that ability, they don't have that skill set which is needed.”
A recent Guardian analysis showed that nationwide, more than 4,000 extra high school teachers will be needed by 2026, with NSW being one of the hardest hit.
Data from government modelling also revealed that between 2020 and 2025, more than 50,000 teachers are expected to leave the profession.
In May, the New South Wales Teachers Federation reported that 1,906 permanent teaching positions were vacant in the state.
For Catholic schools, an Independent Education Union spokesperson told Education Review that the union had advertised for about 330 vacancies but “many more vacant positions were not advertised yet”.
In Lowe’s school, at worst 25 teachers out of 70 were unavailable at once, an impossible situation which has taken its toll on the sector.
According to Lowe, at the start of each term, teachers are anticipating nervously what the next couple of weeks will bring, but are rested.
Yet, when the end of the terms comes around, “you can see on people's faces they're just absolutely distraught”.
“You don't get a chance to look after yourself,” Lowe said.
“These upcoming holidays, it'll take me a week before my sleeping patterns return to normal. Every morning, you're often awake at 5:00 because your brain just doesn't stop.”
Lowe says the government and the system needs to realise that this shortage has been brought around by neglect of the workforce for more than a decade.
In an attempt to turn things around, Catholic and public school teachers in NSW will join hands today in a 24-hour strike for better pay and reduced workload conditions.
In total, more than 85,000 teachers and support staff across 560 Catholic schools and 2300 public schools have been invited to take part in the action.
In order to fight for his conditions, Lowe will be joining the picket lines alongside his colleagues and the rest of the sector.
“There is a need to improve the conditions to an extent where you actually want to be a teacher, still.”
According to the NSWTF, a pay rise is essential to the sector, especially considering the rise in inflation.
With the elite scheme teachers, after 10 years of experience there's no pay rises, Lowe said.
“The only pay rise you're going to get is either leadership or what we fight for with the unions.
“There's no scope for earning more money.”
Recently the NSW government offered performance-based pay for teachers. It’s a proposition that is “disgustingly offensive” to Lowe.
“The pay rise is one of the components, but it's not the only one – there is a need to tackle the crippling workload.”
The head teacher believes that the classroom is not the issue, it's the extracurricular component and the administration, the compliance, the box-ticking and every student that needs personal support.
“All those things that go into making teaching what it is has to have a limit to it and we're pushing for reduced face-to-face time across all sectors.”
According the NSWTF numbers, teachers are working up to 60 hours a week due to incessant workload.
“We're called leaders of learning, we're supposed to be using our experience to help others in the faculties to improve their delivery and content and learning, and it's eaten up with administration,” Lowe said.
The constant increase of administrative tasks have taken a toll on teachers but also on students, as behavioural issues arise.
“When you're rushing from pillar to post and you can't prepare your lessons properly, your behaviour management issues go up, and you've got to spend more time outside of hours chasing behaviour management.
“The students are often very, very good, but they can tell when you're underprepared, it's easy for them to see that.
“And when that is the case, their behaviour management issues become more intense, because they're not busy, they're not being engaged properly in the lesson,” Lowe said.
If you're a full-time, fully allocated classroom teacher, you would have about seven classes to deliver to in a fortnight, Lowe said. “If we were to lose one of them, that would reduce your face-to-face time by about two hours a week.”
Lowe believes that if there was no increased workload, these two hours a week could then be used for what teachers are paid to do, and create engaging and entertaining and productive lessons for students.
The ideal would be to have more staff to share the workload, Lowe said, but where do those staff come from?
"The cupboard's bare. There are no staff waiting in the wings to sign up, because they are not joining the profession.
“It's a snowball. It continues to feed itself,” Lowe said.
“We need a whole bunch of people to join so that we can actually reduce the workload and then get more people into teaching, but fewer people want to join the profession.”
According to Lowe, there is a need to make teaching attractive again as people do not want to train for five years at university to end up in a job where the workload is unbearable and the pay minimal.
Before starting his career in 1987, Lowe always knew he would be a teacher. He still loves his job and is thankful for his students that bring energy to class every day.
“There are some brilliant kids out there that are just outstanding and polite and friendly and are smart, and I feel positive for our future because of those students," Lowe said.
“That's what keeps you going, but that can't be the only reason you're in the job.
“I'm getting longer in the tooth in my role. It's not attractive for me to stay. I'm going to, because I'm close to retirement, but how do you prevent people my age from bleeding out of the profession?"Do you have an idea for a story?
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