Teacher shortage: Can we fix it?

01 July 2022

By Professor Ken Purnell

If we continue doing 'school' the way that we have over the past few decades' with one teacher in a class of around 25 students' the answer is: No. But innovative policies and practices can change that to: Yes.

However' there is no quick way to fix the teacher shortage. And it is a real problem! For example' the Sydney Morning Herald headlined on 21 June that "The state's public school and Catholic school teachers are set to stage an 'extraordinary' joint 24-hour strike on June 30 as anger over staff shortages' mounting workload and pay escalates".

So how did we get here?
While teacher planning has identified a looming teacher shortage in Australia for over a decade now' the crunch has arrived. And COVID-19 exacerbated it with widespread teacher absences and some schools forced back into remote learning.
In the United States' a 2022 survey showed that over half of their teaching workforce intends to leave. Australia is similar with modelling by the Australian Government predicting that we will lose 50 000 teachers by 2025.

Why is this so?
Research indicates that key factors include excessive workload' poor pay and poor status of the profession. As a nation' we do not value teachers the way that they are in say Finland or South Korea. These two countries are considered the world's best in education. However' they use very different approaches to education with one having much autonomy for teachers' schools and students' and the other a rigorous rules-based approach. So' no' there is no 'handbook' or 'map' to follow. There are few success stories and even those differ in their approaches hugely due to factors such as culture and the value society puts on teachers.

How do we attract more people into teaching and keep the good teachers that we have?
Most teachers love their job and the connection with the learning of children and young people. It can be immensely satisfying to contribute positively to the lives of our students through education. I suspect many remain as teachers because of job satisfaction and altruistic reasons as they like contributing directly to our society and individuals whom they influence. Other perceived benefits include job security' reasonable pay and generally satisfactory work conditions. (Albeit that pay and conditions are considered by many to be deteriorating relative to other jobs and satisfaction is diving too.)

Rethink schooling
For Australia' over the next few years' the teacher shortage crisis is likely to worsen as more teachers leave and fewer people are attracted to the profession. How we deliver school education will need to change and probably include blended learning.

Is blended learning a solution?
COVID-19 may have provided schooling with a 'silver-lining' of sorts. Teachers' schools and students were forced to do school differently with almost no notice. Schools and teachers have been forced to rethink delivery over the past three years. We have learnt several lessons from that including the use of blended learning with continuing face-to-face with fewer hours and more use of high-quality remote learning. There are numerous success stories on the latter when planned and delivered to a very high standard enabling students to use technologies they like and create broader and deeper learning networks.

Do we need to rethink preservice teacher education?

Yes. We have enormous human resources available in other areas of work – paid and unpaid – in Australia. Two in three adults are in the workforce (ABS' 2022). So' there are almost seven million Australians not in the workforce. Some employed may wish to switch jobs and transition to become a teacher. As about four in five teachers are female (and recent reports show that male teachers are more likely to wish to leave the profession – see Tu' 2022)' efforts to attract and retain female teachers need wise consideration. What attracts and keeps females teaching in Australia?

Too often there is a 'cash splash' mentality rewarded in our society. We need evidence-based schemes to address the problem that have a high probability of working and being sustainable. I suspect that the current discussion of teacher preparation scholarships for high achieving school leavers may be a short-term bandage that partially addresses the teacher shortage. But will it be enough to fix the teacher shortage? Definitely not! And the recipients will likely depart for what they consider greener pastures in their first five years in the profession.

To me' the solution is using what we already know from research on why people –
especially females who make up just on 80 per cent of our teachers in Australian schools – are attracted to teaching and wish to stay in the profession and make it a long-term career. To build on these factors such as improving work conditions and flexibility' pay and entitlements – especially superannuation as many teachers retire early by about age 60 – and other structural changes in career progression and much easier processes of recognising and rewarding excellent teachers would help.

And to assist in transitioning from existing work whether from the paid workforce or outside of that (remember the seven million Australians to whom that applies)' will be central. Preservice teaching requiring a four-year full-time degree is not attractive to many. They lose much income over that time if in paid employment and struggle financially. They also find it difficult to see how they could do university-level studies – to 'crack the code' that they have done with work and other studies but are now some time removed from that. And not to have recognition for their 'street-credibility' from their life experiences to date – they are no longer school leavers and have much 'under their belt' of use in teaching school students. Add to that that they may teach for five years or less. It can be a real turn-off for most mature Australians.

Having worked in the hyperflexible delivery space with thousands of students where they can study in a self-paced mode and do assessments as they wish 365 days a year works very well for many in-service teachers as evidenced by the research and their thousands of positive comments.

It would be relatively easy to have a two-year equivalent university experience in the hyperflexible mode (allowing students to take from say one year to four years to complete that)' and then a mentoring model of two years where there is half paid teaching work in a school and the other half involving university studies relevant to their workplace .
That would require adjustments in policy for teacher education accreditation bodies at the Australian and state levels. But it may go a long way to attracting and supporting new teachers into the profession – and keeping them!

A win-win with expert teaching hands in schools soon and continuously contributing to the high quality of the Australian teacher workforce.

The solution
Let us re-imagine school and preservice teacher education . Hybrid learning in schools uses face-to-face when most appropriate and remote networked learning when that is most appropriate. That can free up teaching and physical resources and potentially improve student learning gains and wellbeing. Hyperflexible preservice teacher education giving relevant RPL (recognise prior learning) for an already well-educated workforce and the income while completing studies involving a mentoring relationship to better equip them for the realities of school without sacrificing so much as is presently required.

Ken picture

Professor Ken Purnell is a Professor of Education at CQUniversity where he has worked for over 25 years. Ken has long been associated with the curriculum and assessment authority for Queensland K-12. His interests are in learning and brain-based education. An overview of Ken's professional background may be viewed at kp.cqu.edu.au.