6 July 2022

This first-year teacher quit after only six months on the job. Why?

| Lottie Twyford
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Protesting teachers

ACT and NSW Catholic teachers went on strike on 30 June. Alex* says teachers are expected to meet expectations they haven’t been trained for. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

Alex* has always been good with kids.

It was that passion for working with young people which first propelled him into the vocation of teaching.

But after a “challenging” six months on the job in a public school in Canberra, he’s called it quits.

First, he’s had to manage students with severe behavioural issues and those with difficult home lives who needed extra support and care at school. Then, there have been late nights and weekends spent planning and preparing with his colleagues or completing mandatory professional development after hours.

But it’s also proved challenging to work in a job where you “just don’t get a break”.

“Sometimes, we don’t even get the chance to go to the toilet during the day. I don’t think there are any other jobs where you literally can’t go to the toilet because something could happen in your absence if you leave your class unattended and you just don’t have time at lunch and recess,” Alex says.

“I guess it’s fair to say I wasn’t aware of how much extra work teachers have to do – even though I’d studied teaching and also worked in the classroom as a learning support assistant.”

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A common sentiment shared by many teachers is that they are no longer just teachers.

“We’re often working with students who have high needs. Sometimes, they have challenges in their personal lives. They have suffered neglect or abuse and so live with different family members,” Alex notes.

“That means that as the classroom teacher, you’re expected to work not only as the teacher but as the psychologist or counsellor – even as a nutritionist sometimes.”

Ultimately, the emotional toll and the stress have proven too much for Alex.

“After a couple of sessions with a psychologist over a period of about four weeks, I came to this decision,” he explains.

While he will take some time out and work in another sector, Alex still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to work with kids or in the classroom at some point.

But right now, he’s burnt out and needs time to recover.

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Compounding the issue of workload is, of course, the fact the ACT is in the midst of a teacher shortage which the education union has warned will only get worse in the coming years as there are not enough teachers coming through the pipeline.

Furthermore, the ACT’s Auditor-General found resignations accounted for the majority of teacher separations between 2014 and 2020 and the majority of these teachers who left did so within the first seven years of service.

That audit also concluded the ACT Education Directorate would be unable to maintain teaching quality if enough staff cannot be recruited to cover this turnover alongside predicted student growth.

Instances like Alex’s are rare but they do happen. Directorate officials confirmed that less than 10 teachers left education after one year of teaching.

And as for what can be done about some of the challenges, Alex says he doesn’t even know where to start.

“It’s everything. Even down to the curriculum. I think there’s too much pressure and emphasis on following that despite how much time in the classroom kids have missed out in the last two years,” he says.

“We’re still trying to push something that used to work and doesn’t work anymore.”

*Name has been changed to protect Alex’s identity.

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I too left: I was also unable to get breaks, was told to clean up after a child vomited in the classroom, worked on rocky chairs and old wooden desks that no one in the public service would tolerate, had to provide all my own stationary and work materials, and the list goes on. There has to be a distinction between whether we are professional educators or carers. I had 2 degrees, a post grad in education, was in the top 10% of the ANU and could earn more as an office assistant. What incentive is there to stay. If you want quality education then pay for it and provide normal work accommodation.

If one could just teach that would be find. But there is now a constant requirement to “alter your lesson” for any “special needs” student. That would be OK except now there are often a third of the class who need this – and followup reporting of each and what you did in your own time.

That was not too bad 20 years ago when you might have one or two students per class. To log the “lesson alteration” might only take 1-2 minutes. Now you might have 10 students per class, and a high school teacher might have 5 classes. That’s another 100 minutes of work – per day.

I’m not a teacher but I have kids at school.
From what I’ve observed the kids with special needs and learning difficulties simply don’t get enough support. The class teacher should not have to deal with this and neither should the children. No matter how good or experienced the teachers are it simply takes up all of their time, energy and effort and the rest of the students education suffers as a result. Our kids got plenty of homework with little to no feedback and it always seemed like the catching up of work that couldn’t be achieved in class. If you want to retain teachers then allow them to teach they are not there as special needs service providers and they are not substitute parents (I know this won’t be a popular opinion for some). I think specially trained teachers who want to work in the special needs and behavioural field should be provided to schools that require it with no financial penalty to the schools budget. I’m sure some of that CIT money would go a long way to financing this.

Tom Worthington4:21 pm 06 Jul 22

While it will take more funding for schools to solve these problems, those training teachers can help. Teachers are professionals, and need to be trained to understand what they are paid to do, and not do what they are not paid for.

There are techniques which teachers can learn to reduce the burden of preparation, marking and paperwork. While ideally those would be applied with the cooperation of the school, and education system, they need not be: teachers can organize this on their own.

As a university lecturer, I understand the feeling of responsibility for students. But that responsibility has its limits. I can’t solve every student’s problem, and have to refer those with major difficulties for specialist attention. What I can do is free up time by not using teaching techniques which don’t work, applying technology where it helps, and linking my efforts with those of my colleagues so we don’t waste effort. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2022/03/some-thoughts-on-learning-and-teaching.html

swaggieswaggie11:50 am 06 Jul 22

I think Alex was in the wrong job to start with.

Martin Keast10:14 am 06 Jul 22

I think Ian is correct though I believe the problem is more systemic as the whole idea of government-managed and delivered public schooling is problematic as it is open to being ruled by political and ideological agendas rather than serving the parents for the best outcomes for the child. Private schools are much more responsive but government-imposed regulations limit that to some degree.

Alex’s choice to work in the public system in the ACT was his first mistake. The system is broken. When I first moved to Canberra, the ACT education was the best in the country. Now it’s the worst. Thanks Labor.

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