school

"I feel utterly defeated." The NSW public education system is failing teachers.

During a lecture in the first semester of my teaching degree, my peers and I were told that 50 per cent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

The lecturer said this not to scare us, but to prepare us, and to ask us to look after ourselves as we embarked on our new career.

The warning stayed with me. When I first heard it, I made a silent promise to myself not to be part of that statistic.

Watch: We call our favourite teachers from school to say thank you. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

Throughout my first four years of teaching, I have periodically remembered that promise. These days, I have a daily, internal fight about my place in the teaching profession. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life, but the NSW public education system seems like it could crumble at any moment.

Today, I walked past the canteen during lunch, and one of my Year 9 students asked whether I had a lesson next period. 

"No", I said. "Why?" 

She asked me if I could take her class. You see, the whole year group was being placed under "minimal supervision" next period. Not for the first time this term, either. That means we can’t staff their classes with separate teachers, so instead the whole year group spends the period in the hall, or on the playground, without set work, under the supervision of a single teacher. 

And by the way, we have four periods per day, 75 minutes each. For those playing at home, that’s 25 per cent of their learning lost today.

It broke my heart to explain the state of affairs to this driven, intelligent, and somewhat rare Year 9 student who didn’t want to miss out on her learning time. I’ll break it down for you, just like I did for her. 

Unfortunately, I have already taken too many extra periods this term, and have exceeded the award limit. As much as I would love to cover her class so they could do some structured learning, I also have to mark assessments, prepare lessons, make phone calls, and coordinate excursions. 

She nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I guess if you take this lesson, you won’t have time to prepare our actual Geography lessons."

It’s worth noting that many of us are willing to take more extras than we can technically be given, because we do not want our students being placed under minimal supervision. But we just can’t do it every day. As my student recognises, teaching requires work outside of the periods of face-to-face teaching, and if that preparation doesn’t happen, the students suffer. Then again, they suffer under minimal supervision as well.

ADVERTISEMENT

"It broke my heart to explain the state of affairs to this driven, intelligent, and somewhat rare Year 9 student." Image: Getty. 

I walked back to the staff room, and I felt utterly defeated. It isn’t her fault the school has no casual teachers to call on, and most of our staff have hit our limit with extras. 

Why should she have to accept over an hour of her time wasted today? Why should her education suffer because the government is unable to sustain the teaching profession? While COVID absences aren’t helping, the writing has been on the wall since I began my career four years ago.

Longer-serving teachers often reflect on how our profession has changed over the years or decades. I can already see it. When I began teaching in 2018, I taught in a country school in the Central West of NSW, where I was one of four or five casual teachers. The following year, I secured a temporary position at another school in a different town, and we had about three casual teachers on call.

In 2022, that vital reserve of relief teachers has dried up, and we now have three unfilled vacancies. This is a small, rural school, but I hear the same story from my teaching colleagues at schools all over the state. 

Anecdotally, the reasons given by many of the teachers who have left the public education system include deteriorating student behaviour, lack of discipline, and lack of follow up. Alongside this, an ever-increasing mountain of paperwork to document student behaviour and prove that we have tried many strategies to help students meet basic expectations. 

I am sick of hearing the C-word hurled at teachers like it's nothing. I am exhausted by the fact that students typically don’t face any consequences for that behaviour, unless another student is willing to write a witness statement, because a teacher’s word isn’t trusted enough on its own if a student challenges a suspension. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Listen to Mia Freedman's interview with former teacher Gabbie Stroud on Mamamia's No Filter. Post continues after audio.


This year, the government is overhauling the suspension policy in public schools. I am 110 per cent in favour of reducing the number of suspensions. Suspensions disconnect students further from school, disengage them from their learning, and cause negative self-belief. For many students, suspensions don’t change their behaviour. And so, I say, bravo to the government for aiming to reduce suspensions.

Unfortunately, I follow this with a huge 'but'. Here is why. To reduce suspensions, the government must offer something else to improve behaviour. They could put services in place to support students' mental health, or offer strategies and services to students (and their families and communities) in non-violent conflict resolution strategies. More teacher’s aides could be hired to help students who act out because they need more one-to-one support with their classwork. The government could direct reductions in class sizes so that teachers can give students more individual attention.

None of this is happening, yet the government is forcing schools to reduce suspensions. 

Suspensions may not be a great way to deal with poor student behaviour. But you know what they do achieve? They send the message that we do not tolerate certain behaviours. They allow students and staff to feel safe after an incident. They allow schools the time to consider a new approach towards the student, and in some cases make changes to help them improve their behaviour when they return. And by the way, shops and other businesses are allowed to ban people from entering if they abuse staff members, as they should. 

The NSW public education system is facing many issues, and the suspension policy is just one of them. This recent NSW Government decision will exacerbate the crisis-level teaching shortage that Education Minister Sarah Mitchell recently claimed doesn’t exist. It will mean that schools across NSW will have to resort to minimal supervision more and more frequently, as teachers take mental health days, stress leave, or change professions to one where their managers are empowered to stop them from being aggressively sworn at, and threatened, in the workplace. 

But put me and my colleagues aside, because in the end, it is our children who suffer most because of the government’s incompetence and denial.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Kid's Helpline is also available on 1800 551 800.

Feature Image: Canva. 

Want to have your voice heard? Plus have the chance to win $100? Take our survey now.