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An open letter from a public school teacher on what teaching is really like.

NSW Teachers Federation
Thanks to our brand partner, NSW Teachers Federation

On my last day as a public school teacher, my Year 12 Media class held me a baby shower.      

They decorated the classroom with pink balloons; they all pitched in money themselves to buy baby clothes and toys; they brought in party snacks to share together and for recess after our last class, the group of twenty students and I sat inside the classroom and celebrated.

When the bell rang to signify that the next period was about to commence, as they exited the room many of them said thank you to me for all I had done.

This moment was bittersweet for me, because it was by far one of the highlights of my four-year teaching career. But it was one of its last moments too.

While I could see that I had made a difference to each student, within their education and for many, to them personally, I also knew that it was also not enough for me to every change my mind about not returning to teaching after my maternity leave. 

Simply put, I deserved much more than a thank you. Every teacher deserves much more than that. 

While hearing words of sincere and genuine gratitude is lovely and appreciated, there comes a point in time where those acknowledgements just aren’t enough to keep you there delivering at such high thresholds, year on year.

This is why the NSW Teachers Federation has launched the campaign, More Than Thanks, to gather support in pushing for public school teachers to receive a well-earned pay rise, and to change to their workload so they have more time for students.

The campaign was developed based on the findings of the former WA Premier Geoff Gallop's independent review of teachers’ work. This study, commissioned by NSW Teachers Federation, found that there is a significant teacher shortage. It has since been revealed that there are more than 1,000 full-time teacher vacancies in NSW but no one to fill them.

Amongst the main reasons for this – the same reasons that drove me to become part of the 1 in 8 teachers who leave the profession within the first 6 years – are the workload expectations, the demands and pressures needed of the role, and the unchanging salary.

Here's the breakdown.

1. The workload.

While there may be a perception that teachers start work and end work with the ring of the school bell, never work weekends and enjoy months of school holidays relaxing each year, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I can still remember countless early starts to set up classrooms and activities for my students; that if I didn’t go into the school before my official hours had even begun so I could organise, would never have been able to occur. I recall the late nights and weekends reading sometimes over one hundred essays or exams at a time, as well as writing detailed feedback in order to help individual students improve. 

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In the school holidays, I would plan the next term’s lessons, develop and organise resources, book in excursions that linked to the curriculum and would engage my students, and prepared individual work for students with specific needs. 

My hours, like the majority of public school teachers, were long and exhausting. Even in non-work hours, my hands (and brain) would always be busy thinking 10 steps ahead; planning, printing, filing, marking, typing, organising. There were never enough hours in the working week to ever actually feel completely switched off from work in my own personal time.

In fact, now, teachers work an average of 55 hours a week or more, often without getting everything completed.

2. The demands and pressures

With higher student needs, constant changes in curriculum and technology, demands of the parents and all the communication required there, as well as the red tape of admin... it was a very high demand for a teacher's time, without enough of it to go around. Plus, now with the additional challenges of remote learning and the constant pivoting of COVID restrictions on public school teachers (who are expertly juggling this for students today; including my own kids), the pressure of this continual minefield, I can only imagine, is always being felt.

It was difficult when I was teaching. Now, public school teachers have all the complexities of trying to support their students to succeed in a pandemic. It must be so incredibly tough, with so many more nuanced challenges to add to their ever-growing workload.

And often these competing demands will pull teachers’ in multiple directions. From student needs, parents’ requests, requirements of the school, to meeting certain standards, guidelines or results, there never seems to ever be an adequate solution to getting it right all the time. 

Or even one that satisfies everyone.

Possibly the most difficult challenges in my teaching experience, were the pressures that would come from outside (what I and most teachers would consider) their domain: becoming an inadvertent, unqualified school counsellor. 

Whether it’s sitting with students who are in tears because of issues at home or struggling to concentrate because their mental health is suffering, teachers often fill this role for students as a confidant they trust. Many students would feel like they have no other choice in who to approach, because for many schools, having school counsellors who can support them is just not possible due to unrealistic and un manageable caseloads. The schools that do, may not have enough capacity to meet the growing demand of students today. 

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3. The salary

While teachers' workloads have increased consistently over the years, salaries simply have not. 

In other words: teachers are doing more, for even less, and are being paid well under what they are worth.

Most teachers, like me, entered the profession with years of specialist training, tertiary qualifications and tangible experiences that make us knowledgeable and skilled educators.

Something the salary does not reflect. 

When I decided to turn my back on a profession I thought I’d stay in forever, it was all of these conditions that played a part in not returning. 

I'm only one case, too. I'm not alone in feeling this way, which is why there is currently a widespread teacher shortage.

While already a massive issue, it will only unfortunately get worse. The independent Gallop Inquiry found that there will be a record number of enrolments over the next decade and further research released recently shows we are going to need at least 11,000 more teachers in order to provide the education that our kids deserve. The NSW Teachers Federation's review found that there will be a record number of enrolments over the next decade, meaning we are going to need 11,000 more teachers in order to provide the education that our kids deserve.

Thousands of brilliant educators will have left the profession over the years in the public school system, as they grew tired and undervalued.

The fear is that more incredible public school teachers will leave this career before anything is actioned. For the teachers still working in, or joining, the public school system, they absolutely deserve for conditions and the salaries to be drastically improved, and reflective of their dedication and service. 

In order to do this and continue to attract more talented teachers into the profession, the NSW Teachers Federation and Gallop Inquiry review made these 3 key recommendations:

  • Increase teacher salaries by 10-15% over 2 years to attract and keep great teachers.
  • Give teachers more time for lesson planning, marking and collaboration.
  • Increase the number of school counsellors so no child in crisis is forced to wait for help.

The reality is, if we want students to get a fantastic education, we need fantastic teachers. To do that, we need to say more than thank you, we need change.

I would urge anyone that values the time, care and dedication that all teachers give in their profession to support this important NSW Teachers Federation's movement. An investment in our teachers is an investment in our kids. 

Join the NSW Teachers Federation campaign to tell the NSW government that teachers deserve More Than Thanks. Show your support here, and learn more about why NSW teachers deserve more than thanks here.

Feature Image: Supplied.

NSW Teachers Federation
Even before the pandemic, public school teachers worked 55 hours a week, with one in eight leaving the profession within six years. There are now more than one thousand full-time teaching positions unfilled in NSW. That’s why the NSW Teachers Federation is asking for a pay rise, because without great teachers our kids don’t get a great education. Teachers deserve more than thanks – they deserve a pay rise.