A profession in crisis: Why are teachers leaving the sector?

Trish Riley
Trish Riley

The teacher shortage is worsening across Australia, increasing pressure on already overburdened school staff. And at a time when student enrolments are on the rise. 

We all have an idea of why there’s a shortage, but what is being done to fix it?

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, 21 per cent more students will begin school in 2030 compared with 2021, but recent studies show that 47 per cent of teachers are considering leaving the profession within the next year. This is in stark contrast to the 2021 results when 14 per cent were considering resigning in the next year.

Educator attrition

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A recent national study from Monash University has found only three in 10 teachers planned to stay in the profession.

Almost half of Australia’s working teachers say they are overworked, underappreciated and would quit if offered a more satisfying career option. Unmanageable workloads, teacher shortages and having to take on classes outside their expertise were the top gripes.

Some of the factors contributing to increased workloads include constant policy change; a substantial rise in student need; rapid changes in technology; the expansion and reform of the curriculum; new compliance, administration, data collection and reporting responsibilities; and greater community expectations of schools and teachers.

In addition, teachers reported feeling unsafe in their workplace. Assaults in NSW schools have jumped by 50 per cent over the past decade, rising to a level where police are now notified of violence 10 times per school day on average. The 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey found 37 per cent of Australian lower-secondary school principals reported that intimidation or bullying among students occurs at least weekly.

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The respondents highlighted limited support from school and system leadership as key issues that led to coping and mental health concerns for teachers, including stress and anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, pressure and fatigue.

Supporting the findings, Dr Fiona Longmuir, an educational leadership lecturer at Monash University’s School of Education, said research has suggested that increases in teacher attrition have been connected to ill health, burnout and stress.

Teacher wellbeing

Associate Professor Aliza Werner-Seidler, Head of Population Mental Health at Black Dog Institute, UNSW Sydney believes that teachers are working longer hours with fewer resources. This pressure is building with an increase of burnout and time being taken off due to mental ill-health. The data suggests we are looking at a profession in crisis.

This year’s nationally representative survey of more than 4000 teachers found 70 per cent of teachers reported having unmanageable workloads and 85 per cent arrived at work earlier than required.

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Three-quarters reported current teacher shortages in their schools while the cohort reported levels of moderate to severe stress, depression and anxiety well above the general population.

Around 18 per cent of respondents had symptoms that met the criteria for moderate to severe depression. Nearly 62 per cent met criteria for moderate to severe anxiety while nearly 20 per cent (19.75%) had severe anxiety. And 56 per cent met criteria for medium to high severity of somatic symptoms. This is when the symptoms are physical and can include pain, nausea, dizziness and fainting.

Alarmingly, 17 per cent screened positive for having probable alcohol abuse or dependence.

These rates are higher than the national averages. Around 10 per cent of Australians experience depression over their lifetime, 13 per cent experience anxiety, 5 per cent are diagnosed with substance use disorders, and 7 per cent are diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder.

The findings are concerning for a number of reasons, including that teachers are required to foster the emotional well-being of students. 

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The Australian Curriculum requires teachers to address students’ personal and social capabilities. This includes teaching students to recognise and identify their own emotions, teaching emotional awareness, and relationship exploration and understanding. But if a teacher’s mental health is affected, this may undermine their capacity to promote well-being in students.

The researcher said more targeted government investment in programs that promote better teacher mental health was needed.

“It’s clear teachers are not finding the mental health support that they need,” Dr Werner-Seidler said. “Teacher wellbeing doesn’t only affect teachers. Research has shown teacher wellbeing can also have an impact on students’ academic and emotional outcomes, and the emotional wellbeing and economic productivity of parents.”

Policy reset required

NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos says teachers and principals have unsustainable workloads without the time and support to do the job expected of them, and without the competitive salary necessary to attract and retain teachers into the future.

Gavrielatos says more than 10,000 extra teachers will be needed in the next 20 years for an expected 25 per cent rise in student enrolments.

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“The current policy settings are failing. They’re failing teachers, but they’re also failing kids. And that’s already now manifesting itself in teacher shortages,” says Gavrielatos.

“Unless there’s a policy reset so that the profession is much more attractive for young people to enter and to stay, the teacher shortage we’re now experiencing will pale into insignificance.”

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Trish Riley is a Zimbabwean-born writer and communications specialist. With experience in journalism, and public relations, Trish has been developer and editor of several trade publications and regularly contributes articles for diverse sectors including aged care, animal care, construction and education.