Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Lessons must be learnt if we are to keep teachers

I grew up in a family of teachers. Around the kitchen table the shop talk used to be about the unending teacher shortage. Many of my own teachers had been flown in from Canada, Britain and the US in a bid to plug the gaps. Others were retirees, barely able to cope, drafted back part-time. My dad had been a lathe operator, drafted without training into teaching metalwork.

And then suddenly, in the middle of the 1970s, the pendulum swung. Instead of a shortage the crisis became one of a massive and growing oversupply. Graduates in teaching were no longer getting jobs as teachers. Teachers who had left the service could no longer get back in. Official projections pointed to a surplus stretching out decades.

Now the pendulum is swinging again. The NSW Education Minister, Dr Andrew Refshauge, has launched a parliamentary inquiry into the recruitment of teachers, with submissions due next month. There's talk of a looming shortage. A big chunk of the teaching workforce is set to retire in the next five years.

What is it about the job market for teachers that makes it swing so quickly from famine to feast? The answer tells us something about politics and a lot about the very unusual nature of the job and the people who stick with it...

First, politics: it is true that the number of teachers needed at any one time depends on the number of students, but it also depends critically on political decisions about the desired ratio of teachers to students.

The decisions are political decisions because state governments make them. The states are by far the biggest employers of teachers.

Beginning in the 1960s, state governments aggressively raised their targets for the employment of teachers per student, even as the number of students was soaring. Class sizes, as measured by the pupil-teacher ratio plummeted. Australia-wide the ratio slid from 26 to 19.

And then in the mid-1970s the politics changed. In the midst of a worldwide economic downturn and a political crisis in Canberra each state government either temporarily halted further falls in class sizes or slowed the process. (By the early 1990s states such as Victoria and South Australia actually pushed up their class sizes in response to financial pressures.)

Looked at this way, our state governments have created much of the teacher "shortage" and the subsequent "oversupply". And they have also created the shortage they believe is about to come. The surge in hiring between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s produced a workforce heavy in graduates of that time who are now approaching retirement.

But if it is our governments that create the swings in the job market for teachers, it is our teachers that turn them into crises. Here's how.

More so than in most professions, teachers don't particularly like teaching. Consider this: an astonishing 20 per cent of Australian teachers leave teaching within their first three to five years. In some parts of Australia, 50 per cent leave. The University of Sydney's Dr Jacqueline Manuel describes teaching as "the profession that eats its young".

Some of those who leave come back later. In fact, leaving, trying something else, and then returning is common in teaching. Some leave to start families, some leave to broaden their experience, and others treat teaching as a job of last resort.

Until the jobs dry up. When in the mid-1970s the state governments cut back their hiring rates, resignation rates plunged. The fear was it mightn't be possible to get back. Because resignations had typically created the bulk of teacher job vacancies, the hiring rates fell further, pushing resignations down further still, drying up the flow of teaching jobs almost completely.

(Naturally this frightened many would-be teachers and in time they moved away from teacher training courses, easing the surplus. But their decisions took years to have an effect. It takes three to four years to finish a teaching degree. Students who had already started continued to graduation.)

The same mechanism will work in reverse in the coming teacher shortage. The more job vacancies governments need to fill, the more relaxed teachers will feel about resigning, creating even more vacancies to fill, worsening the impending shortage.

If only there was a way to make teachers more serious about staying teachers. The Teachers Federation suggests higher salaries. Surprisingly, it's a proposition not strongly supported by evidence.

Melbourne University's Dr Michael Shields has examined the movement of teachers in Britain. He finds that most teachers who leave go to jobs that pay less than they got teaching, typically 22 per cent less expressed as an hourly wage. The new jobs have longer hours as well. Teachers are prepared to give up money and work longer hours in order to get out.

Shields has modelled the effect of a boost in teacher salaries of 10 per cent. He finds it would cut resignations by less than 1 per cent.

That isn't to say that higher salaries might not be important as part of a broader package of measures designed to get teachers to feel better about teaching. The 2001 Vinson report into public education described higher pay as a "gesture" and said that morale among teachers was so low that no other gesture could substitute for improved salaries.

But by itself higher pay would be wasted. There is something fundamental about the job or the way we ask people to do the job that makes teaching unsustainable for so many of our teachers.

For some it's a love-hate thing. Teachers report both greater levels of job satisfaction than other people and higher levels of stress.

My father told me that teaching was the only job he knew in which every day he faced people trying to stop him achieving what he was employed to achieve. They were called students.