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How to keep new teachers in the job?

Even the first ten minutes of episode one of the SBS documentary, Testing Teachers, is enough to see what teachers are tasked with even to gain, (let alone maintain) the attention of a class.

Last year, the Australian Education Union sought to raise awareness about overwhelm and overload for teachers with their World Teachers’ Day theme of ‘valuing teachers, improving their status’, and education experts such as Professors Stephen Dinham and John Hattie have repeatedly asserted that the best way governments can show they are valuing teachers is to ensure they are properly supported in the classroom. Professor Hattie emphasises that the ‘single biggest determinant’ of student success within the school environment is the teacher.

With life uncertain for so many students outside the classroom, for many teachers, it’s all they can do to provide the only stability, predictability, and consistency a particular child may experience that year.

Each time an incident of bullying or antisocial behaviour occurs, there is paperwork. For each student with learning difficulties, there is procedure and paperwork. Governments change, and the procedure is altered, freshened up, given a new name; a new form is devised and distributed for use by teachers. The extra compliance requirements are communicated in a long staff meeting after a long day of teaching. As work piles up, teachers are expected to deliver the full curriculum, approved by public servants, many of whom have never encountered a student in the wild.

There’s no allowance made for public holidays, nor pupil free days, not to mention downtime for teachers and students. To many teachers, it must seem they are viewed as a different species from the workers outside the classroom. While teachers may be in a league of their own with resilience, sense of humour, and bladder control (rivalled only by night nurses), this cannot go on.

More than 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years: we’ve read the statistic often enough, but what a devastating blow to our schools that we are losing the chance of half of the potential quota of experienced teachers, almost systematically, to other professions – easier professions.

And what of those who stick it out, those last-warrior-standing types who gallantly serve in the face of mounting expectation?  Where will it all end? When students are left with the frazzled shells of their educators, nurturing a small spark of the enthusiasm and humanity that once burned bright in the eyes of those who would change the world?

Dramatic, you say? Yes, according to teachers, principals, and para-professionals working in schools, it is quite dramatic, and is resulting in the teacher attrition we are desperately trying to avoid.

Ahmet Latifoglu of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education wrote in a Sydney Morning Herald article in January 2016, “the education system suffers when there is not a long-term pay-off from its investment in novices who depart early. There is also the human cost when new teachers leave soon after devoting time and resources to build their careers. Finally, there is a national economic impact; the departure of talented maths and science beginning teachers may lead to negative ramifications for Australia’s economic growth.”

He cites “excessive workload”, “student behaviour” and a lack of support as reasons new teachers are leaving the profession so soon after they begin. A quick Google search reveals article upon article about teacher attrition, asking the same questions and eliciting the same responses from experts. Early career teachers need support; teachers need more appreciation, respect and money; student behaviour is out of control, and parents are not supporting the teachers enough to manage their children; burnout, overwork, too much reporting, too many standardised tests.

teacher support
Support and mentorship is crucial for new career teachers.

Merryn McKinnon and Dr Lynn Walker of the Australian National University wrote an article published by The Conversation called, ‘Teachers are leaving the profession – here’s how to make them stay’. They echoed Hattie, Dinham and countless others in their bid to have ‘teacher support’ recognised as vital. They say the economic cost of teacher attrition alone should be getting our attention, when every new teacher costs the government $40,000 to train, yet, 20 percent of them don’t even register as teachers, and we lose 50 percent of the remaining 80 percent within the first five years.

These statistics stand on the backdrop of population growth. “As the population of school students is set to increase by 26 percent by 2022 – a growth rate of 32 percent in primary schools and 18 percent in secondary schools – more teachers will be needed to teach these students,” they wrote.

Every new school year brings articles about teacher stress to the media. In February this year, Professor Robyn Ewing from the University of Sydney, who researches teacher attrition, was quoted in an ABC News article titled simply: ‘Why do teachers leave?’. Professor Ewing told the ABC that we don’t realise just how big the problem is.

While ABS figures indicate an average of 5.7 percent of teachers left the profession in 2014, Professor Ewing cautioned that these figures refer to registered teachers, not practising teachers. “In actual fact we have evidence to suggest that we are going to have a teacher shortage,” the ABC article quoted.

The SBS documentary, Testing Teachers was indicative of what can result from mentorship and support. Teaching for Australia has plucked some (admittedly high achieving) novices and placed them in our most challenging schools, but they haven’t just left them there to sink or swim, there has been intensive mentoring, and the teachers have prevailed. I wonder what would happen if all new teachers received this level of support.

Mentor support key to graduate teacher success

teacher trainingPaul Geyer, chief executive officer of Principals Australia Institute (PAI) says research has revealed teachers are under pressure. Australian governments are paying attention, while OECD has determined that teacher support must underpin future policy.

“Continuing diligent mentoring and support for new career teachers throughout their first year, and beyond, is critical,” he said.

“Issues for new career teachers include heavy workloads, lack of administrative support, difficulty with student behaviour, and little scope for participation in decision making.”

With feelings of self-doubt and being overwhelmed all too common among graduate teachers, what can be done? Mr Geyer says PAI’s Graduate and Grow program focusses on the mentors with good reason: “Great leaders will nurture and support graduates as they grow into their role, and explore their own capabilities as they put their learning into practice.”

“PAI’s Graduate and Grow workshops are designed for principals and school leaders and take a professional development approach to graduate teacher support. They provide expert guidance in how to support beginning teachers and boost teacher retention.

“Workshop participants receive the Graduate and Grow kit, which is a practical resource for school leaders to share with graduate teachers.”

“Graduate and Grow drills down into the day-to-day tasks, processes and concepts that teachers encounter, and takes a close look at how school leaders can support beginning teachers with these. It also suggests positive and productive ways the teachers can approach their new routines and responsibilities, particularly at key beginning stages such as a teacher’s first day, first week, first month, and so on.”

Topics include teacher wellbeing, forging connections with other staff, student behaviour management, engaging with parents and caregivers, handling sensitive issues, and observing, reflecting upon, debriefing about, and receiving feedback on classroom practice.

“A robust and sustained mentoring system with experienced teachers supporting new career teachers is very important, and Graduate and Grow provides guidance for both mentors and mentees on how to do this effectively. If these factors are carefully managed, teacher retention will be boosted.”

“By supporting new career teachers, valuing their contributions, and drawing upon the expertise of more experienced teachers, the profession overall will be strengthened.”

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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