The NSW teachers’ strike is just the tip of the iceberg

Tens of thousands of NSW teachers went on strike Thursday demanding better wages and working conditions in the latest development in a burgeoning nationwide crisis.

It’s the third time this year NSW teachers have walked off the job, and the first time in decades public and private school teachers have joined industrial action together.

But experts have been pointing to an impending crisis in classrooms across the country for years.

“It’s a national issue. It’s an international issue, if I’m honest,” Australian Catholic University senior research fellow Dr Jessica Holloway told The New Daily.

“We’re seeing these sorts of strikes, but also teacher shortages worldwide. So it’s a massive, massive problem,” Dr Holloway said.

“I think it’s actually dangerous if we don’t acknowledge it for what it is. Because we are, I would say, literally at a crisis point.”

Australian teachers are leaving classrooms due to low pay and high workloads, “not only to strike, but leaving the profession entirely”, according to Dr Holloway.

“When teachers leave the profession entirely, it increases workload. So it becomes this kind of cyclical problem.”

Australian teachers have been quitting in record numbers, and almost half of Australian schools are experiencing major teacher shortages.

There are thousands of reported unfilled teaching positions across the country, with the problem getting worse the further a school is from a major city.

And it’s little wonder when you look at how teachers are coping at work.

More than three-quarters of teachers told Monash University researchers that their workload was unmanageable.

Many reported working long hours, including on weekends and holidays, while one in five said they felt unsafe at work.

Almost 60 per cent of teachers surveyed said they wanted to throw in the towel.

“And that’s pre-COVID,” Dr Holloway said.

“Now we’re looking at COVID times, when teachers are being asked to not only carry burdens that are outside of their expertise, but a lot of teachers are saying that they’re put in harm’s way because of various policies that weren’t really considering their own safety.”

Schools across the country have also been dealing with the latest wave of COVID on top of a record flu season, creating the “perfect storm” of  teachers becoming burnt out.

In response to the crisis, the NSW government this month proposed teachers be paid based on their students’ performance.

But Dr Holloway said that was a “slap in the face” for teachers already screaming out for more support at work.

Decades of evidence suggest performance pay actually reduces performance by increasing competition between teachers and reducing collaboration and morale, Dr Holloway said.

Earlier this month NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet announced the state’s public sector wage cap would be lifted from 2.5 per cent to 3 per cent, higher than any other state.

But teacher unions have said 3 per cent will barely make a dent in rising cost of living pressures, and do nothing to resolve staff shortages and deteriorating working conditions in Australian schools.

Federally, the new Labor government has promised $50 million in cash incentives to attract high achievers to study teaching.

The scheme would offer school leavers with an ATAR above 80 a $10,000 a year cash scholarship for studying education, or $12,000 for those who do their placement in regional areas.

But experts say focusing on recruitment rather than retention is shortsighted, and does nothing to deal with the problems that are prompting teachers to leave in droves.

“We can recruit all day, but if we know they’re going to leave the classroom once they’re there for two years, then it’s a hole in my bucket,” Dr Holloway said.

Although funding equity between private and public schools and regional training for teachers are important, until we make sure teachers are not overworked and underpaid, the crisis will continue to get worse.

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