The ongoing industrial action that started with the December 7th teachers strike in collaboration with transport workers may be the last turning point in the history of mass education in NSW. If the industrial action is successful, this moment in time will be the beginning of a revitalisation of the teaching profession and public education in NSW. Failure will accelerate the exodus of new and old teachers alike and the coming months will be remembered as the last resistance of unionised educators to a program of austerity that has dismantled public education in NSW over the last twenty years.
Despite the lingering existential threat to public education, the atmosphere amongst the marchers was exuberant. Hyde Park was the meeting ground for teachers from Dubbo, Coffs Harbour, Batemans Bay and every other extremity of the second largest education body in the world.
The distance and isolation that teachers experience in their individual classrooms hide the common experience across NSW department of education schools. Overworked by bureaucratic busywork designed to improve the résumés of department figures rather than the learning of public school students; underpaid for the additional work on weekends, holidays, lunchtimes, and nights outside the classroom.
I had a chance to talk to teachers from my high school who told me they would not become teachers today because of how much worse the conditions and wages have become since they joined in 2006. I tell the same thing to my friends who are thinking of becoming teachers. Don’t. Public schools won’t be recognisable by the time you finish your degree if this strike does not succeed.
I’m not alone in this conclusion. A friend of mine is tutoring student teachers in the university course we just graduated from and shared that every single student in their cohort had a position lined up in private schools before they completed their last professional experience. Colleagues were receiving unsolicited messages from private schools seeking to poach them for extra pay and better conditions. The only early career teacher I know who is not considering quitting teaches at a selective school whose demographics looks like a spiderweb connecting affluent western Sydney suburbs. With no hint of the state government changing its strategy of impoverishing public servants, only angels and idiots are staying on as public school teachers.
It is the worst kept secret in education that things are not looking up. There is a shortage of five to six thousand teachers. The state expects to run out of teachers in the next five years, and almost half of all early career teachers are leaving every year. The shortages make it look like no one wants to be a teacher, but I find this final statistic more illuminating. Passionate and dedicated teachers who worked through years of university, unpaid internships and arduous bureaucracy to become teachers have concluded they cannot educate students in the conditions present in NSW public schools.
The NSW government plans an advertisement campaign focusing on the ‘perception of teachers’ by paying marketing firms to demonstrate the ‘opportunities’ for becoming a teacher and the joys of teaching. Every teacher has seen this focus on passion and joy exploited in mandatory professional learning programs that conflate passion with spending your own money to buy basic equipment for your classroom or students. Student teachers will recognise essays on passion for teaching as a core curriculum element in many universities—something no one cared to assign in my arts or law degrees. The unwritten assumption of course being that people become teachers out of zealous unyielding dedication to institutionalised education and anyone who can’t hack it just isn’t committed to teaching. Unfortunately, my elderly Italian landlady is yet to accept rent in the form of passion, though it has the beginnings of a good real estate porno.
Advertising and easy access cannot fix the teacher shortage. A more robust program in Victoria, Teach for Australia, has already failed and only created six hundred teaching jobs in a decade (three hundred if we consider that almost half those teachers leave in their first five years). Furthermore, the problem isn’t a shortage of passion for education. There is a shortage of people wanting to work seven days a week, buy students supplies and food from their own pocket, give up their lunches to tutor or provide therapy for children and be chastised by the NSW minister of education for daring to demand the tools and conditions necessary to do their job.
Everyone knows your first year of teaching hits like a truck. I spent all day every weekend planning, marking or reporting. The deterioration of relationships and of mental and physical health are accepted costs of teaching. My worst moment was not when I was hoping to get T-boned at every intersection to have a good enough reason to not come into school, but when this hope became a reoccurring fantasy.
The lack of teachers has already been felt across the state. Collapsed classes leave students with minimal or no supervision. When causal replacements can be found, they are often unqualified student teachers who need only twenty days’ experience to be alone in front of a classroom. Attrition amongst early career teachers is severing the connection between educators and the communities they serve, leaving low SES communities cut off from their kids’ education. Student results in Australia have been on a down slide for two decades—a down slide Minister Alan Trudge looks to amend by taking pages from the certifiably fucked education system in England whose only discernible outcome is teaching students a personalised appreciation for Pink Floyd.
Mass education, like public transport and healthcare, is a recent and fragile innovation. A niece of mine starts kindergarten in January. Her older sister is waiting for her HSC results. I wonder what public schools will look like when my young niece leaves and whether her older sister would even recognise them.
The new NSW premier dog whistle ‘back to basics’ in the months before the strike as a response to declining results across the state. The insinuation is that I’m too busy teaching my kids how to be transgender communists rather than to read. The reality is NSW schools teachers don’t have the basics needed to teach and students don’t have the basics they need to learn.
As it stands, every early career teacher in the first five years of their career in my school is contemplating leaving the profession. I do not see myself continuing teaching in 2023. The departure of half these teachers would be a monumental loss to the community, students, state and profession that I’m uncertain public schools can withstand. A decade of austerity and abuse from state and federal governments has inhibited the opportunity for schools to teach students basic skills like literacy and numeracy.
Breaking public education manufactures an excuse for the government to privatise and sell off the land and students held in public schools to private interests. The ongoing industrial action by teachers and colleagues in the public sector is the last chance to slow and begin a reversal of this initiative, and the last chance to provide future generations the education they deserve.
Teachers’ working conditions are student learning conditions. United we bargain, divided we beg.