‘Rewarding’, but four in five teachers consider quitting in pandemic

A select-entry university program that pairs exceptional student teachers with disadvantaged schools was Millie Dean’s ticket to a longed for tree change this year.

Ms Dean, a primary school teacher who is in her fifth year in the profession, left her job at Keilor Primary School in Melbourne’s north-west for a new role at Koondrook Primary, a small rural school on an “idyllic” bend of the Murray River.

Koondrook Primary School teacher Millie Dean, right, says the job is rewarding but increasingly subject to excessive workload.Credit:Tracy Walle

But the pandemic still brought its hardships, even inside a school in a tiny border town 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.

“Remote learning was tricky last year but at least we knew we were in it for the long haul, whereas I found it really difficult here because it’s been so much back and forth and kids have struggled with that,” Ms Dean said.

Managing children’s behaviour became a bigger and more difficult part of her job this year, Ms Dean said, an experience reflected in a survey of teachers that found 84 per cent were spending more time this year providing emotional support to students.

Ms Dean was trained in helping students manage their behavioural issues when she studied at Deakin University and in the National Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools program, but says student behaviour is just one of several tasks that is sucking up an increasing amount of time that she should spend teaching.

“Speaking to teachers who’ve been in the profession for 20 years, they say workload has grown significantly and there’s not enough time in the day any more,” she said.

“There is a crowded curriculum but no more hours in the school day for it, there’s assessment, planning and then all these department expectations that we have to meet.”

Ms Dean says the rewards of her job still outweigh the irritations.

“It’s definitely challenging, but the reward is greater; you just see the growth in kids where for a lot of them school’s the best thing in their lives or the safest place in their lives,” she said.

It’s a sentiment borne out by the Australian College of Educators’ 2021 teachers report card, which unearthed the seemingly contradictory finding that 85 per cent of Victorian teachers find their job rewarding, but 83 per cent of them have thought about leaving their profession in the past year.

The reasons include workload (27 per cent said they worked at least six days a week), remuneration (49 per cent are unhappy with their level of pay) and work-life balance (78 per cent said they struggled with this).

The survey also found that 22 per cent of Victorian teachers “were unable to maintain a positive outlook as a result of COVID-19 restrictions”.

Jeremy Otto, a deputy principal at Santa Maria College in Northcote, said the pandemic had taken a toll on some teachers’ mental health, just as it had for some students.

“School environments are communities, if you have a situation you can turn somewhere and get help, but we’ve been working in isolation and while support structures are still there, it’s different from being in a community where you can walk into someone’s office and decompress,” Mr Otto said.

The NEITA Foundation and ACE report card surveyed the opinions of 571 teachers in June and July this year, including 118 Victorian teachers.

Australian College of Educators managing director Helen Jentz said the results were “a wake-up call from a profession in distress”.

“While it’s heartening that the majority find the profession rewarding, the current climate is having a negative impact, and it’s incredibly concerning that a significant proportion of our teachers have considered leaving the profession,” Ms Jentz said.

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