At 24, Melissa is one of many young teachers in the same position. Despite the frequently repeated message that the demand for teachers is on the rise, last year the NSW Department of Education employed almost 2000 fewer permanent teachers than in 2012.
Teachers begin their degrees being promised they will ‘ride the wave of Baby Boomer retirements’. The reality is that many teachers will work casual, contract or temporary roles for years.
It is not unusual to hear of teachers that have been doing this for a decade or more. Others leave due to the lack of opportunity and career progression, unrealistic workloads, and lack of support.
An oversupply of teachers and the willingness of universities to continue producing a high number of teaching graduates means that education is fast becoming an undesirable career choice for those called to it.
There were 49,000 teachers employed permanently in NSW last year and a further 47,000 seeking permanent positions. On average, only 2200 permanent jobs are appointed per year.
The NSW Department of Education’s 2015 Teacher Workforce Demand report states that in 2014 less than 2 per cent of teachers resigned during their first year.
As this overlooks the many graduates that never gain employment it is difficult to quantify an exact figure.
Estimates vary due to a lack of national data but indicate that somewhere between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of teachers leave the profession within five years of graduation.
Only three years into her career, this is a reality that Melissa has already had to consider.
Melissa knew from a young age that she wanted to be a teacher.
Her face lights up as she recounts, “I was in Year 6 and I was the kid who always took the kindergarteners under my wings, I just loved it. I actually had to be spoken to by a teacher, I’ll never forget. She told me I had to stop playing with the kindergarten children so that they can find their own friends”.
She laughs and goes on to say, “My mum said, ‘you should be a teacher’. And that was it.”
Emotionally though, she’s finding the reality tough. With such a high concentration of teachers on the south coast, it’s not uncommon to find over 200 teachers applying for a vacant position.
Although Melissa loves teaching, it is difficult to maintain the positivity required to keep chasing casual and temporary work.
“So far I’ve had a few contracts but it’s really difficult to get more experience in class,” she says. “I’m now competing against friends and more experienced colleagues and I know their skills. It’s crushing”.
Career progression is also an issue that influences the longevity of a teacher’s career.
The 2013 Senate enquiry into Teaching and Learning identified that there are limited opportunities for career progression in the profession, even less so for those working casually.
The simple requirement of gaining and maintaining professional accreditation presents a challenge for teachers in casual and temporary roles.
Teacher accreditation requires all new teachers to gain accreditation as a proficient teacher through the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES).
Currently only a requirement for teachers graduating after 2006 or following a five-year leave period, accreditation standards will apply to all teachers from 2018.
While this is a necessity to maintain the quality of teachers in the NSW system, the standards can’t be achieved without blocks of work within the same school, which causes difficulty for those forced to work casually.
Melissa is grateful to have recently received accreditation as a proficient teacher. “It can come down to luck,” she said.
“Once you have a block of work you have to have a school that is willing to support you in your accreditation. I know friends that have only had short blocks. With two weeks here and there, they haven’t had the opportunity to make an impact,” she said.
Tahlia*, a primary teacher, started teaching nearly five years ago. She also found it difficult to gather evidence of experience in the specified areas.
“Teaching performing arts and science as a casual was fantastic, I loved it, but I needed evidence of practical experience implementing classroom practice and literacy programs,” she says.
Once accredited, maintaining accreditation requires ongoing professional development – for a casual teacher, this is at personal cost.
Tahlia studied via distance education over five years; during that time she had two children and her husband was away for periods of time with the Navy.
On completion, she was thrilled to be offered a position as a targeted graduate through the Department’s Rural and Remote scheme. When the time came, though, she wasn’t able to take the position offered due to a young family and her husband’s work.
“It was devastating, absolutely devastating, to say no,” she says. “I didn’t realise it was going to be so hard to find work teaching — the uni told us we’d be drowning in the amount of work”.
She went on to share that, “once I realised it’s not actually easy, that created a lot of anxiety for me because I’d just done five years of uni to get a job that would make it possible for us to buy our house. I kind of felt for a while that I was letting my family down”.
Her bubbly demeanour slips as she goes on in a quieter voice, “I’d taken the five years out to study and I felt like it put more pressure on my husband because I still wasn’t earning money”.
Having been on a 12 month contract for the duration of 2016, Tahlia is hopeful that she will continue to receive ongoing work.
“If I have to go back to day-to-day casual teaching I’m not sure how long I can maintain it for, definitely not 10 years. I think that if by the end of the year I don’t have a contract for next year, then I have to seriously consider retraining,” she admits.
“I can’t do casual teaching for the rest of my life, it’s not suited to me. Especially after having a year on class and seeing how much I can achieve with the kids”.
The Rural and Remote teaching scheme is touted as the most likely way to secure a coveted permanent position.
The NSW Department of Education states that applying for this program will ‘fast track your teaching career’.
By participating in the program, teachers secure a permanent position in a targeted geographic area, serve out a contract and earn priority points toward their eventual transfer home.
Those that are offered a remote position and don’t accept it go to the bottom of the priority list.
Ben* is a PDPHE, Science and Geography secondary teacher in his early 30s.
He has a grounded presence and is comfortable in his own skin but it quickly becomes obvious that he has had to make some hard choices during his 10 year career.
When he was offered a position in Western NSW as a targeted graduate there was no time to consider the offer.
“I was in Wollongong when I got the call and was pressured on the phone. It was either you take the job or you won’t have a job,” Ben says.
“When I arrived the town was dying off, as in they’d had drought for a very long time. A lot of people had moved away from the town, there were no weekend sports running, and the closest town was 1.5 hours away. Being a coastie it was a real culture shock and very socially isolating”.
He describes the staffroom as being full of teachers "still there, waiting for their promised transfer".
Even with a 13-hour drive home and little hope that the placement would end in a transfer closer to family, Ben would have made the most of it if the school been more supportive.
“Unfortunately, the principal wasn’t very supportive of first year teachers,” Ben explains.
“We had a lot of issues with the new accreditation system that was coming through, maybe she wasn’t very familiar with it.”
Ben’s situation deteriorated to the point where he requested an additional person in the room during all interactions with the principal.
He was advised by the NSW Department of Education and NSW Teachers Federation to stick out his contract or resign. Ben felt resigning was his only option.
He squares his shoulders as he states simply, “I felt that it was best for my health and my sanity to resign and seek employment elsewhere”.
Ben would have been one of those that leave the profession within the first five years if his next placement had not gone well.
No longer permanently employed by the Department, Ben went on to secure contracts in another regional town for several consecutive years before relocating to Wollongong.
For the past four years he’s travelled over an hour each way for an ongoing contract. “I love it [teaching],” Ben says.
“But I’m planning for the future and unless something changes drastically I can’t continue.”
The country organiser for the NSW Teachers Federation, John Black, has an energetic presence that comes through in his passion for improving teacher’s working conditions.
As a teacher who took a posting and spent two years living apart from his partner at the beginning of his career, he appreciates that rural and remote placements are much harder for teachers with family commitments.
“If you’re in an area like Wollongong or Newcastle as a young casual, looking to get permanent work, everybody wants permanent work,” Black says.
“If you’re a young teacher with not a lot of strings attached and willing to go to a harder to staff area there are opportunities. The way our transfer system works is on incentive, jobs open to transfer are opened up first to teachers who have accrued the transfer points”.
The recently negotiated staffing agreement aims to balance the situation by making it easier for teachers to secure a permanent position in their local area. The new approach means that job openings will alternate between transfer and merit selection.
“Fifty-fifty placements mean that there is a better chance than ever before,” Black says.
Under the new staffing agreement the federation will also be chasing up unfilled vacancies in schools, this will support staff in schools where there are a large number of casual and temporary teachers.
Proactive solutions like this should help to ease the stress placed on teachers in a system where leaving friends and family is seen as the only chance of securing a permanent position.
A common sentiment among young teachers is that the casual work would be OK if they felt that there was something more in the future. Instead, there is a pervasive feeling that this is all there is; they’ll never have the security to make life plans.
“It’s horrible, it really is,” says Melissa, who moved to the region when her partner took a placement with the police force.
“We want to be settled and have a house before having children but that’s difficult when my work is so up in the air. I spoke to one teacher who took 20 years to gain permanency in this locality.”
Researchers from the University of Technology identified seven key reasons for leaving the teaching profession including workload, stressors in the workplace environment, burnout, and a lack of support.
The instability of casual employment exacerbated these other factors. The 2013 Senate enquiry identified the casualisation of the workforce as a factor in high teacher attrition.
After emigrating from the UK with her husband, Tara* completed an additional year of university to meet Australian requirements and jumped into seeking work.
Although based on the south coast, she travelled to South West Sydney each day for an ongoing contract which ended when a permanent teacher returned after three years of leave.
“I was ready to jump in and do the hard yards. Instead, I found myself in limbo,” she says.
“The nature of my husband’s work tied us to Sydney and means that his income fluctuates. We couldn’t make plans and move on with our life while I had no job stability. Dragging from school to school as a casual after my contract ended was too disheartening”.
When her contract ended Tara worked casually in her local area for six months but with no longer term placements on the horizon a decision had to be made.
She is no longer pursuing work as a teacher and as she evaluates how best to approach the future, doubts that she will teach again.
A 2015 ACER Report on the teacher workforce in Australia estimates that an additional 92,000 students will enter primary school this decade.
At the same time, it identified that more than 50 per cent of teachers are over the age of 50.
On paper it looks like the prophesised wave of Baby Boomer retirements from the teaching profession could be just around the corner.
In the meantime, passionate young teachers are questioning their choice as they fight for an opportunity to prove themselves and deal with the stress of wondering what their future holds.
Melissa hesitantly admits that she has thought about whether she can maintain the uncertainty of casual teaching.
“It’s a big thing that my partner and I need to talk about. How long can you wait for a permanent position?”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.