I see the stress teachers are under every day. More teachers isn’t the solution

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This week, the federal government launched its “Be That Teacher” campaign, a $10 million recruitment drive aimed at ending, or at the very least reducing, Australia’s teacher shortage.

The campaign comes on the back of the Victorian government’s $93.2 million package, which will support university students undertaking teaching degrees. While these efforts are desperately needed, a major part of the education picture is still being ignored.

Teachers need proper, structured support if we want to prevent burnout.Credit: iStock

Schools are made up of more than their teachers and a long-term solution to teacher burnout and workload stress might already be hiding in plain sight.

The umbrella term “school support staff” encompasses an astonishingly varied set of functions. The fact that support staff are rarely mentioned is a missed opportunity for everyone involved.

As a school library manager, my support role is equal parts administrative, creative, and strategic, and the benefits the library has on student learning and wellbeing is visible and immediate. I am in constant contact with teaching staff and students throughout the day, and as such, I am a spectator to the chaos, stress, and public scrutiny teachers are put under every day.

A 21st century Australian high school teacher, I have discovered, is expected to provide more than subject expertise and direct instruction. They perform duties associated with youth work, events management, data entry, community liaison, extracurricular co-ordination, and, theoretically, behave as role models and confidants to students – who all have individual academic, social, and emotional needs.

No other job in the public service has experienced such significant scope creep in recent years. Certainly, no other sector expects so much from one role. It’s no wonder, then, that in 2022 the Australian Education Union reported teachers work an extra 15 unpaid hours a week, and that almost 40 per cent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

So while short-term government investments and campaign drives may help attract people to the sector, it won’t help them stick around long-term.

I often think about what I can do to assist my teaching colleagues and wonder if teachers are simply not very good at delegation? Have support staff been left out of the conversation for so long that teachers forget we’re here, we’re skilled, and we’re hired to carry some of the administrative burden? Or does the school workforce need to be restructured entirely, in a way where we have more skilled, non-teaching professionals working alongside teachers to help lighten their loads?

According to Briley Stokes from the Victorian Education Union, education support staff – which can include a school’s reception staff, gardeners, canteen workers, psychologists, nurses, occupational and speech therapists, librarians, IT specialists, lab technicians, sports coaches, after-hours carers, business managers, accounts and HR – are essential.

The benefits of a well-resourced school libraries are visible and immediate.Credit: Jason South

“The roles [education support staff] perform are varied and complex,” she says. “Our principal and teacher class report to us every day that they couldn’t do the work they do without them.”

Many support staff work directly with teachers and students throughout the day, while teaching assistants and integration aides work in the classroom to provide what Stokes calls a “wraparound support” to teachers, students, and their families. Recently, the Australian Education Union has called for the creation of a new support role, a teaching and learning assistant, who can work closely within each curriculum area to undertake administrative planning tasks and free up teachers for other duties.

Considering the breadth of roles these staff perform, why are we absent from the conversation and not being seen as part of a potential solution?

What if support staff who work directly with students and teachers were included in unit planning and student wellbeing meetings? What if formal qualifications were developed around specific support roles, and professional development was offered where needed? Would inclusion and upskilling support staff help alleviate teacher workloads?

In practice, this would see skilled administrators within each curriculum team, mental health practitioners and youth workers liaising with vulnerable students and their families, information management specialists acquiring and indexing subject resources so that they’re up-to-date and discoverable, and events officers who shape and facilitate extracurricular programs.

These are school functions that can – and should – be sourced from professionals outside the teaching cohort. In broadening the support scope for teachers, and decreasing their workloads, we will see teaching, learning, and wellbeing benefits for all.

Encouraging the next generation of Australians to consider teaching as a career is important, yes, but equally important is addressing the issues that see them leave the sector so soon after joining.

Alice Reid is a librarian and a freelance writer.

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