Schools and students across Australia continue to be confronted a teacher shortage.
This also means that some students may not have the best possible chance of learning skills, developing a passion for a subject or reaching their potential.
There are already several national and state policy moves to try to address the deficiency and its possible causes. Part of this are teachers workloadswell-being, working conditions and remuneration are mentioned as key factors.
Have for the past five years I have studied the career decisions of over 1,000 Australian teachers across all school years.
Right now we are trying to solve the teacher shortage without all the important information. Here are four questions we need to answer to really tackle this problem.
1. Who’s leaving?
We know that the teacher shortage is a problem across the country, at every year level. But other than that, it’s hard to get specific details.
One point often lost in debates about the teacher shortage is that teachers are not a homogeneous group: they teach students from the first to the last years of school and specialize in everything from languages to science to music.
This means vacant roles are also not homogeneous.
Over the past decade, there has been concern about a shortage of science, math and language teachers, as well as early career teachers, male primary school teachers and teachers in remote, rural and underprivileged schools. Each of these groups will not necessarily be preserved with the same strategy.
There also is a possible mismatch between the supply of teachers trained in certain areas and the demand from schools.
So we need to know who is leaving and what their expertise is.
2. How do turnover figures relate to reasons for departure?
In the past, research into teacher turnover has been dominated by large-scale reports with national data from the United States. These do not sufficiently correlate teacher departures with reasons for leaving, or necessarily reflect Australian trends.
Smaller studies are more common in Australia, especially those looking at teachers’ motivations and reasons for leaving. These often rely only on hypothetical career intentions, not actual quitting behavior.
This is not enough, as many teachers remain in school and in the profession despite the intention to leave. Decisions to leave are also not always planned.
Quitting can be based on time (such as years of service or after earning long-term leave), stage of life (such as starting a family), unforeseen circumstances (such as a promotion or raise), and impulsiveness (such as interpersonal conflict).
We need to connect how and why teachers leave with who they are.
Read more: Higher salaries may attract teachers, but salary is not one of the top 10 reasons to leave
3. Are teachers leaving or just changing jobs?
In a systematic review of the past 40 years of research on teacher turnover, I found that most previous studies did not adequately distinguish between teachers who simply transfer to another school and those who leave the profession altogether.
We also need to know who is just changing schools and who is leaving the profession. Policymakers and schools can help understand shortages by tracking departing teachers’ destinations and their reasons for leaving through data collection and exit interviews.
This helps determine whether there is a migration issue or an expiration issue.
The effect of a teacher’s absence on student learning and the functioning of schools may be the same. But the shortfall solutions are likely to differ for migration and attrition.
4. Are we losing ‘quality’ teachers?
In my research, I also assessed more than 200 quantitative studies data on teacher turnover and retention. Only one study had a measure of teacher quality.
We must take into account the quality of teachers who leave and stay. We should be most concerned about the loss of high-performing teachers, as opposed to those who were not suited to the profession or who left for personal reasons or reasons beyond a school’s control.
We should also be most concerned about high-performing teachers who leave because of a difficult environment. After all, the working environment of teachers is the learning environment of the student.
The involuntary detention of workers – those who want to leave but can’t or won’t – is not necessarily preferable to a teacher shortage.
We want children’s teachers to be in the classroom because they are happy in their jobs and passionate about education and youth, not because they are stimulated by some other force, such as extra pay or a lack of other job opportunities.
Read more: Australian teachers are dissatisfied with their jobs, but their sense of professional belonging is strong
A uniform approach to the teacher shortage does not work. To solve the problem, teacher types, quit types and the reasons for leaving need to be linked to relevant retention initiatives.
It will help to collect teacher turnover figures along with information such as year taught, subject area, location, age, gender and years of experience.
Schools, school systems and governments should work together to get a more complete picture of who is leaving and why.