Mass exodus of the educators

Just one in 10 teachers in the NSW public school system leave the job in their first five years, according to NSW government budget figures released in June. If this is to be believed, then those running education systems around the world should be beating a path to Macquarie Street to find out how the government is so successful at retaining teachers.

The problem is it doesn't provide an accurate picture of reality.

That's according to a researcher from Monash University, Dr Philip Riley, who says, ''Young teachers leave but keep up their registration as a kind of insurance policy. So if they are counting registrations, the picture looks much healthier.''

Riley is conducting a five-year study into the attrition rate of early career teachers. ''My research shows that 40 to 50 per cent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years in the job,'' he says, ''This is the norm in the US and Europe, and now we're seeing the same in Australia. What's more, this trend appears to be increasing.''

The disparity between his research findings and the figure quoted in the budget is down to holes in the administration process. ''No one is keeping good records, but we should be,'' he says. ''At present there is no systematic tracking of those teachers who leave or analysis as to the reasons why.''

The federal government agrees and is attempting to address this. The Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, says, ''Reliable and accurate workforce data for teachers is crucial if we want to address teacher shortages in key areas and keep the best teachers in our classrooms.''

To that end, the federal department is developing a National Teaching Workforce Dataset, intended to provide comprehensive and reliable data to monitor and report on workforce trends.

Garrett also believes that the Rewards for Great Teachers scheme will stop teachers leaving the profession. This will see one-off payments of $7500 for teachers accredited as Highly Accomplished and $10,000 for those accredited as Lead Teachers.

While he is in favour of paying teachers more, Riley believes that the Rewards for Great Teachers will have little impact on the rate of teachers leaving the profession. ''Teachers go into the job despite the money, not because of it,'' he says. ''My findings indicate that teachers leave due to more complex reasons than their pay.''

Riley has interviewed many teachers who decided to leave the profession. ''Overwhelmingly it is the internal politics, lack of professional respect or the ludicrous practice of giving our newest teachers the toughest assignments within the school that leads teachers to quit,'' he says, ''No other profession treats its newest recruits in this way. Imagine a first-year doctor being given a brain surgery, or a rookie lawyer being given a win-at-all-costs case. It just doesn't happen.''

Samantha Jones* can relate to Riley's findings. Jones left the profession in 2010 after three years teaching in public high schools and, like many early career teachers, being given the most challenging classes. ''My first years were a baptism of fire and if I sought support, the general response was, 'Suck it up, princess,''' she says.

Jones laughs at the notion that paying teachers more would keep them in the job. ''Money played no part in my decision to leave teaching,'' she says. ''Rather it was the complete lack of support or guidance from my head teacher or principal that led me to leave the profession.''

Jones completed a four-year teaching degree and expected her fair share of behavioural issues to deal with. ''But what I wasn't prepared for was the extent to which behaviour management would dominate my day, and the sense of 'us against them' in the staffroom,'' she says. ''Many teachers want to leave the profession for the same reasons I did, but it isn't financially viable for them, so they end up resenting their jobs and the kids.''

While Jones's experience may be extreme, Sarah Thorneycroft left for other reasons, including workload, and the NSW Institute of Teachers' New Scheme Teacher accreditation process only served to hasten her exit.

''New Scheme was a poorly implemented box-ticking exercise,'' she says. ''Few schools had a clear plan for supporting New Scheme teachers and there were few provisions to support those teaching before they finish their degrees, those doing casual or itinerant teaching at multiple schools or those teaching outside their area of qualification.''

Thorneycroft now works in academic development at the University of New England and believes we should ''ditch'' the current system of allocating employment. ''We need to move to the standard application process that exists in every other industry,'' she says.

Echoing Riley's sentiments, she says: ''The current system the Education Department has in place to put our least experienced teachers in our toughest schools is straight-up insanity.''

Rather than assuming new teachers are fully equipped to handle the toughest assignments, it is essential to view the first couple of years of a teacher's career as a period of transition, suggests Paul Kidson, the principal of St Paul's Grammar in Penrith, where all early career teachers are mentored by an experienced staff member.

''It's not just a box-ticking exercise,'' Kidson says. ''It is genuine mentoring, offering advice and guidance, not just observing and judging.'' In addition to support, he looks to nurture the creativity, passion and energy in new staff in a collaborative culture. ''Too often young teachers aren't listened to,'' he says, ''A good idea is a good idea, regardless of who comes up with it.''

One teacher who has flourished under Kidson's principalship is Sarah Blaszczyk. She was paired with an ''incredible'' mentoring supervisor during her first year at St Paul's. ''She helped me navigate the 'business' side of the school, which enabled me to focus my time on teaching,'' Blaszczyk says, ''More importantly, she guided and encouraged me to try new teaching and learning strategies, embrace tough situations as learning experiences, and to reflect on my practice.''

Blaszczyk also appreciates the professional autonomy at the school, where teachers are encouraged to use their talents, passions and character to customise their approach. ''This exposes students to different teaching styles and learning opportunities throughout their academic career,'' she says.

Dominique Anderson is another teacher enjoying the culture at St Paul's. ''The school respects the decisions you make as a professional,'' she says.

Despite having to use frameworks from the Board of Studies or the International Baccalaureate, she rarely feels restricted in terms of her teaching. ''I have been allowed to freely design my own learning experiences for my students,'' she says.

Anderson recognises teaching is challenging but with the support she receives, it is rewarding. ''Working with my students at school only reinforces why I chose this vocation at 10 years old,'' she says, ''You do it for the kids.''

Kidson believes the biggest reason his staff flourish is their respective staffrooms, not the classrooms. ''New teachers can flourish in all kinds of schools with all kinds of kids so long as the staffroom is a cohesive and supportive environment,'' he says. ''All teachers have a right to be respected, supported and nurtured in their workplace and it should not come down to luck as to whether you land a job in school with a proactive mentoring system or not.''

*Not her real name.

Dan Haesler is a teacher, writer and speaker. See danhaesler.com.

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