​Teachers start their journeys


16 February 2016

Across Australia, from outback primaries to inner-city secondaries, thousands of newly qualified teachers are taking charge of their own classrooms for the first time.

Chances are they have been hired on a fixed-term contract as short as six weeks. The lucky ones will know they have their classes for a year. The really lucky ones will have found a permanent position. Many will be looking for casual shifts and asking what happened to the teacher shortage they’d heard so much about.

Other graduate teachers have returned to work for a second or third year, and they may not be at the same school. They may even be on their third, fourth or fifth school. Some will have already left the profession, frustrated by the lack of job security and/or the workload.

Support for new educators has been a big growth area in AEU activities in recent years. Most states and territories have a graduate specialist to help them become active, campaigning members in the knowledge that they are the future of our union, and our schools.

Cuts cause uncertainty

The first problem graduates always face is finding a job. AEU branches across Australia say job security is a big issue, stemming from the uncapped supply of new teachers and a low entry bar to courses. This is often exacerbated by state and territory government cuts.

Victorian president Meredith Peace blamed chronic underfunding that left principals unable to make long-term staffing decisions. In South Australia, an education department restructure is sending former teachers back to the classroom, squeezing out graduates.

The Northern Territory has a hiring freeze, and in Western Australia more than half the state's schools are now ‘independent public schools’ that can circumvent the requirement to hire from the graduate appointment pool, despite encouragement from the government to do so.

In Tasmania, the education department cut 266 teaching positions last year and offered voluntary redundancy to experienced teachers. The resulting chaos found principals desperately looking for teachers at the start of the school year, but unable to offer more than six-week contracts.

Support issues

Short-term employment can also mean missing out on crucial support. In New South Wales, only teachers in their first permanent position get a reduced teaching load, usually intended to help newbies receive mentoring and get to grips with lesson planning and report writing.

In Tasmania, only employment for a term or longer attracts support. New-educator organiser Adam Clifford says the rash of six-week contracts at the start of the year meant many new teachers didn’t get time release, they weren’t assigned mentors, and they weren’t given department laptops or email addresses until their contracts were renewed in term two.

AEU Victoria’s survey of new educators found only 57 per cent were sure they received their agreed five per cent cut in workload. A quarter didn’t have a mentor, and, of those who did, half didn’t have the time to meet properly.

Learning curve

Support varies across the nation. Until recently, Queensland graduates had no entitlement to mentoring or a reduced teaching load. The state government has now agreed to both, which the union will seek to embed in its next EBA.

By contrast, the Australian Capital Territory’s new teachers get 15 days’ release over three years – on top of a cut in teaching load – to access professional development and tackle report writing or other priorities. Importantly, these can be carried over if the new educator doesn’t take them in the first year. Each school sub-branch has an AEU member who ensures graduates know their entitlements.

But even with such entitlements, the learning curve is steep. Even with a strong agreement in force, accessing support can be difficult, especially for teachers in deep country.

The tyranny of distance can make it hard even to attend PD in larger centres because schools can’t get cover. SSTUWA organiser Natalie Grant says: “With some of our more remote schools you have to fly out of the NT and then take a different form of transport to the school.

“Often it’s a wonderful experience for new educators, but it does need to be supported in a special way.”

Aiko Wendfeldt – a new educator who teaches Japanese at Campbell High School in the ACT is one of the thousands of early career teachers the AEU supports – she talks of her experiences and why she became a teacher.

My parents are both teachers and my dad is an American teaching in Japan, so I always had a vision of going somewhere else as a teacher.
I chose Australia.

When you’re a student, you see teachers only inside the classroom; when you become a teacher you discover there’s this whole other work that you’ve got to do. That’s quite challenging, but I really enjoy the teaching.

Our school has a new-educator AEU officer and she’s been wonderful. Our sub-branch president has been quite vocal in saying these are things you should be doing and if you’re asked to doing something else you need to say something. I have a really good mentor as well.

I know in some other schools people have said they only see their mentor once a month but I see her every single day. We talk about workload and because she teaches my subject we share a lot of content — we collaborate a lot. That has really reduced my workload.

Under our agreement, new educators get day release — I’ve used that to observe lessons at a college in our cluster which many of our graduates go on to. That was really good: knowing where to pitch the content and how hard to push students.

There are two other new educators in our school. We have one less teaching hour per week, which we use to talk about issues we’re facing.”

For a longer version of this article – and more stories from beginning teachers check out the full online version of the Australian Educator at http://www.aeufederal.org.au/application/files/6014/5557/9431/Educator_Autumn_2016.pdf