Contract teaching takes a toll

A union survey has revealed a jump in the number of new Victorian teachers on short-term contracts. According to the Australian Education Union (AEU), close to two-thirds of teachers in their first five years on the job are employed on fixed-term contracts. The number of new teachers employed in ongoing positions has dropped 10 percentage points since the union surveyed its members last year.

“Try working on a ten-week contract, trying to learn the curriculum, 120 student names, 25 teacher names, inventing your own resources, putting up with screaming, swearing, abuse and going home at night to apply for other jobs and being scared to death you won’t get one”, writes one such teacher venting on an online forum. “You can’t focus on teaching when you have to write extremely long detailed applications for other positions every night.”

Australian teachers, on average, are also working almost five hours a week longer than teachers in other industrialised countries, according to research published by the OECD in its June Teaching and Learning International Survey. At an average of 42.7 hours a week, Australian teachers work 10 hours longer than their counterparts in Finland, the international poster child for student outcomes.

But the OECD figure is likely an underestimate. “I’d love to know what teachers get done on 42 hours of work a week”, commented one teacher in response to the OECD study results. A Teachers Health Fund survey last year found that in Queensland a 54-hour week is typical.

A study by Monash University researchers exposes the toll that long hours take on student-teacher relationships, detailing that more than one in four new teachers suffers from “emotional exhaustion”. Speaking to the Age, Professor Helen Watt explained that this group report “much greater negativity in their interaction with students, such as using sarcasm, aggression, responding negatively to mistakes”.

The strain isn’t made easier by the perception that teachers have it easy. Governments like Denis Napthine’s – eager to distract from their $600 million cuts to the Victorian public system – love the lazy and incompetent teacher trope. In reality, teachers shoulder the impossible task of patching up the holes left in the system by indifferent governments.

Conditions for teachers since union militancy peaked in the 1970s have stagnated at best, and in many ways worsened. Sometimes where I work, in the western suburbs of Melbourne, I hear older teachers fondly reminisce about how things used to be. During my placement, I shared an office with a teacher who recalled what it was like when lunchtime was actually a time you could eat your lunch. Some teachers would play cards, he said.

Other teachers remember the culture of militancy before the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association was amalgamated into today’s AEU. One who’d started teaching in the early ’70s explained that back then they would walk out of the room if there were more than 25 heads in a class or if the maximum face-to-face hours set by the union were exceeded. In that period, the hated inspection system was abolished – an important victory – only to have the Performance Development system thrust upon us last year.

To reverse this trend, we need much more than the AEU’s current strategy of limited set-piece actions during EBA periods, and lobbying or pinning hope on Labor. It wasn’t always easy then, but when teachers used sustained industrial action, state-wide but also importantly at the local grassroots, they won substantial improvements.

Today we face our own challenges, with no-strike clauses so far keeping a lid on the local actions that were so important then, but there’s no doubt that a great many teachers (and support staff) are rightly dissatisfied and angry. This needs to be the basis for a revival of our compelling example of fighting unionism, not idle reminiscing.