The challenge to retain second-career teachers

The COVID-19 downturn means more people will be considering career changes into teaching, but we need to be doing more to ensure that once they start teaching, they will want to stay.

Dr Babak Dadvand and Dr Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach, University of Melbourne

Dr Babak DadvandDr Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach

Published 30 July 2020

We knew before COVID-19 hit that teacher education in Australia faced a twin challenge: there’s limited appeal for high-achieving graduates to take up teaching as a career and the profession has high attrition rates among early career teachers.

This global pandemic will likely see some of those high-achieving graduates – along with many others as the unemployment rate rises – turn to teaching as their second career. But there are issues that lie ahead for these career-changers that we must address if we’re to avoid them walking away from the profession, like so many current teachers already do.

The COVID-19 economic downturn is likely increase the number of career-changers moving into teaching. Picture: Peter Casamento/University of Melbourne

In the absence of a national database on teacher attrition rates in Australia, estimates vary that between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

High teacher attrition has tremendous cost for education systems, not only because the investment is effectively wasted, but also because many good teachers are lost. This loss of teachers is felt disproportionately harder by disadvantaged schools which are more likely to remain under-staffed, especially in the high demand learning areas such as STEM and languages.

It is harder to recruit teachers to disadvantaged schools because the challenge is tougher – teachers need to deal with the greater socio-economic disadvantages of their students.

That means disadvantaged schools need to work harder to recruit, induct and train teachers, all of which goes to waste if the teachers then change school or leave the profession prematurely.

High teacher attrition in disadvantaged schools also leads to poor student-teacher relationships, and a subsequent breakdown in learning due to high staff turnover.

Funding for alternative, employment-based pathways into teaching aims, at least in principle, to nudge high achieving graduates, professionals and career changers towards teaching in hard-to-staff schools.

Initiatives like this might address teacher supply issues in Australia by attracting more people to teaching, but they don’t address the problem at its root cause – the revolving door of teacher recruitment and attrition.

Career changers can bring invaluable skills and experience into the class room. Picture: Shutterstock

The global pandemic has offered an opportunity to address the problem of teacher shortages in difficult-to-staff schools. OECD research shows that teacher supply increases at times of higher unemployment in the labour market.

Job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to increase the number of people turning to teaching as a second career.

Career changers who embark on teaching can bring real life and workplace experience, up to date content knowledge, and broad skill sets that can all be harnessed to make learning more meaningful, motivate students and progress their learning.

Given the flexibility of the employment-based pathways into teaching which combine study, job placement, and salary, these avenues are particularly appealing for individuals who might consider a change of career to teaching due to its relative stability and security.

These pathways allow teachers to undertake their teaching accreditation while ‘learning intensively on the job’ and can be targeted at schools that need them the most.

In Australia, at the national level, the Federal Government’s High Achieving Teachers Program (2020-2022) has allocated $A21 million to strengthen alternative, employment-based pathways into teaching.

The program recruits high achieving graduates, and those with work experience, to Australian secondary schools facing teacher workforce shortages in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.

In October 2019, employment-based pathways into teaching received a boost through the Victorian government’s biggest ever investment ($A244.6 million) in improving teaching quality in schools.

An expansion in employment-based pathways into teaching needs to be matched with support for teachers once they start teaching. Picture: Shutterstock

The initiative includes $A5.6 million to attract talented graduates and those with career experience to ‘learn-on-the-job’. It also offers $A41.7 million in financial incentives to encourage teachers to work in difficult-to-staff positions and locations.

In Victoria there are three accredited employment-based pathways into teaching:

  • The Teach For Australia program which partners with the Australian Catholic University (ACU);

  • La Trobe University’s NEXUS program;

  • and our own Melbourne Graduate School Education’s (MGSE) Master of Teaching (Secondary) Internship program.

These programs have a strong equity focus in that they aim to address the problem of teacher shortage in the most disadvantaged Australian schools.

They aim to recruit high achieving graduates and career changers who are committed to teaching high-needs students, often in the most challenging school contexts and learning environments. For example, under MGSE’s program there is a target for, over a two-year period, at least 40 per cent of interns being placed in government schools in rural and regional areas.

Attracting talented graduates, professionals and career changers to teaching in disadvantaged schools through alternative, employment-based pathways might address the supply side of teacher shortage in these schools.

Yet, questions remain about teacher retention, especially about the experiences of those who enter teaching through an employment-based pathway and how they can be supported and retained.

Retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs schools is first and foremost an equity issue. It provides the least advantaged schools and their students the opportunity to learn from the most qualified, competent and passionate teachers.

To deal with the problem of low teacher retention in disadvantaged schools in Australia, teacher educators and policy makers need to focus on the types of support that career change teachers need to navigate the often-difficult early years of teaching.

This is crucial if the intention is to retain quality teachers in high demand learning areas within the schools that most need them.

Disadvantaged schools can struggle to hold on to the teachers they need. Picture: Getty Images

Research shows that people with career experience who enter teaching through alternative pathways are 25 per cent more likely to leave the profession early compared to teachers who enter the profession through more traditional pathways that offer more extensive periods of teacher preparation before school placement.

There are a combination of factors that contribute to higher attrition rates among this cohort of alternatively certified teachers, including their often-curtailed formal teacher preparation, the extra pressures from teaching in high needs schools, and greater reliance on school-level supports for learning on the job during early years.

Existing evidence from research conducted on Teacher Residency Models in the US shows that alternative pathways into teaching that have a strong learning-on-the-job component could be most effective when there is:

  • a strong partnership between universities and schools

  • better alignment of initial teacher education courses with the requirement of teaching in schools

  • ongoing monitoring support from teacher mentors, and school leadership, and

  • financial incentives to retain teachers in the most disadvantaged schools

The recent Victorian and the Federal government funding schemes for alternative, employment-based pathways into teaching are steps in the right direction.

The economic crisis, coupled with a recent policy push to encourage graduates and career changers to take up essential jobs and services, might have created an opportunity to recruit high-quality teachers for our least advantaged schools.

Yet, it is hard to imagine how these initiatives might succeed without a better understanding of the challenges that career changers face, and the support that they need to remain in teaching.

Identifying ways to better support career-change teachers will be an important step in helping to turn Australia from a ‘lucky country’ that prospered through its mining boom to a ‘smart country’.

More information of the Melbourne Graduate School Education’s Master of Teaching (Secondary) Internship program can be found here.

Banner: Getty Images

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