Better conditions, not better pay, for teachers



Emotional blackmail is the rotten foundation on which teacher working conditions are built. We don't do it for the money, we are constantly told. We do it 'for the kids'.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows a teacher exhausted by all his extra-curricular activities such as sports and marking.Don't want to volunteer your Sundays to the musical? It's a shame that the kids will miss out. Don't want to coordinate debating for free? So sad for the kids who don't get to form a team this year. Can't give up your one free lunch break to coach the soccer? I guess that's fine, but it would have been a fantastic chance to get the kids out and moving! This kind of emotional blackmail is particularly effective because it does not need to be explicitly articulated. Saying 'no' to an adult can be difficult. Saying 'no' to the pleading eyes of a child feels like a crime.

For years, teachers have been programmed to ignore the systemic gaps that leave their extra labour uncompensated. Instead, we are encouraged to internalise guilt when we don't go out of our way to facilitate opportunities outside the official scope of our jobs — even when taking on these responsibilities is at the expense of our own wellbeing. Stressed and overworked teachers are, apparently, to blame for denying students fantastic prospects, not the school systems that foist an untenable workload upon their employees. Not only do teachers suffer because of this but so do students, who do not have their teachers' full attention and energy.

How are teachers supposed to say 'No more!' without becoming the bad guys? This is where unions can step in. The transactional dynamics of obligation and guilt are so prevalent in schools that explicit entitlements, enshrined in enterprise agreements, are needed to protect teacher wellbeing. Approximately 40 per cent of education professionals hold union membership, making teaching one of the most highly unionised jobs in Australia. Yet education unions have been largely ineffective at enacting substantial and tangible change for teachers in recent years.

This is because education unions tend to focus on one thing when it comes to enterprise bargaining: money. Working conditions are sometimes addressed, but mostly in the context of preventing further degradation, rather than substantial improvement. In teaching, this has led to a subtle creep of job scope as more administrative tasks become ingrained in the professionm, while teacher release time remains basically stagnant.

It's a common cry among progressives that teachers should get paid more. In some instances, this is true. What is, however, more pressing are the poor working conditions that destroy the drive of our teachers and lead them to leave the profession in droves.

It's well known that teaching has an astoundingly high attrition rate. In my experience, the teachers we lose are often those who are high-achievers and hard-workers; those who burn out because the system pressures them to ignore their own needs. This is, again, not just a problem for the teachers but for students who lose highly gifted educators to burnout. The flight of good teachers is not a problem pay alone will fix; a well-paid but overworked teacher is still overworked.


"Rather than accept a token pay increase, we need to internalise the fact that higher wages can be not only an inferior form of compensation, but a distraction from solving the issue of workload."


The New South Wales government recently released its Understanding Work in Schools report, revealing that full-time teachers work an average of 50 hours per week. Standard full-time work in Australia is 38 hours per week. The requirement of home work on the part of teachers is considered a feature, not a flaw, of the system. It is supposedly the trade-off for slightly shorter at-work hours, and school holidays. While it's undeniable that less mandated time spent on-site has advantages, the numbers simply don't add up.

The problem with a mindset suggesting holidays make up for increased workload is that it ignores the reality of teachers' work, which is often time sensitive. Most tasks cannot simply be left until school holidays come around; work can't be redistributed to a quieter time of the year. Instead, teachers are left with frequent, regular, and intense crunch periods that cannot be balanced by a normal human. No wonder new recruits are fleeing. Not only are they ill-equipped by universities to deal with the reality of teaching, but they are thrown into a profession with inbuilt disregard for their wellbeing.

The recent addition of onerous data collection requirements has further decimated teachers' out-of-class time. Implementation of baroque pre- and post-testing, collation of data from these tests, and the entering of this information into relevant mandatory databases, can take hours. Somewhere between all our other duties, teachers are then — often with minimal or no statistics training — expected to make sense of these reams of numbers.

Unions do not like the idea of abandoning wage increases in favour of condition improvements, because this idea is unpopular with members. Everyone likes more money; we are a nation of workaholics. Our capitalist society uses income as the primary measure of success. Income going up is perceived by workers, and therefore union members, as unequivocally good. Wellbeing and happiness are abstract metrics, rarely considered until the situation has deteriorated beyond what can be easily fixed. Rather than accept a token pay increase, we need to internalise the fact that higher wages can be not only an inferior form of compensation, but a distraction from solving the issue of workload.

While wages should be updated to (as a minimum) reflect inflation, unions must change tack in bargaining. Firstly, they must dramatically increase available non-teaching hours to allow staff time to complete the tasks assigned to them. Secondly, they must institute mandatory compensation for extra-curricular work in the form of reduced teaching loads. Teachers must be given the time needed to fulfil the needs of students without having their own needs subsumed in the process.  

Next, we must acknowledge that real change will not come without serious money from governments. School budgets, even those of non-government schools, are decided by politicians. Instead of looking inward at the education bodies, unions must look outwards to how they can change the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Obviously, schools are not the only workplaces where good will is taken advantage of. It is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture where overworking is valued and, subsequently, monetarily rewarded. Schools are, however, one of the places where the vulnerability of those we work with is weaponised by employers. A key role of unions should be to prevent teachers being put in the awkward position of choosing between students and their own wellbeing. If they don't, the system will continue to haemorrhage high-quality teaching staff, and everyone — staff and students — misses out.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a high school teacher and occasional freelance writer. His ramblings can be found over at

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, teachers, unions



submit a comment

Existing comments

I could write 1,000 words on this off the top of my head, but I am restricted to 200. Teachers’ conditions are worse today than they were my first school 40 years ago. This is because teachers keep voting in overwhelming numbers for poor deals as advised by the AEU. The maximum primary teaching load that used to be 21.5 hours is now 22.5 hours. The maximum high school load that used to be 18 hours (plus an extra a fortnight) is now 20 hours (including the extra). The minimum time allowance pool (deductions from class teaching for administrative leadership positions) that used to be 90 minutes per teacher is now zero minutes. More than 80 per cent of teachers voted for these poor conditions. I tried to get both the AEU and the IEU – by the way, why are teachers so silly as to have two unions when nurses have only one? – to put a funding submission to the Gonski review to restore the decent conditions of the past. They didn’t see the point. Teachers’ working conditions will improve when the current generation of teachers sees the need for professional solidarity that my generation of teachers had.
Chris Curtis | 15 June 2019

You are correct, we have become a nation of workaholics who judge 'success' in purely material terms. Big bureaucracy and big unions are part of the problem. Much data collection is of no real value, it just justifies the system. This system needs to be recalibrated in terms of its ultimate end users, the students, in whose interests it is obviously not working to best effect. Teachers need a lot more time to do essential 'unseen' work, such as marking. They also need to have 'time out' for lunch and breaks to relax. These will certainly add to teacher longevity both within the system and life. Extra-curricular activities should be counted as work and renumerated as such. We need to look at the example of nations who have got the work/life balance better for teachers and who also do better educationally than us, such as the Scandinavian countries. Anglophone countries, such as the UK and the USA, are not 'best practice' examples.
Edward Fido | 17 June 2019

In private schools of my experience, Curriculum Extension Activities are by and large now negotiable and remunerated, and teachers' take-home work is alleviated (if not entirely eliminated) by the setting of tasks that students can complete by productive use of lesson time, with the teacher monitoring the work set in progress. There is still, however, an equity issue in the discrepancy of time required for marking between humanities and maths assignments.
John RD | 17 June 2019

The lot of Teachers is the same as for Nurses and Police.Despite the strength of unions representing them and support from the Public at large,they will always suffer low wage outcomes.This is due to a combination of factors including the following: 1.There are too many of them for Governments to offer anything but modest increases set at 2.5% or less. 2.They are generally reluctant to take meaningful industrial action because of their dedication to the community and dislike of disruption. 3.They are hampered by an industrial relations system in Australia which all but eliminates the right to strike and withdraw labour and which was allowed to be put in place by bi partisan policies of successive LNP and Labor Governments. 4.In N.S.W. It is worse for N.S.W. Award employees who do not have the cover of Fair Work Australia which allows for an independent umpire and are forced to make complaints directly to their employer who has the final say.The only other alternative is complaints to the stacked and restrained Industrial relations commision through their respective unions as the Commission will not hear complaints from individuals. 5.In the NSW Public Service Low level Managers with a staff of say,6 can earn in excess of $120,000 per annum plus superannuation with a flex day each month.A grade 3 clerk doing data entry or filing with five years service can earn $80,000 plus super and a flex day while a Principal Manager can earn over $200,000 per annum without any of the stress and responsibility of a seasoned School Principal. 5.For many teachers it is just a matter of survival on low wages,working long hours,facing disruptive students and irate parents and it is little wonder there is such a high turnover of staff.
John Stevens | 18 June 2019

I concur with your description of the conditions, but I would add that there is additional pressure applied through the medium of ambition for promotion. If you want to improve your CV, you must show your commitment by initiating new extra-curricular programs, undertaking additional responsibilities - like school sports or work experience coordinator, network administrator', audio-visual support person - just some of the extra jobs I've done without financial or time allowance. I know union action is generally frowned upon, but one way to 'upset the status quo' would be to mount a 'work-to-rule' campaign, just to remind parents, students and educational authorities that in the 'real world' teachers are supposed not to know about, people get compensated for performing 'higher duties'. Our MPs get all manner of 'extras' for being a member of a committee in a parliament based on the 'committee system'.
John Saint-Smith | 18 June 2019

Isn't the better solution to hire more administrative staff within schools to assist the teachers with mundane administrative (dare I say pointless) tasks when everyone - teachers, students, parents - would be better served with the teachers being able to focus and devote more attention to their primary and all important role of educating. I call it common sense 101 and it should be a mandatory subject for all politicians and school bureaucrats
chris b | 18 June 2019

The first major stopwork actions postwar were of Victorian Teachers, organised by the VSTA - Victorian Secondary Teachers Association, in the mid 1960s. The casus belli? Money? No; proper representation on and to the Teachers Tribunal governing conditions. Next campaign? Insistence on a properly qualified professional body, with registration in the hands of the Profession itself, as had long been the practice in Law and Medicine. A time limit before Stop Work or Selective Duty action was imposed for training or removal of unqualified temporary teachers recruited to help child-mind the proliferation of Baby Boomers. Next, in the early 1970s, class sizes were the objective. Money was never mentioned. The principal necessary work condition for teachers is that they be at all times treated as RESPECTED PROFESSIONALS. All else follows.
James Marchment | 22 June 2019

As the child of a teacher and friend of many more, I agree that simply raising teachers’ pay is not the answer. More teachers and administrative assistants in schooling are needed, but even more pressing is the need for parents to recognise that teachers can simply not be held accountable for every aspect of their children’s lives. Even ‘working parents’ are not entitled to delegate all responsibility for their offspring to the school.
Juliet Flesch | 24 June 2019 reason for finding this; more pay or better conditions! Relief just contacted union, but have to be a member before 'soliciting' info. average $587 mebership = cash cow over 30mil! LSES should have smaller classes. Work in stages but still teach in grades so composites not 3 levels but 6. Dealing with low self esteem, neg. behaviour, and generally low input despite 'engaing' lessons due to lack of belief/aspiration. Lack of basic resources although funding quite adequate...diverted to more SLSOs, many good, some not, changing the dynamic; the fun friend/helper, extra work for the teacher dealing with 30 kids not one or a group. Lack of productive leadership; instilling pride in school grounds, concentrating on external rewards, too much nannying. Schools K-6 with no male teachers, others with disproportionately more...(sorry guys, but it appears you have more choice as you are in demand), where good male role models are vital. So more pay means more tax relatively highest. Federation membership if calculations correct generates 30 mil. ??? agrees to casuals waiting longer for pay??? Casual/subs/relief ... expected to be a super teacher with ESP... forewarned is forearmed, so being treated as a dog's body is indeed inexcusebly unprofessional.
Donalea | 19 November 2020


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up