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Contract Teaching: Taking a Toll



By Severin Karantonis

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. LNP Governments are eager to distract from their cuts to the public system, and 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.

This post originally appeared on Red Flag 



  1. stuff me

    Is it time for a return of Union militancy? Maybe it is, certainly if we have to put up with the disgraceful liberal national parties.

  2. TurnLeft2016

    job insecurity … i mean ‘flexibility’ …. does not and never has benefited the workers, and in this case, not the students either

  3. stephentardrew

    No strike clauses are, in essence, undemocratic but there you are they get away with with it while workers remain complacent.

    Give them all the bullets while taking away your bullet proof jacket.

    Yeah sounds about right to me.

  4. eli nes

    If you check with the children(from 10 to 50) of teachers you will see how many hours a secondary english literature/history down to maths/science down to craft/pe teachers work. Public schools cannot compete because unlike the private schools there is no place for the outschooled to go till 18. The task of keeping them entertained is very hard work indeed and a major contibutor to teacher stress related illnesses.
    Perhaps the high school university trained maths/science, eng lit(on the endangered list or in many junior secondary schools already extinct) and, possibly, history, geography, teachers escape the worst senior school situations. Leaving the education degree people, invariably, without science or literature academic qualifications, to struggle with the numeracy and literacy students.
    My stints in hospital over the last 5 years has given a casual observation that nursing is rapidly catching up with teaching in the temp job cycle and with the pynenuts 6% compound the disaster of debt lies of the abbuttians will be accomplished.
    It is not hard to imagine 100s of thousands of Australians with unpayable debts of half a million at 50 years old.

  5. Luke

    Here’s a big problem- the AEU is completely toothless and willing to sell out its members in order to get any EBA stitched up. The past few agreements have steadily eroded pay and conditions and the last one was marked by the union misrepresenting what the deal was about. This means that people like me are far less willing to take the necessary industrial action in order to achieve anything and I have nothing to tell people when they say “well, why should I stay in the union?”

    I say this all with a really heavy heart. I am so pro-union and nothing pains me more than to see this happen. Once conditions are lost, they almost never come back. And my workload is so ridiculous, I have almost no fight left in me.

  6. darrel nay

    Teaching is as noble an occupation as there is. It is priceless to be able to sleep with a clear conscience at night. The powerbrokers act in such a way as to shift focus from the abc’s to AEU, EBA,etc. etc.

    Thanks teachers

  7. diannaart

    My sister graduated 4 years ago, she teaches secondary school science & maths. Until 2 years ago she was working 6 months at a time, since then she has been on contract to teach electrical instrumentation to a class of under privileged boys. Despite the fact finding someone else to do her job is unlikely (her curriculum being somewhat specialised), she is still only offered another contract for next year (third year in same job).

    This is how both governments have been treating teachers like office equipment for far too long; no continuity, no security, no opportunities for promotion, just being strung along for the indefinite future.

    Both students and teachers suffer as a result.

  8. darrel nay

    thanks for the link corvus boreus.

    I think of teaching more as facilitating – a bit easier job description that way. I heard the govt. spent millions on trying to entrench themselves into the ANZAC legend -that cash would have bought a lot of school air conditioners or otherwise contributed to easing the burden on teachers.

  9. darrel nay

    reply for diannaart,

    It’s their in-bed-with-corporates ‘philosophy’ of human resources. You can’t blame the teachers who leave the system to get better pay tutoring privately and many of the tutors claim they find it a more effective scheme.

    It took me until into my 20’s to fully realise that an independent learner doesn’t essentially require a teacher.

  10. corvus boreus

    darrel nay,
    Again, I agree. Teachers should, at their best, guide their charges on how to examine, evaluate, and draw conclusions.

    As an aside, I thoroughly despise the currently fashionable derision of the disciplines of historical study.
    Those who seek to manipulate the masses for their own agendas regularly study the lessons of the past (Goebbels did not invent propaganda, merely refined it), but the practice is often broadly disparaged for common education.
    Learning to filter through the various barrows pushed by the chroniclers of the past (easier in hindsight), aided by curious and critical examination of lingering physical evidence, helps understand the contextual events leading to the contemporary situation, which aids in spotting cxoncealed agendas being pushed in current decptively concocted narratives.

    Cue the clichéd but true quote about repetitions of past mistakes through ignorance.

  11. corvus boreus

    Ps, wow, typed dat messy.

  12. darrel nay

    On the topic of concocted narratives, corvus boreus, I am really looking forward to the release of the 28 ‘missing’ pages from the 9/11 report. If the pages reveal a different history then the chroniclers will be busy.

    “History would be a wonderful thing – if it were only true.”

    ― Leo Tolstoy

  13. kerri

    Contract teaching sounds a lot like “Limited Tenure” which was the cause of much striking in the early 80’s. I graduated in ’81 and worked a while as a checkout chick. Couldn’t afford a car to do Emergency teaching. Once I got a car I was quickly put on Limited Tenure. Work every day of a term and get sacked on the last day of school only to be rehired on the first day back. When I hit the Christmas break (7 or 8 weeks in those days) I thought f**k you government! And went on the dole! I was supposed to make job applications every week before receiving my meagre cheque but of course schools were closed so no one was hiring! But I digress! I totally disagree with the kids causing the majority of the stress! The bureaucracy was always more depressing. On the whole the kids I taught were great! Some were twerps who were a waste of time but I still believe in the innate goodness of most kids.

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