‘Be that teacher’ is a new $10 million advertising blitz by federal, state, and territory governments that aims to elevate the status of the teaching profession, to celebrate its impact, and to inspire more individuals to consider teaching as a fulfilling career path.

The campaign’s objectives, to reshape the public perception of teachers and to encourage aspiring educators, may well be necessary, but it will do nothing to address the reasons behind our drastic teacher shortage or stem the exodus of teachers from the profession.

To encourage new recruits, the campaign offers up the testimony of eight dedicated teachers. Their stories regarding the connections forged with students, emphasise the transformative power of a great teacher and the enduring satisfaction teachers can derive from their vocation. It’s genuinely positive and convincing stuff.

However, the campaign runs the risk of doing more harm than good. By not seeking to address the systemic problems within the education system, ‘Be that teacher’ obscures the challenges faced daily by teachers in the classroom.

Lack of ‘teacher-heart’ is not the problem in the Australian education system. The problem that demands urgent attention is what awaits a teacher in the classroom, namely, a steady decline in academic standards and a workforce in crisis. It is a crisis generated by a lack of relevant training, unsustainable workloads and unnecessary paperwork keeping teachers from their actual job. On top of this, parents with often unrealistic expectations, and unruly – sometimes violent – students exacerbate the problem.

Any campaign to attract teachers that fails to address these issues will do little to solve the teaching crisis.

Australian classrooms are one of the most problematic in the OECD. The 2018 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment results (PISA) showed while most countries registered an improvement in classroom behaviour, Australia’s had deteriorated. Australian classrooms ranked among the unruliest in the world, at 70th out of the 77 countries surveyed.

It is unsurprising that students feel empowered to antagonise and disrupt when our National Curriculum is an ideologically driven document explicitly urging students, from their earliest years, to dissent and participate in acts of civil disobedience. The idea that self-restraint and discipline are outdated vestiges of a bygone era has hardly helped.

Moreover, when a student misbehaves, the subsequent administrative demands on the teacher are daunting. The investigation and detailed documentation of the incident itself is followed by a teacher-led ‘roundtable’ discussion with those involved – employing ‘restorative practices’ – and further meetings with other staff and parents. Every one of these conversations must be documented. Hours of time, taken away from actual teaching or lesson preparation, are required every time there is an incident of almost any kind.

Many parents, too, have become increasingly and unrealistically demanding. It is not uncommon for parents to reject the school’s view of a matter and for a teacher to endure complaint, hostility and even abuse. And, of course, all the meetings arising from a complaint must be documented. Unsurprisingly, the school environment can quickly deteriorate, marked by a general lack of trust and respect.

The abandonment of the principle of ‘in loco parentis’ has led too many parents to the belief that it is their right to intervene on their child’s behalf whenever they want. This sense of parental entitlement has created a situation where 59 per cent of teachers report they spend five hours or more, every week, just dealing with parents.

Teachers are on the receiving end of a staggering and increasing rate of abuse. A study by La Trobe University’s Paulina Billett, Rochelle Fogelgarn and Edgar Burns, found that 80 per cent of surveyed teachers had experienced bullying and harassment in the preceding 9-12 month period, and more than half reported this behaviour coming from both students and parents. No other workplace would tolerate such an incidence of bullying.

Many teachers struggle to manage disruptive behaviours and maintain a conducive learning environment. The lack of adequate support and training in behaviour management perpetuates the problem, undermining the learning experience for both students and teachers. Initial teacher training, notably Woke and notoriously lacking in evidenced-based preparation for the realities of the classroom, leaves new teachers floundering and vulnerable, which in turn contributes to burnout.

The workforce shortage has also led to high numbers of teachers taking subjects they have no training in, known as ‘teaching out of field’, which is another contributing factor to the decline of educational quality and student outcomes.

The public perception of teaching being a 9am-3.30pm job with long holidays, if it was ever true, has never been further from the truth. The profession is under extreme strain, with teachers routinely describing their workload as ‘excessive’, ‘unrealistic’, and ‘unsustainable’. A recent Monash University survey suggests almost half of the teaching workforce is considering leaving the profession.

While the “Be that teacher” campaign celebrates exceptional educators, the $10 million spent will in no way address the real problems underlying the teacher shortage, and will only overshadow the pressing need for sweeping system reform.

For the teaching profession to be genuinely elevated and, crucially, for workplace conditions to improve, comprehensive reform is urgently required.


Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow