During term two, thousands of teachers across New South Wales pounded the pavement in protest of working conditions, pay and the ever-growing unmanageable workloads. Teachers are tired, they are burnt out and they are calling for the state education department to listen to their fair and just demands. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have read countless social media posts about the realities of teaching from teachers who are new to the system or are well-seasoned veterans. I’ve heard the profession degraded by parents, politicians, and the media, and I’ve consoled countless friends and colleagues as they’ve cried about their teacher burnout and vicarious trauma. To put it simply, there is a teaching crisis – we know this, and we’ve known about this for a long time.
But I can’t help but question during this time is if anybody is concerned about the reasons why First Nations teachers leave the profession after only a few years in the classroom? This seems to be an issue flying silently under the radar.
Across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up approximately 2% of teachers. However, it is difficult to find recent or accurate data about the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who work in the education sector. This is strange. Alarming even.
First Nations teachers enter the profession for many reasons. Teaching comes so naturally to our people. Afterall, we have been sitting on this Country, teaching and learning since time immemorial. For me, becoming a teacher was an act of needing to be what I couldn’t see – an Aboriginal teacher in a classroom who was proud of their identity.
Currently, one in five teachers leave the profession within their first five years. And for some of us at Deadly Ed, we have silently become part of this statistic. As we embarked on our teaching journey, some of us had been enticed by teacher incentive programs – scholarships of a sizeable lump of money and a permanent job appointed to us at the end of our studies. Our terms and conditions noted that all we had to do was obtain our teaching degree within an appropriate timeframe and stay at the school we were appointed to for three years. At the time, it sounded like it was too easy. Every few years, an incentive program circulates to entice First Nations people to enter the teaching profession. But what these incentive programs don’t address are the issues around First Nations teacher retention, and the reasons why our mob leave the system. These incentive programs are fishbowls – they find people to take up the incentive, provide them with a job, and then continue the cycle whilst neglecting to feed forward crucial information about why First Nations teachers leave the profession despite the incentive to get them into it.
Upon entering a school, First Nations teachers are quick to pick up on how serious the school is about Aboriginal Education. If you’re a First Nations teacher, you know the vibe I’m talking about. Whether permanent or temporary, beginning teacher or someone considered part of the furniture, First Nations teachers find themselves picking up the extra workload, including the mental workload, when it comes to Aboriginal Education. As First Nations teachers, we can’t just leave our cultural values and obligations at the school gate every morning. It’s a huge part of who we are – it comes before our teaching title. If things aren’t being done to foster the best outcomes for First Nations students, we want to do something about it. When we notice that there are wellbeing matters relating to our students and their families, we want to do something about it. When it comes to a day or week of cultural significance, we want to do something about it. And First Nations teachers often do these things with no official allocation in their timetables, or they’re hardly ever given time back. This is a common problem, and this is how First Nations teachers become burnt out.
First Nations teachers are often given the responsibility to ‘lead’ Aboriginal Education in schools. Sometimes this is best because they know how to engage First Nations students and their families, they know their communities, and they come with their own experiences as First Nations students and First Nations people. But this leadership isn’t always real leadership. Somehow, First Nations teachers are the best people to engage First Nations students, families and community or coordinate whole school events like NAIDOC Week when there are positive outcomes for the school. But then their opinions and their involvement often fall by the wayside when First Nations students and their families need support with attendance, re-engagement with school or retention – a time when First Nations families would appreciate a First Nations teacher as an advocator. There is a constant back and forth with school executives who do things with First Nations people and who do things to First Nations people. Quite simply, First Nations teachers find themselves in the throws of decision making and being in and out of the loop of communication.
It’s hard to keep up, it’s exhausting, It’s frustrating, and it costs First Nations teachers time and energy.
Most schools have an Aboriginal Education team, group, committee, or whatever synonym that indicates the idea of a collective. Given the statistics of First Nations people who work in the education sector, most of these teams are led by people who are not First Nations. In terms of those schools who have a First Nations teacher or First Nations teachers, they are mindful of those within these collectives who need some cultural initiative to prop up their resume. They are mindful of those who speak over First Nations teachers and don’t consider them in decision making. They are mindful of tokenistic gestures – programs, classroom activities, or the creation of First Nations spaces for aesthetic tick-a-box purposes only. They are mindful because these collectives can quickly become culturally unsafe for them. First Nations teachers bring cultural values and obligations to their workplace, and they work really hard to ensure their voices are heard when it comes to Aboriginal Education. When they’re not heard, it’s incredibly disempowering. When they’re heard but not given time, they still feel disempowered. Especially when they see other school teams like Literacy or Positive Behaviour for Learning teams given time to execute whole school programs and initiatives. Many First Nations teachers verbalise their workload pressures and concerns to executive staff, but conversations often quickly end with a pat on the back for their hard work.
Sometimes First Nations teachers find themselves in positions explaining to executive staff that while they are passionate about Aboriginal Education, like other educators they have other professional goals and they are passionate about curriculum development, wellbeing, high potential and gifted education, technology, and school representative teams too. First Nations teachers enter the profession with a desire to be change makers in regard to Aboriginal Education, but they also want to develop their skillset in other aspects of school life. First Nations teachers want to pick their professional goals, not have them chosen for them – they don’t need to be pushed into boxes that don’t apply to them just because they’re a First Nations person.
First Nations teachers don’t leave the profession for any one isolated incident or concern. And they don’t leave the teaching profession because they dislike teaching. They leave because the teaching profession does not value them, their culture, their time, or their expertise enough.