The government predicts we will be 4000 teachers short by 2025. And it will hit hardest in our already struggling rural, regional and remote communities.

Unfilled vacancies, difficulty recruiting, increased teaching out of field, a lack of access to casual teachers and resorting to merged classes and minimal supervision have been the tough reality for schools in regional, rural and remote areas for many year – conditions now confronting schools throughout Australia.

With our ever-increasing population, demand for more teachers to fill expanding and new schools will only continue to grow.

On Friday, Education Minister Jason Clare will hold a Teacher Workforce Roundtable focused on fixing the nationwide teacher shortage, with principals, teachers and education experts in the lead up to the government’s Jobs Summit.

Fixing the teacher shortage requires big picture, evidence informed strategies that target the issue at three key junctures – recruitment, teacher education and support for teachers currently in schools.

Numerous reviews and research studies point to the fact that teachers are undervalued and portrayed in unrelentingly negative ways which only deters would-be applicants. Both politicians and journalists must do better and more accurately represent what goes on in classrooms. Teaching is mostly stimulating and fulfilling but you would never know that from the way it’s described.

The strategy to recruit only “the best and brightest” into teaching will fail. It’s not based on any evidence that higher ATARs make for better teachers and it disrespects the current workforce. Our research shows teaching to be the second most popular career (behind careers in sport) among school students in years 3 to 12 in NSW, including many who are high achieving and many in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia. A bright and diverse cohort of students want to become teachers when they leave school. We must nurture that interest and we must address structural inequalities shaping access to higher education, especially for students who live in regional, rural and remote areas.

Enhancing initial teacher education (ITE) must be based on evidence. Shaping well-rounded, well-prepared teachers requires the right mix of practical and theoretical knowledge. It’s not the quantity of time student teachers spend in schools, but the quality of their experience that’s important. Calls to reduce the length of ITE programs and halve post-grad degrees will put under-prepared teachers in the classroom and risks creating further burnout and attrition. We would not advocate halving medicine or engineering degrees. Student teachers need good supervision, good mentoring and good induction.

There is no national systematic approach to these processes, but there could be.

Our research shows that the quality of teaching delivered by beginning teachers is, on average, no different from the quality delivered by experienced teachers. While of course there is more to do in enhancing teacher education, this evidence suggests ITE is doing relatively well. We also found that despite common assumptions, teachers in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia deliver teaching of equal quality to their peers in metropolitan cities. Baseless assumptions about teaching quality only erode the morale of our teachers and cause more of them to think about leaving the profession.

If we want to slow attrition – and we must – then investing in initiatives with clear evidence of positive effects for teachers and students is critical. Our research shows we already have a cost-effective approach to improving teaching and student outcomes that also lifts teachers’ confidence, morale and sense of belonging to the profession, all urgently needed.

This work on quality teaching and teacher development will help raise the status of teaching, enhance ITE and support the 300,000 teachers currently in classrooms nationally. It can play a significant role in addressing teacher shortages and improving education outcomes in Australia now and in the future.

But it won’t be enough unless federal, state and territory governments address the way they approach teachers and schools. If we want to keep teachers in the workforce we must provide meaningful support.

Teachers’ pay and conditions must be addressed. They need time to plan and collaborate. And they need and deserve respect. New graduates, fast-tracked graduates or international teachers will not thrive in a broken system – where too many teachers are burnt out, exhausted, overwhelmed, and demoralised.

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore is director of the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre.

This opinion piece was first published in The Canberra Times on 11 August 2022