The long-awaited final report of the federal government’s Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) Review, released last Thursday, recommends teacher-educators at university have substantial and recent school experience.

Great idea. But does that mean taking teachers with that experience out of schools and putting them into universities in the middle of the worst teacher shortage Australia has ever seen?

Dire warnings of COVID-19-related teacher shortages have led the news in recent weeks. Retired teachers, principals and final-year students, as well as non-school-based teachers, are on call to return to the classroom. But workforce shortages have been the reality for principals in rural and remote schools for some time. Now schools are back, and it is no easier.

There is a massive teacher shortage across Australia, and multiple schools reported staff vacancy rates of 20 per cent or higher at the end of 2021. While a majority of schools seeking staff are in hard-to-staff contexts, predominantly in outer-regional, rural and remote areas, even metropolitan schools are struggling to fill vacancies. Staff shortages can have a significant flow-on effect when it comes to teacher wellbeing and student learning.

report from the Grattan Institute, released in January, found teachers are increasingly stressed and time-poor, with 90 per cent of the more than 5000 surveyed teachers reporting that they didn’t have enough time to effectively prepare for their teaching. The pandemic has made this worse. Part of that increased workload for school leaders is the struggle to staff classes.

Some principals have resorted to using social media to advertise teaching jobs. Nearly three-quarters of school leaders reported in the Grattan survey that they also have trouble recruiting support staff, who play a vital role in supporting students and teachers.

Grant Shepherd, principal of Willyama High School in Broken Hill, has extensively tweeted his experiences trying to fill coveted permanent positions. A statewide expression of interest for a full-time PDHPE teacher returned zero responses in November last year, as did five other full-time vacancies. Grant’s latest call is for a permanent Japanese teacher, but he doubts he will have much luck.

The ITE report makes 17 recommendations, only one of which appeared in the Grattan Institute’s report released earlier this year. They both recommend reducing teacher workload. They also rejected any idea that class size should be increased, which would be a relief to anyone working in a classroom today.

From research interviews we’ve conducted with principals in rural and remote schools, many of the recommendations for improving ITE and rewarding teachers would come too late. They’re already short-staffed, with class sizes as high as 45 students in some cases. They lack access to support for administrative tasks and student wellbeing. Once again, they feel forgotten in the conversation.

What impact do staff shortages have on school morale?

As one of the chief investigators for the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, we published last year some of the earliest empirical evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on student learning in the world. The good news from that study was that, on average, students in years 3 and 4 continued to learn at the same rate in 2020 as they did in 2019. These results were further validated by NAPLAN data last year.

But our results showed that the pandemic took a significant toll on both student and teacher wellbeing. Teachers reported feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and their morale measurably dropped in 2020 in a way that didn’t occur in 2019. We are currently analysing 2021 data to look at the impact of consecutive years of disrupted learning.

We had this 2019, 2020, and now 2021 data thanks to a separate major randomised controlled trial focused on improving teaching quality, using a form of professional development that involves groups of teachers observing, collaborating and analysing teaching practice through the Quality Teaching Model.

Our research shows that this form of professional learning, called Quality Teaching Rounds, improves the quality of teaching and student achievement in maths by as much as two months’ additional learning growth in the eight-month study period. These results were slightly stronger in disadvantaged settings. It was thrilling to see the QITE recognise that this kind of professional development works.

We also found significant positive effects on teacher morale and school culture, which is an exciting finding for all teachers, but especially those in rural and remote settings.

Teachers in rural and remote schools are more likely to be beginning teachers, with rates of attrition in the first five years averaging 10 per cent, and rising as high as 50 per cent in some areas. They’re also more likely to be teaching outside their area of specialisation, lack mentorship opportunities available in larger schools, and can experience social and professional isolation.

There are serious barriers for teachers from rural and remote locations to access high-quality professional learning. Distance is the first big hurdle. The time and cost related to travelling to regional centres or capital cities is often prohibitive. There’s also a lack of casuals to take classes while teachers engage with (or travel to) professional learning. With fewer teachers in schools, there’s often less opportunity for them to collaborate more broadly.

Thanks to funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation, we’ve been able to digitise Quality Teaching Rounds to produce positive impacts for teachers in rural and remote schools. The teachers in our randomised controlled trial built networks across NSW with others in rural and remote schools, experiencing shared challenges. It broke down barriers to accessing high-quality professional learning, and supported teachers to not only build their capacity for quality teaching, but boost their morale and collective wellbeing.

No one can argue with the fact that we ask a lot from teachers, and that an already high workload has increased massively during the pandemic. Lesson planning, playground duty, parent meetings, staff meetings, teaching via Zoom, anaphylaxis training, Individual Education Plans for students with additional needs, engaging with research, writing reports – all of this is supposed to fit into a normal working week, including the time they spend in the classroom with our kids.

It’s even tougher in rural and remote schools. Too often rural and remote schools are an afterthought, if a thought at all, in policymaking and think-tank recommendations. Teachers’ work is complex. It demands far more than delivering lessons. Engaging in professional learning, building relationships with students, and planning for whole-school initiatives are important parts of their work. What we need most of all is to listen to teachers, to pay them well and to encourage more people to join the profession. That means developing a serious strategy to staff schools and support teachers in rural and regional Australia.

The review understands exactly what the threat to schools across Australia is. The expert panel which informed the review says that if its 17 recommendations are implemented, schools will be safe. It’s time to start paying teachers properly – and time to start funding schools, just as the decade-old Gonski review recommended.

Jess Harris is an associate professor at the University of Newcastle in the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre.

This opinion piece was first published in The Canberra Times on 4 March 2022