The current shortage of teachers in Australia has been building up for years.
The pipeline of new teachers entering the profession is inadequate and turnover rates are high, particularly in science and mathematics.
Bottlenecks have resulted in more teachers teaching subjects ‘outside the subject’. Recent estimates show that 29% of science education is taught by someone who is not trained as a science teacher.
The lack of appropriately qualified teachers is a major problem. Not only is science a big part of the education system, scientific skills are at the heart of some of our most in-demand jobs, from engineering to agriculture to information technology.
They are also necessary to understand and find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as climate change.
In June and July 2022, we surveyed more than 300 elementary and high school science teachers about their jobs and workloads.
The study was conducted with the Science Teachers Association of NSW and respondents came from a mix of government, private and Catholic schools. We found:
48% of respondents indicated that their school had at least one permanent science teacher position
84% indicated that the previous week’s science class was taught by a non-science teacher
57% said their school has at least one science teacher with less than a year of teaching experience.
Read more: Thinking about taking a science subject in grades 11 and 12? Here’s what you need to know
“We need more time”
Teachers also reported being burned out and said they were “exhausted” from all the administration involved in their jobs. As a teacher told us:
Our roles are regularly expanded and nothing is taken away to compensate for the additional requirements.
They reported not having time for a break or lunch break and working at home in the evenings outside of working hours. As another reported:
We need more time to plan, review and improve effective and engaging lessons, NOT more administrative tasks.
Research has already shown that teachers are working long hours due to increasing administrative burdens. In order to meet legal requirements, teachers must document things, including detailed professional development, maintaining their accreditation, and student files. Some of it is necessary, but the volume has become unmanageable.
In addition to this general administrative burden, science teachers must also manage science materials, test experiments, and submit risk assessments for them.
Read more: It’s great Education ministers agree teacher shortages are a problem, but their new plan ignores the root causes
“There will be gaps”
Science teachers complained that there was no support for their subject skills in schools.
More than 80% of respondents said they had difficulty finding science teachers to cover their classes when they are ill, furloughed, or have mandatory professional development programs.
It’s not just that teaching from non-science teachers is being covered, it’s that we need to cover teaching in other faculties […].
Respondents expressed concerns about students, as some classes were not being taught by qualified science teachers and schools were merging classes to cope with staff absences. As one teacher warned:
Due to teacher shortages, there will be significant gaps in the level of skills and critical thinking required of older science students.
What will science teachers continue to teach?
If we are to attract and retain talented science teachers, we must reduce teachers’ administrative burdens so that they have more time to plan and teach.
Real measures to support science teachers would include funding laboratory technicians and administrative staff to support non-teaching tasks.
We should also give science teachers access to compliance and risk assessment technologies. These will make it easier for science teachers to comply with health and safety regulations.
Science teachers need extra support to get their job done, because delivering real science experiences that encourage deep learning requires complex planning to ensure student safety.
Our science teachers are passionate and enthusiastic professionals who love what they do. As a teacher told us:
I love my job, I love my kids [but] We are now so mired in paperwork and gory reporting that our passion and enthusiasm for the job burns out faster than a candle in a wind tunnel.