Sixty hour weeks, poor mental health, stagnant pay and a crippling amount of paperwork: welcome to a career in teaching. In the wake of last week's strike action, six Illawarra educators lay bare the reality of teaching in 2021 as they fight for better pay and working conditions for this generation and the next.
Think our school teachers have it easy in 2021? Think again.
On paper they may work 9am to 3pm and have 11 weeks off a year, but the reality is the exact opposite, current teachers say.
Sixty-hour working weeks and a crippling amount of administrative paperwork are among the reasons people are leaving the job, with confidential NSW Department of Education documents released in parliament in October revealing the state's public schools are likely to "run out of teachers in the next five years".
Today, six primary and secondary teachers from across the Illawarra expose the reality of their profession. They must all remain anonymous due to the department's code of conduct, which prevents them from speaking out publicly.
Nat* - Primary School
Regular 60-hour working weeks are normally associated with high-powered CEOs, medical staff, tradies and business owners, not your average primary school teacher.
But that is the reality for Nat and thousands of her colleagues, who regularly put the needs of their students and the increasing reporting demands of the NSW Education department ahead of their own health and wellbeing.
"Unless you know a teacher or have a parent or child that's a teacher, you don't understand the sheer quantity of the workload we face," she said. "It's mentally and physically exhausting. The administrative load is so high that it's not even remotely possible to do it within the current school hours."
And unlike many of the jobs mentioned above, Nat doesn't get an impressive salary or overtime.
"I leave home at 7am normally and lately I've been leaving work between 6pm and 7pm, and sometimes then I still work when I get home," she said. "I work at least one full day on a weekend."
Nat estimates she spends two-thirds of her working week doing administration and data entry tasks.
Sue* - High School
Sue knew she had reached crisis point when she opened her laptop one Sunday evening to prepare for work and burst into tears.
"You feel like you have to choose between being a good teacher and getting a full eight hours' sleep each night," she said, revealing she sought professional help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like Nat, Sue also works long hours. She knows all the school's dawn cleaning staff by name.
She said paperwork takes up the entire time she isn't face-to-face with students, often leaving her exhausted before she's even stepped into the classroom.
Speaking about why she supported the strike action, Sue said it came down to ensuring a future for students.
"If we don't stand up for our working conditions that means the students' learning conditions deteriorate too," she said.
"They're intrinsically linked. You can't have one without the other."
Phil* - High School
A decent pay rise isn't about propping up the current crop of NSW public school teachers, it's about ensuring the future generation of teachers, Phil said.
"Most teachers who are in the job, they don't want more money, but teachers who are newly coming into the profession aren't lasting," he said.
"We're losing teachers really early in their careers. Most kids who would make good teachers see what we're doing for them and the workload and they turn away from the profession."
Phil said he knew of three teachers considering leaving the profession.
"There's this public perception that teaching is easy," he said. "I tell them if it's so easy and we get paid so well, why don't they come and be a teacher with me."
Like others, Phil said the out-of-class work was all-consuming and described much of the administration paperwork as "data for data's sake". He said there was plenty of duplication in the mandatory data reporting to different departments due to a lack of streamlined services.
Anna* - High School
When Anna began her career many decades ago, teachers could be honest about the shortcomings of their pupils. Not anymore.
"We're not allowed to put anything negative on kid's report these days - it's really frustrating," she said.
"The parents just fly off the handle, it becomes so frustrating."
Anna said dealing with pressure from parents - especially in the age of technology where access to teachers is greater than ever - was a major issue for many teachers and contributed to feelings of exhaustion and burnout among staff.
"No one wants to think their kids are doing anything wrong, but if we can't talk to the parents honestly and tell them what's going on, how do we get their children to learn?" she said.
"We get told it's our fault, which makes it really hard."
Steph* - High School
Teaching isn't what it used to be - it's much more technical now.
That's what Stephanie wants the public to know about the job she has done for 25 years.
She said planning lessons is not just about working out what you're going to teach under the guidelines of the NSW Education syllabus, but how that teaching will be undertaken so each student receives the maximum benefit of the class.
"It's not just about planning, it's about the method of teaching," she said, explaining that it meant lesson and individual student plans became constantly evolving documents that require daily work - most of which is done outside of work hours.
"The demands of the profession are exciting, but the provision to achieve it isn't understood by the public at large," she said.
*Steve - High School
Steve is considered a 'newbie' in the teaching world - someone who has been in the job for less than five years.
He described being 'thrown into the deep end' during his first year, saying colleagues around him were often too busy to offer the guidance he needed.
He said the crippling workload faced by current teachers meant no one had time to help train and mentor the next generation of educators, leading many to quit, including a friend whose mental health suffered from having no support.
Steve said the current teacher shortage showed no signs of abating.
"Barely anyone is enrolling in tertiary education roles and that's only going to get worse according to government projections," he said.
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