- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
- Let's teach maths and science
- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
- Early childhood education & care
- Teachers and Teaching
Improving student learning
In times of rapidly changing workplace practice, Peter Sheahan challenges educational leaders to attract and retain the best talent to teaching and he presents definite starting points.
Workforce pundits are clear: we are entering a global talent crunch the likes of which have never been seen. Across Western economies, dual forces of increasing demand for workers and slowing growth in workforce size are making the primary organisational challenge to attract and retain talented staff.
But many educational leaders maintain a mindset of 'terminal uniqueness'; a belief that they are somehow 'different' from other organisations in having to respond to these challenges. The disastrous effects of this mindset are clear: attrition rates up to 25 per cent among early career teachers; 33 per cent of qualified teachers working outside the industry; and a profession with an average age of 49 (ten years above the national workforce average).
What makes this even more dire is that according to a global study by McKinsey & Co., two of the three defining hallmarks of the world's best education systems are directly related to the capacity to attract, develop and retain quality teachers.
The reality is that student learning is entirely dependent on the quality of teaching. This issue must be front-and-centre in our thinking on education.
Unfortunately, of late, the debate on how to best attract talented teachers has stalled around the issue of pay. There is no doubt that teachers need better pay—and I agree with the Business Council of Australia assessment that top teachers need to be paid over $120,000 p.a. (even if that is unlikely in the short term).
But the problem with a focus on pay is that it is disempowering for the people actually running schools, for two reasons. Firstly, because often educators don't decide pay (many in the state system, for instance, are beholden to government awards); secondly, because even in places such as independent schools where leaders can make their own decisions on remuneration, schools already face up to 80 per cent of operational costs coming from staff salaries, making sharp pay rises simply unaffordable.
So while improving pay is important, we must not be content waiting for change to filter down from the system level and the discussion must move onto things educational leaders can do today to make schools more attractive places to work.
One thing that educational leaders do have control over is the workplace culture that is present in their school. New teachers may join a system, but they leave individual schools. In fact, they leave individual leaders and cultures. It is the responsibility of leaders on the ground, not bureaucrats, to create cultures that attract and retain the best teaching talent.
Workplace culture is not an accident. If we are to build one, there are three basic questions educators must ask.
- What sort of talent are we tryingto attract?
- What does this talent want from the workplace?
- How can we build a culture that offers those things?
To start finding answers, I recommend assembling a group of your four best and brightest teachers and putting these questions to them. In a national road show for the Australian Council of Education Leaders, I asked the first of the above questions, and delegates created an instructive list of the qualities for which we were looking.
Such qualities included:
- excellent communication skills
- high emotional intelligence
- an orientation towards action and risk taking
- being innovative
- being performance orientated
- a passion for making a positive contribution.
From my work outside education, I would argue the person this list most closely describes is an entrepreneur. Perhaps young talented teachers are best called 'edupreneurs'—teachers willing to take risks, innovate and push the system, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
So what sort of culture attracts and retains edupreneurs? To answer this question, firstly we must understand an important change in expectations and the psychological employment contract.
When Generation X entered the workforce, unemployment was more than three times the rate it is for Generation Y. Add to this consecutive terms of unprecedented economic growth and stability, a rise in affluence, falling birth rates and a growth in demand for labour and you have a sketch of the different world that today's young talent has experienced.
In leaner economic and workforce markets, the psychological contract between worker and company was that staff traded loyalty (tenure) for job security. But as the playing field tilts towards the candidate, job security is not a hugely valuable offer.
In fact, 'Gen Y' and 'job security' are almost oxymoronic. It is predicted that Generation Y will have up to 30 different jobs during their careers, and they will span five different industries, three of which do not exist today.
These changes alter the psychological contract. Where previous generations traded loyalty for job security, young talent today trades their energy and effort in return for being made more employable for when they leave.
To build cultures that speak to these changes, schools must become places that foster the development, training and up-skilling of young staff. This alone can go a long way towards stemming attrition.
Some schools have started down this path by beginning mentoring programs that pair up talented young staff with more senior teachers who help build their skills and pass on valuable knowledge. Others have focused on professional development and training for young staff. The policies will continue evolving but they share a focus on training.
Schools must also become performance-oriented organisations.
We must build cultures that encourage, recognise and reward high performance. While the use of performance-based pay is highly controversial, there are other tools to use while that debate rages.
Consider instituting a formal awards program that recognises outstanding achievement; create a culture of regular, informal recognition at staff meetings or one-on-ones with highperformers; and put in place small, regular incentives for good work.
Some claim that the above systems are in place, however, I would argue that slipping a certificate quietly in a pigeonhole does not count as a formal system of recognition. There needs to be authentic and public recognition of work well done and a system that genuinely encourages more of the same.
A real barrier to this is the tall-poppy syndrome, sadly alive and well, not just in education. Consider one school we worked with in the Northern Territory that offered financial rewards for high performance; the system failed because it involved self-nomination and no one felt comfortable putting themselves forward because of their colleagues' reactions. High performance must be licensed by a culture that celebrates it, not one that mocks it.
Further, schools must become places of educational innovation. Consider our approach to technology in the classroom. In work we undertook for the Consulting Engineers Association of Australia, the second most cited reason (after poor pay) for people leaving the profession was that they didn't have access to the best technology to get the job done.
Young teachers today are the frontend of a generation of digital natives for whom technology is second nature. The average teenager in Australia spends 27¼ hours per week actively engaging with technology. Only 15 minutes of that time is at school. We must rethink how we teach the emerging central skills of the 21st century: creativity, collaboration and communication.
Most crucially, all of the above relies absolutely on courageous leadership. Educational leaders must make a clear decision to pioneer this change from the frontlines, for they are the only ones with the capacity to make it happen. The future of education is inextricably linked to our ability to attract the best talent to teaching, and there is no time for delay in this vital venture.
McKinsey & Company (2007). 'How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top'
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