Australia is in the grips of a teacher shortage “crisis” according to Education Minister Jason Clare.
Clare says one of the ways we will fix the shortage is by “increasing the number of people who stay on teaching”.
Our new study shows increasing opportunities for teachers to work together may keep teachers in their jobs.
Our research illustrates collaboration between teachers is linked to greater job satisfaction, as well as other benefits for teachers working in rural schools.
What does collaboration involve for teachers?
Collaboration for teachers can include sharing teaching resources, discussing approaches to different classes and students and collaborating on common standards for student assessments.
But teachers often work in relative isolation of each other, as they are confined to their classrooms and assigned class groups.
According to a 2018 OECD report, 28% of teachers around the world teach with another teacher in the same classroom at least once a month and 47% exchange teaching materials with others at least once a month.
Our research investigated what work factors are most relevant to teachers’ wellbeing. We also looked at whether there was a difference between teachers working in rural or metropolitan areas.
We examined two teacher wellbeing outcomes: job satisfaction and work strain. Job satisfaction represents whether teachers are happy working at their current school. Work strain measures whether teachers believe their job negatively impacts their mental and physical health.
Our study used the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey. This is the largest international survey about teachers and their working conditions. We used the most recently available data from 2018. Our sample included 3,376 high school teachers working in 219 schools across Australia.
Collaboration is linked to job satisfaction
Our research showed teachers who reported more frequent collaboration with their colleagues also reported greater job satisfaction. This was true for teachers working in both rural and metropolitan schools.
This indicates working together with colleagues may help teachers to feel more satisfied with their job, no matter where they work. The results suggest the more teachers work together, the greater their job satisfaction.
Collaboration may help teachers feel connected with their colleagues and build positive relationships. It may also help teachers feel more competent and supported as part of a team.
Our research also found more frequent collaboration appeared to have other benefits to teachers in rural schools.
Rural teachers who had concerns about the relevance of the professional development their school provided were more likely to report their job negatively impacted their mental and physical health (in other words, they had higher work strain).
This is perhaps because teachers may find their work more difficult when they do not receive relevant professional development (new skills, approaches and ideas).
In rural schools, professional development can be harder to access because of distance and the availability of relieving teaching staff. With these existing barriers, it may be particularly detrimental to their wellbeing if professional development is then considered to be irrelevant.
Collaboration and professional development concerns
Interestingly, our analysis revealed the link between irrelevant professional development and work strain was not present for rural teachers who collaborated more frequently with their colleagues.
This suggests more frequent collaboration may protect against the effects of irrelevant professional development on work strain. It may be collaboration can provide teachers with informal learning opportunities that help them to do their jobs better and feel less stressed about work.
How can teachers collaborate more?
Our research suggests schools and school systems may want to encourage more collaboration, while also ensuring their staff are provided with relevant professional development. This could help teachers stay in their jobs.
To support teacher collaboration, international research says teachers need to work together in ways they find effective. This highlights the importance of listening to staff to understand their needs.
International research also suggests collaboration is most beneficial when teachers are given dedicated time at work to work together so it is built into their work hours, rather than an added extra.
How do we encourage collaboration?
These are both approaches that can happen without major disruption to classes.
Peer observations involve a group of teachers observing each other teaching and then meeting to discuss their thoughts. These peer observations are designed to be supportive and may help teachers gain a sense of professional community, boost morale and identify teaching practices that are particularly effective within their school’s context.
For teacher mentoring, teachers can be assigned a more senior or experienced member of the school to meet with and discuss their work experiences. Research shows it is important for mentors and mentees to feel as though they are both benefiting from the process. A mentee may benefit, for example, by thinking about their professional approaches in new ways, while mentors can also learn from listening to their mentee’s experiences.
In smaller and more remote schools, technology may be needed to help connect teachers with colleagues from other schools for both peer observations and mentoring.
Andrew Kingsford-Smith, PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology, UNSW Sydney; Hoa Nguyen, Associate Professor, School of Education, UNSW Sydney; Rebecca J Collie, Scientia Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, UNSW Sydney, and Tony Loughland, Associate Professor in Education, UNSW Sydney