The forgotten voices of our teachers

Published 6 December 2021
Empty classroom with facemask slung over a chair An empty classroom (credit: Marco Fileccia on Unsplash).

Teachers were forced out of the classroom when schools rapidly transitioned to online learning in the wake of COVID-19. A new study, led by Southern Cross University's Associate Professor Louise Phillips, has investigated the impact on the teaching profession's future.

With student numbers rising and teacher numbers falling, some states are already forecasting significant teacher shortages in coming years. Recently published research from the perspective of teachers, looking at the experience of the rapid transition to online learning as COVID-19 forced teachers out of the classroom, has left questions as to how this might impact the profession going forward.

Led by Associate Professor Louise Phillips of Southern Cross University and involving researchers from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States, the research team sought to discover the impacts of this pivot to teaching in an online environment.

“We wanted to understand what the lived experience actually looked like for teachers,” explains Professor Phillips. “What were the issues they struggled with? What supports would’ve helped?

"For states like NSW, where they are already anticipating a shortfall of 2,425 teachers by 2025, it is particularly important that we understand how teachers experienced this transition. If we understand the impact, we are more able to help address the issues, and hopefully retain more teachers in the system. In Victoria (and elsewhere), pre-pandemic, significant numbers of teachers were leaving the system in their first five years out of uni.

"That's not taking into consideration the reality of what teaching has been like for the last couple of years - and what our research has shown was that this has been an incredibly tough period for our teachers. It is imperative that policymakers reflect on teachers voices and experiences."

Graph showing teachers' Years of experience & sectors represented by respondents

Graph showing teachers' years of experience and sectors represented by the study's respondents (supplied).

The survey the team developed had 22 questions, six of which were demographic and the remaining 16 interview-style, allowing teachers to offer a range of responses.

They received 624 responses. Many were long-term teachers: 43.5% indicated that they had been teaching in excess of 21 years.

The most commonly cited issues for teachers were the move to online teaching broadly, and its associated issues; connectivity with students and families; and the quality of the teaching they were able to provide.

“Teachers were suddenly expected to be digital learning designers and facilitators regardless of the previous experience and expertise,” write the authors.

The move to online teaching was labour-intensive for teachers. One teacher wrote: “It is very time consuming. Although I am getting paid for three days of work, I need to work 5 days in order to prepare the online lessons, make sure students are supported, email students, and make the videos.”

Another respondent referenced the fact that there was no downtime for teachers, and broadly little support: “Parents are emailing constantly looking for extra support in delivering content, the media and the court of public opinion are attacking teachers as lazy and selfish while they work all day to produce resources, supervise essential worker’s children, respond to parent and student emails, mark student work AND manage their own families through this crisis. The mental health load is far, far higher than usual.”

The equity of access to connectivity and devices created further issues for online teaching. At the start of the pandemic, the lack of internet access for students was raised by community groups and education experts, but no moves were made to mitigate this issue on a systemic level.

And while the Australian government touts its education funding increases in recent years, it spent 1.8% of GDP on education; significantly less that than the world average of 4.529%.

"Teachers have worked incredibly hard during this period," says Professor Phillips. "The reality is, though, that some children have missed incredibly large chunks of face-to-face learning, and there will be costs associated with making sure these kids are where they need to be. Governments, both in Australia and abroad, are going to need to ensure they make that funding available if they want these students to transition smoothly."

While information was provided to teachers on online learning, the pace of the transition and the sorts of information were not necessarily conducive to supporting teachers. 

“Teachers said they had lots of information coming at them about the ‘pivot’, the reality is that there was too much of it, un-curated, and teachers didn’t really know where to go for support and guidance,” says Professor Phillips.

Aside from technical issues, teachers also reported a number of practical issues were raised by teachers.

“Some teachers were trying to work out how to engage their students in homes where devices were shared, or there wasn’t enough data for all the family to be operating online,” Professor Phillips said. “It was very clear from the responses that teachers felt lost in how to help those students.

“Teachers also reported a great deal of concern about those students who were not engaging, and who didn’t come from homes where that was encouraged. It’s one thing to check on the welfare of your student if you see them every day; if you don’t get a check-in on a digital platform, though, and the family doesn’t respond to other entries, how do teachers respond?

“Teachers also responded that it was incredibly hard to do the actual business of teaching,” says Professor Phillips. “They struggled to connect in the online environment, and many reported that it was only by moving to online that they realised how much of their practice was informed by body language. Keeping attention of their students, and proper monitoring of engagement were particularly difficult in this time.”

A blonde-haired woman with glasses

Southern Cross University's Associate Professor Louise Phillips led the study.

As broad-scale lockdowns have come to an end, the impact of this period on the teaching profession in the longer term needs serious strategic consideration.

One teacher wrote: "Going through this - I was tested for Covid, not feeling safe, and then seeing teachers belittled in the media, has made me come to the realisation that I don’t want to teach anymore."

Professor Phillips said: “We were already facing a teacher shortage in Australia – we need to listen to the voices of our teachers to ensure that that shortage isn’t compounded by the challenges they’ve faced while keeping our students engaged and up-to-date.”

Study details

Surveying and resonating with teacher concerns during COVID-19 pandemic (2021) published in Teachers and Teaching journal

By Louise Gwenneth Phillips, Melissa Cain, Jenny Ritchie, Chris Campbell, Susan Davis, Cynthia Brock, Geraldine Burke, Kathryn Coleman & Esther Joosa

DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2021.1982691

Reproduced with permission from an original media release by MCERA, Media Centre for Education Research Australia.

Media contact: Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or