Why young Christian teachers joined the strike

They feel exploited for their commitment to students

This past Tuesday, public school teachers across NSW went on strike, to protest about staff shortages and call for higher pay.

Over the past two years, COVID has crushed an already fragile system in which teachers say they are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated for the crucial role they play in society. They called for ‘more than thanks’ to be given to teachers.

Among those striking and attending rallies across the state were many young Christian teachers. These men and women entered teaching for various reasons – a passion for their subject area and a desire to influence the lives of young people are often raised as factors – but many now share a deep disappointment in the system they were so excited to join.

Exploited for a sense of calling

Ruby* is a history teacher at a public high school in northern Sydney. She told Eternity, “I personally feel very called to teaching. I am five years into this profession, working as a permanent full-time teacher for the Department of Education. I love my job and I am very ambitious about the impact I want to have in the years to come. The last two years have been trying. I missed the worst of it this year while I was on maternity leave, but I felt extremely burnt out at the end of 2020. Online learning made unsustainable workloads glaringly obvious. And the demands increased. Extra responsibilities continue to mount and this is the case for every teacher I know.”

Ruby and others like her are at risk of becoming part of the 50 per cent of teachers who leave the profession before making it to five years, but they don’t want to be. Despite burnout and frustration, these young teachers want to follow through on their calling – they just wish it was all a bit easier.

“I am an early-career teacher passionate about what I do and I feel close to burnout already,” Ruby says. “Last year, I worked unhealthily long hours, in constant contact with students and parents, with a mass of extra responsibilities.

“To give you one small example, I took on a year adviser role last year. I was given three hours over a two-week cycle to oversee the wellbeing of 280 students. I fought for that third hour. In reality, this role required at least two hours of my time every single day. Teaching has become relentlessly demanding. We are exploited for our sense of calling and duty to our students.”

“We are exploited for our sense of calling and duty to our students.” – Ruby

Unable to meet expectations – let alone go above and beyond

Damien* is a music teacher in a regional public high school. 2021 was his first year as a teacher.

Before becoming a teacher, Damien had worked with kids from difficult backgrounds. “Even though it was hard, I found it fulfilling, being able to have a positive impact on young people’s lives,” Damien remembers. “I’m really passionate about music and education in general, so everything aligned and I pursued teaching.”

Damien explains his passion further, “There is a lot of inequality in our country, and a lot of it is entrenched and goes generation to generation. It can be heartbreaking because you can’t fix a kid’s life, but to be someone who goes out of my way to show kids that I value them and I haven’t given up on them, that is something I can do.”

But for Damien, going out of his way for kids and making time to show them they matter has been extremely challenging, with the baseline workload expected of him.

“It is much harder to be a good and compassionate teacher when you are struggling yourself. It is really hard to give kids the time they need, to speak into their lives.” – Damien

Damien explains, “You’re never done, and you just always feel like you should be doing more. And while no one goes into teaching for the money, the whole system takes advantage of that, that people are willing to put in the extra time to do a good job. In the hours that we’re paid for, it would be pretty much impossible to be an effective teacher. There are definitely times where I’ve had to compromise on my teaching, my marking and the feedback that I give because I need to sleep sometimes!

“I strongly believe that education is one of the primary keys to breaking cycles of inequality, and when you are a teacher who doesn’t have time to breathe, you go into survival mode. It is much harder to be a good and compassionate teacher when you are struggling yourself. It is really hard to give kids the time they need, to speak into their lives.”

He has family members and close friends who are teachers, so he knew it would be hard, but says, “There certainly have been things that have knocked me around a little bit more than I expected this year.”

Damien attended a rally in a regional centre on Tuesday. He says he was somewhat surprised by the large turnout, with hundreds filling a community hall, but also understands their drive.

“The Teacher’s Federation commissioned an independent report called the Gallop Inquiry into teaching, and I was hoping that the government would take that on board, but they completely dismissed it. There are also some leaked documents from the Department of Education that have some of the same findings as the independent inquiry, so to see that they know there are issues with teacher shortages and workload, but are ignoring it, that’s really frustrating.”

Damien is particularly worried about the impact of overworked teachers and understaffed schools on students in rural areas.

“There are often lessons when people can’t be covered so other teachers are asked to use their planning lessons to cover other classes, or classes are merged. There are lots of empty positions and the projections are that this will get worse. It’s not good for students and their learning. And it’s really heartbreaking to see, when you know the potential of students but don’t have time or capacity to help them reach it.”

Christians, strikes and standing up for what’s right

While some may consider Christians participating in industrial action and rallies as disrespectful of authority or disruptive, the teachers Eternity spoke to affirmed their belief that standing up for what is right is what Christians ought to do.

“My faith compels me to speak up about injustices and fight for those who cannot speak,” Ruby said. “The voices of our students, casual staff and temporary staff are muffled by political agendas and those with job security. I love what I do, but the system needs changing. I am heartened to see so many stand with teachers in protest, acknowledging that teachers need more than thanks. Thank you is the absolute start.”

“The fact that it has so much impact on students, that’s why I felt it completely necessary to take that action.” – Damien

Damien echoed Ruby’s thoughts, and added, “My mind immediately goes to Jesus flipping tables, but obviously he’s in a special category! But I don’t think it is disrespectful to speak the truth or to protest something in a peaceful way. I don’t think striking is a good thing to have to do, but it’s one of the only avenues open to seeing improvement. And if it was just about me and my working conditions, it would take more for me to strike. The fact that it has so much impact on students, that’s why I felt it completely necessary to take that action.”

But that doesn’t mean taking a day off was easy. Damien said with a wry laugh, “I had to plan ahead for this gap, and I had to stop myself from trying to catch up on marking and planning when I got home from the rally. I had to tell myself, ‘no it’s a strike, I can’t do school work!’ I’ve wished at points in the past few days that I had used the day to help myself get on top of things, but I’m also glad that I didn’t, on principle.”

Damien and Ruby and others like them hope that the action on Tuesday will lead to change, but they aren’t confident. The NSW government has pushed back strongly against the action. For now, they’re just looking forward to the summer break, and praying that next year is at least a little bit easier.

*Names changed as teachers are restricted from speaking to the media under Department of Education codes of conduct.