Teacher autonomy and the workload crisis

Improving conditions to retain and recruit teachers is about more than money, writes Will Brodie. It’s about workload.

Across Australia, workload is the scourge of teachers, the byword for poor conditions driving them from their profession. Too much documentation and administration, too many meetings, too little time to prepare engaging lessons. A recent IEU survey of Victorian Catholic teachers received over 800 responses repeating these concerns:

“Admin is taking over teaching. I want to know my students and teach them. There is just way too much other stuff that gets in the way.”

Senior Research Fellow Dr Jessica Holloway says an “extensive review of teacher workload, working conditions and compensation” is required as unsustainable workload expectations force teachers to consider other career options and dissuade newcomers from entering the profession.

But she also says policymakers must enable the professional autonomy required for teachers to do their jobs well. The surveyed teachers back up Dr Holloway.

“I feel that being a teacher is not valued by anyone anymore,” said one. “I feel that every decision is micro-managed by people in offices who have no idea what it is like being in a classroom.”

Dr Holloway is also critical of the “people in offices” running education policy.

“Schools are deeply complex institutions, and it takes working within them to truly understand the intricacies involved in making them function effectively,” she says.

“Too often we see schooling solutions being crafted externally and then imposed onto schools and teachers.

“The lack of understanding regarding what schools and teachers actually need only intensifies the problems we’re seeing across the country, like unbearable workloads and burnout.”

A common phrase around my office last year was ‘teaching really gets in the way of my job’ and that really sums it up.

Easy solutions

Many survey respondents wanted to be able to leave school grounds when they didn’t have scheduled class time.

“We are professionals,” said one. “I am a professional and will get my planning and marking done and I want to do it in a way which works for me.”

Others asked for a reduction in face-to-face time; more time set aside to deal with useful administration; more regular, meaningful time to collaborate with colleagues; rewards for those who rarely take sick leave; a ban on adding new programs until something else is subtracted; and a reduction in excessive email exchanges with parents.

When Finnish education expert Professor Pasi Sahlberg analysed Australian education, he suggested Australia “reduce top-down control” and offer teachers more “professional autonomy”.

“Maybe there is not enough trust in Australia in good teachers,” Professor Sahlberg said.

Job satisfaction

A practical example of how to counter teacher exhaustion – and improve student outcomes – arose from the uniquely Australian conjunction of sport and poetry in Queensland.

English teacher Kim Roy told a parliamentary inquiry that the comprehension results of Year 9 boys improved instantly when she switched poetry classics for the tomes of contemporary rugby bard Rupert McCall.

The moment she offered footy-based poems “all of a sudden it went ‘boom’ – they were interested”.

“We know these kids in front of us,” Roy said. “We know the big picture that we want to try to get them to, but we can tailor that best if we’ve got that freedom of autonomy.”


Australia’s teacher shortage crisis must be an election priority – expert, Brett Heneberry, The Educator, 20 April 2022

Too much control’: Pasi Sahlberg on what Finland can teach Australian schools, Michael McGowan, The Guardian, 7 January 2018

Teachers’ autonomy vital for classroom learning, inquiry hears, Tony Moore, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2019