The Great Resignation: Will It Be the Catalyst For Improved Human Resources Practices in the Education Sector?



The Great Resignation. We have all probably heard about it recently in the media, but what is it exactly?

It has been described as a trend, characterised by an enormous spike in the number of employees leaving their jobs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The term was first coined in April 2021 in the United States following a spate of resignations. The current United States resignation rate is now at a two-decade high, as four million workers hand in their notice every month.

New data suggests that a similar phenomenon may be unfolding in Australia. Business Insider has quoted a recent survey where 40 per cent of respondents said that they were going to look for a new job within the next six months, while 15 per cent were already actively looking to leave their current employer.

However, The Conversation has presented an alternative view. Their article title states that "Australia's 'great resignation' is a myth — we are changing jobs less than ever before”. They base this view on data collected from the Australian Bureau of Statistics including a “key statistic” that, in the year to end February 2021, 7.5 per cent of employed people changed jobs which is “the lowest annual job mobility rate on record”. The article does acknowledge however that the Australian labour market may change direction and follow the United States labour market. Since February 2021 (now over eight months ago), most states and territories have experienced an extended period of lockdown which for many people has meant working from home. The final comment in their article deserves repeating “The issue here is not so much a Great Resignation, but how to deal with a Great Resistance to the idea of returning to the office, and the daily commute.”

There is no doubt that this pandemic has caused a seismic shift in how many employees view their working conditions. As restrictions have been lifted, employees have discovered that they have been as productive or perhaps even more productive working from home, without the added cost and time of commuting, inflexible and sometimes stressful schedules, and a demanding workplace. Business Insider argues that this has caused a shift of power from employers to employees, giving employees more bargaining power to seek better working conditions.


How Will it Affect the Education Sector?

It is no secret that our education system has been struggling for years to recruit and retain talented teachers due to the increasing responsibilities and workload.

In addition, The Educator notes that approximately 70 per cent of Australia’s 10,000 school principals will reach retirement age sometime in the next five years.  School Governance wrote about these alarming statistics in two articles, with information sourced from the Australian Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey.

However, teacher and even principal shortages are not just confined to Australia. In a recent study by the Rand Institute in the US, it was found that nearly one in four teachers is likely to leave their job by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year compared with one in six that was likely to leave on average prior to the pandemic. The biggest stressors during the COVID-19 pandemic were the mode of instruction and health concerns. Considering that one in three teachers was also caring for their own children during the pandemic while trying to teach remotely, it is very understandable that there has been a great deal of ‘teacher burnout’ in the profession.

In addition, the extra stresses and anxiety caused by this pandemic have shown us that a positive workplace culture is extremely important to employees. Having a supportive work environment is one key factor in staff retention and performance in these uncertain times.

A simple ‘pay rise’ fix would generally not be sufficient to encourage valued staff to stay. This is the message conveyed in this Australian recruitment company’s blog article. There needs to be a mindset shift in the sector by school boards and executive staff. Due to the potential increase in resignations, with a few caused by teachers who are refusing to be vaccinated, schools must ensure that they keep their talented teachers in the sector by providing working conditions that acknowledge their extra commitment, the greater levels of stress and the changing nature of the teaching environment.


How are Teachers Viewed and What Are They Looking For?

Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has given the community time to pause and renew their appreciation for a teacher’s role in society. Anecdotal conversations with principals, teachers and parents indicate that there has been a positive shift in attitude towards teachers by parents, students and the workforce as a whole.

School Governance has often noted that a school’s greatest asset is its teachers and that they are the backbone of student success. A survey in relation to job dissatisfaction of teachers was revealed in a recent article in The Guardian. It stated that low wages, short contracts, and heavy workloads in the public education system are key drivers in teachers leaving the profession.

Furthermore, teachers are looking for career development, preferring to work in a school where they can grow and develop their skills. According to a 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey, most teachers want to take part in the innovation and development of new ways of teaching and learning. The main questions that teachers are currently asking themselves are:

  • Do I actually enjoy my job?
  • Does this school align with my own purpose and values?
  • Did my school treat me well during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • Does my job give me the flexibility and work life balance that I need?
  • Does my salary reflect my output?


What Can Schools Do to Retain and/or Attract the Best Staff?

In light of predicted increases in teacher resignations, schools should focus on mitigating the biggest risks for teachers leaving the sector.

To do so schools will need to review their human resources practices and working culture to identify any potential risks for employee turnover.

It should be borne in mind that teachers are humans and will have varying needs and aspirations so, while an excellent superannuation plan may be very attractive to older staff, having flexibility in work arrangements may be more appealing to teachers with carer responsibilities - whether for their children or for ageing parents. Remuneration above market rates and bonuses may be important to some people in order for them to pay their mortgage while for others it is an indication that their efforts are appreciated.  

As a starting point schools should develop a comprehensive Human Resources program that addresses a range of teachers’ needs including, if and where possible, flexible working arrangements, employee entitlements, remuneration and benefits, and the creation of a comprehensive professional development program. It should also address areas that aim to support and remove impediments to good performance, such as solid policies relating to employee welfare, stress management, employee assistance programs, and policies and programs to prevent harassment and bullying. A regular performance development and review program and mentoring will encourage, support and reward excellence and be an early indicator of any systemic issues that need to be addressed, or unhappy staff.

Obtaining information directly from staff by conducting anonymous surveys or interviewing key staff (not necessarily related to their seniority) can also assist with planning more targeted strategies.

All of this may assist in mitigating the risk of teachers seeking alternative employment and bring significant benefits to a school by saving time and money spent on recruitment, minimising disruption from staff changes, and facilitating a reputation for excellence.

Schools that provide a safe, secure, and innovative workplace are more likely to reinvigorate tired or burnt-out teachers and attract talented teachers that are ready to renew their love of the profession.

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About the Author

Elinor Cohen

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