Newshub Nation: Burnout on the frontlines - why teachers are leaving in droves

Kiwi teachers are quitting in droves but Labour denies teacher attrition is to blame for the current shortage.

After more than 30 years in the classroom, 55-year-old Penny Sinclair decided to leave the profession. 

"Teaching was just always what I was going to do," Sinclair said. 

She has held onto a book with photos of each of the thousands of students she has taught. 

To say she has been dedicated to the profession is an understatement.

She told Newshub Nation's Laura Walters about the day in 2022 she made the difficult decision to quit. 

"It was a horrible day," she said. 

"I was exhausted. I just sat in the passenger seat with the tears rolling down my eyes thinking, 'I just don't want to do this anymore'." 

Sinclair said the decision to quit filled her with a sense of failure.

She felt as though she was "letting people down, especially the children in my class". 

The difficult emotions attached to that decision continue to impact her today. 

"I taught at the most incredible school, amazing kids, just the best staff, a brilliant principal, but I couldn't do it anymore," she said.

She was simply exhausted, and she is not alone.

In 2022, more than 5500 teachers decided not to renew their practising certificates. 

Ministry figures suggest the total number of teachers isn't the issue, with a higher number of new teacher registrations during the same period, and retention rates tracking towards pre-COVID levels (91 percent).

However, the question of whether Aotearoa has enough teachers isn't clear-cut. Modelling has become difficult, with COVID-19 disrupting past trends. 

A low-supply model for 2023-2025 shows there will be a shortage of high school teachers but a surplus in primary schools; while a high-supply model for the same period shows supply will slightly outpace demand for secondary school and significantly exceed demand for primary.

Anecdotally, this isn't what schools are experiencing.

Principals are struggling to fill teaching roles due to workload and burnout. They say more teachers are quitting since COVID-19 and schools outside the main centres are really feeling the squeeze.

Those in the sector say one of the biggest issues isn't getting people into teaching, it's keeping them - especially in the early years.

In 2018, union surveys found almost half of all high school teachers quit within their first five years, and 20 percent of primary teachers - this is data the ministry doesn't track.

In 2023 NZEI Te Riu Roa said 40 percent of principals were in their first three years of being principals, due to high rates of turnover.

New Zealand Principals' Federation president Leanne Otene said the turnover of principals was an unseen crisis.

"Principals feel battered. Battered by politicians and battered by the public," she said.

"Everyone is overwhelmed - principals and teachers alike - at the magnitude of the job. Our bread and butter is teaching and learning and that's certainly not all we do."

A new secondary union staffing survey supports this sentiment, with a quarter of schools forced to cancel classes and half transferring courses due to a lack of specialist teachers - the highest proportion on record.

Meanwhile, the average number of applicants per position was the lowest on record.

Additionally, both exit and staffing surveys show an increasing proportion of teachers are citing burnout and workload as their reasons for leaving.

Newshub Nation spoke to more than a dozen teachers who've recently left the profession and they all identified the same key issues: a lack of training and support to meet increasingly complex behavioural and learning needs; overworking the most competent teachers, often leading to burnout; and a systemic under-valuing of the profession.

Sinclair said that cracks in the sector have been forming for some time. 

It started with Tomorrow's Schools, then the Education Review Office, National Standards, and finally COVID. 

Each chipped away at public trust in teachers. 

Sinclair said, "The irony is you go into teaching because you love kids, but it's always at the detriment of your own kids.

"That's what people forget, teachers are parents too.

"We want the best for kids, but often our kids miss out."

Measuring the trade-offs between being a dedicated teacher and also supporting one's own family is a difficult, sometimes impossible, balance to strike.

"I put other people's children ahead of my own family's needs for 30 years."

With the birth of her first grandchild, Sinclair finally said "nope, my family needs to come first".

Sinclair emphasised just how hard teachers work.

"We do it for our nation's children," she said.

Sinclair condemned the amount of oversight and regulation that has been introduced into teaching, saying Tomorrow's Schools reforms, the Education Review Office and National Standards have eroded public trust in teachers' professional ability.

"We care about our kid's education, we know how to do our job," she said.

"No, we don't work nine till three, 40 weeks a year. We work really hard because we care."

Education Minister Jan Tinetti denied the teacher shortage has been caused by teacher pay and conditions.

A former teacher and principal, and one of Sinclair's classmates, Tinetti said the situation is "a lot more complex than that". 

"I know the work that our teachers do and absolutely value it highly," Tinetti told Newshub Nation.

"But, like every other sector, COVID has had an impact on our education sector as well, and that's what we're trying to work through with our teachers at the moment."

The Ministry and subsequent Education Ministers have brought in a range of measures to increase teacher supply since 2018, however, turnover remains high and workforce well-being is at a low point.

Tinetti said delaying major policy changes, such as the new curriculum rollout and NCEA overhaul, would help lighten the load on teachers. 

She also encouraged those struggling with their well-being to access counselling through the Government-funded Employee Assistance Programme.

In recent weeks, teachers have been striking across New Zealand.

At the same time, those with the power to enact change, our politicians, are making promises. 

National Leader Christopher Luxon said, "New Zealand can be world-leading, and there is no subject on which I'm more passionate, or which motivates me more, than education."

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said: "I think our track record speaks for itself. It tends to be Labour Governments that put extra teachers in to reduce class sizes."

But the teaching sector is asking leaders to put politics aside.

Two-thousand educators have signed a petition calling for bipartisanship on the issue.

The principals behind the petition said the issues facing the system are too big for any political party to tackle alone, and lasting improvement could not be achieved if policies were overhauled with every change of government.

Asked whether she would commit to working with her colleagues in Opposition on the issue, Tinetti said: "I absolutely, 100 percent agree, education cannot be a political football."

"Educationalists, and I was one of them, are absolutely tired of seeing these changes come into the sector every time there's a change of Government."

She admitted that "it seems to be more so than many of the other areas and it's because people are so invested in their young people". 

"But we have to get agreement around what's important in the education space."

National's education spokesperson Erica Stanford did not buy Tinetti's claims that Labour was open to working with National on the issue.

"I've noticed that Jan Tinetti has often said 'Oh we want cross-party collaboration', but I'll tell you what: actions speak louder than words," she said.

"The reality is that we have not been consulted in any meaningful way to give actual feedback to influence any of the decisions.

"We've been told about things, often an hour before they announce them."

Tinetti's office confirmed since she became Education Minister in February, the National Party had been given two policy briefings, with one briefing occurring immediately prior to a policy announcement.

However, the briefings have been "comprehensive" and included senior officials, Tinetti's office said, adding that the minister remained open to engaging with all parties.

Were National to hold power after this year's election, Stanford said a key focus would be on backroom spend.

"When I talk to principals and I say 'Have you seen any of this?', they say 'no'."

Stanford said that principals are actually experiencing cuts in areas like teacher aid budgets, ORS funding.

"Those are the very kids who need our support the most, on the frontline, who aren't getting it," Stanford said.

"If I was the Education Minister, that would be where all of my support would be going."

Sinclair's support, meanwhile, is still going to the country's kids. 

"I now have two part-time jobs working with special needs children and tutoring," she said. 

She said she's still working 40 to 45-hour weeks, but "that's a lot better than 60 or 70-hour weeks". 

"Now I get to have my evenings and my weekends with my family."

Watch the full video for more. 

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