You are currently viewing “This is my dream job.  ‘I don’t want to leave’: Future USyd teachers and nurses on entering a crisis industry

“This is my dream job. ‘I don’t want to leave’: Future USyd teachers and nurses on entering a crisis industry

Thousands of NSW workers have gone on strike this year. Various professions, mainly teachers, nurses and railway workers, have shown that public sector workers in NSW have felt systematically silenced, underpaid and burnt out after a brutal pandemic.

In this context of uncertainty, many USyd students will soon graduate and potentially enter the public sector. They are in a unique transition position, especially as they enter the labor market in times of crisis.

I interviewed final-year teaching and nursing students at USyd about how they feel about their profession and the recent strikes. What emerged was a distinct picture of uncertainty about the future, fear of burnout, and anger at operating systems.

“There’s no end in sight”

Workloads in teaching and nursing are increasingly unmanageable and complex. As many as 95% of teachers work unpaid overtime in a typical week, spending more time on administrative tasks, planning and grading than on teaching itself.

“It’s at this point that the paperwork just keeps piling up, and it seems there’s no end in sight,” says Thomas Lawes, a new math teacher and chairman of the USyd’s Education and Social Work Society.

In today’s schools, teachers don’t just adapt lessons; they are also expected to be counselors, volunteers for camps and extracurricular activities, and even quasi-COVID marshals. Jason*, who taught economics for eight months, thinks there’s pressure to work unpaid because “every other teacher does it, you feel like you’re not contributing enough”.

Public school teachers in NSW start at $73,000 but salaries are stagnating fast unless one becomes headteacher or principal, while proposals to introduce bonuses for ‘best teachers’ will not help new entrants.

“Teacher compensation does not reflect the time and effort spent preparing lessons, carrying out extracurricular activities, and grading student work,” says Tessa*. She thinks that young people are not encouraged to enter teaching, when they will be “overworked and not paid enough for the overtime that we will have to sacrifice”.

In nursing, the pandemic has revealed clear vulnerabilities in Australian healthcare systems. The surge is at an all-time high in South Australia, as last week a Tasmanian woman died while waiting for a hospital bed. Now, with Omicron cases remaining high even as NSW restrictions quickly ease, nursing students fear the impact of the pandemic for years to come. Tristan* and his cohort fear having to sacrifice their well-being due to the overwhelming pressure to prove themselves in a new full-time job. Speakers from USyd warned them that the profession requires resilience and huge sacrifices of time and money, and it starts with the academic workload.

The starting salary for nurses, which hovers around $65,000, “is not at all what is expected of them,” says Tristan. “People can just go into other professions and make a lot more money [while avoiding] a frightening and almost dangerous environment.

In recent strikes, public sector workers rejected the Perrottet government’s “insulting” offer of a 3% pay rise, demanding instead a 5-7% increase to match inflation. “You do nursing because you love nursing. If you don’t, you won’t survive,” says Patrick*, who already works as a caregiver.

Many respondents also believe that their education at USyd did not prepare them for the real world. Patrick says the training material is outdated and hopes it won’t lead to “injury or poor patient outcomes.” Tessa’s internships have been pushed back to fourth year due to COVID, while other universities are starting internships from year one. Dropouts were “skyrocketing” and many students felt “unprepared for the realities of teaching.”

“There is literally no one left”

As teachers leave the profession in droves, NSW needs 1,700 more secondary teachers over the next three years, while STEM teachers are desperately needed, especially in rural and regional areas. The staffing crisis is so significant that last Friday federal and state education ministers met to discuss potential solutions.

“COVID has laid bare many issues facing the education system,” says Arkady, a recently graduated language teacher. This year, he says, schools are so understaffed and scrambling for casual teachers, that 11th and 12th grade classes are being sent to the library because there are “literally no more teachers.” Teachers with COVID are still writing lesson plans from their beds. “You can’t just go and be sick because your classes still need something to do.”

Tristan, who is passionate about reducing health inequalities, thinks entry-level nurses are scared because their concerns, such as mandatory nurse-patient ratios in New South Wales, have historically been ignored in favor of the Emphasis by Politicians on Profitability. This has led to shockingly dangerous environments and, ironically, higher healthcare costs.

“These ratios aren’t made up,” says Kristine*, who wanted to become a nurse after caring for her grandparents. “At the end of the day, it’s the patient who suffers because they don’t get the care they need.”

“You are exploited for your nature”

Since freshman year, Tristan has experienced a work culture that instills “the fear of speaking up and asking for what you deserve.” Patrick echoes that “severe bullying of junior staff” creates a vicious circle of bitterness and burnout among nurses.

This cycle, Tristan believes, thrives on exploiting nurses’ desire to be altruistic. “I feel like you’re being exploited for your nature, and because you’re in this caring profession, you’re not going to speak up…If you’re not strong in your voice or your opinion, you will be overthrown.”

It’s the same with teaching, says Arkady. “The system relies on people wanting to spend their free time giving back.” While young teachers want to be guided by their colleagues, other teachers are so overwhelmed that “there’s a limit to what they can give you without suffering themselves… [it’s] one of the main reasons to quit smoking is happening.

Teachers and nurses are frustrated with how their professions are undervalued and disrespected in society. Laura*, who completed a Masters in Early Childhood Education last year, often hears people ask, “Why are you doing a Masters in Kindergarten Education? … [but] it really is physical and mental work. I come home exhausted. Abbie* also feels immense pressure from parents, who can download mobile apps to observe what their children are doing at daycare.

“We get the nicknames ‘babysitters’ and ‘diaper changers’. It irritates me because they don’t see us as educators. We teach children about the world.

“It does not give confidence”

Unsurprisingly, all of these factors can lead to burnout very quickly. Up to 30 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, disillusioned with the reality of constant work. Respondents were well aware that they could be part of this statistic.

Jason says that even as a part-time teacher, he “feels like full-time sometimes… Maybe I’d better do a 9-5 where I don’t have to worry about much else.

Charley worries a lot about running out. “This is my dream job. I do not want to leave. But I’m afraid I have to, because of my physical and mental health, and that’s the last thing I want.

“It doesn’t give you much confidence in your decision [to teach] when you constantly see media reports about tired teachers,” adds Thomas, saying he would feel guilty about considering other careers later on, as he feels like he is leaving students behind and contributing to systemic shortages.

Tristan says some in his cohort feel they can’t lose their degree and their more than 800 hours of unpaid internships, even though they know they’ll feel drained working in an overburdened healthcare system. But Kristine has accepted that she doesn’t see herself becoming a full-time nurse. It’s painful, she says, but the pay and workload just aren’t worth it.

“Until the system collapses, nothing will change”

Faced with their striking professions, people’s emotions were often internally complex. While Arkady felt “truly empowered” during his first strike as a teacher, he was also upset to hear the teachers’ stories.

“I thought, oh no, is that why I’m signing up?” Tristan remains cautiously optimistic, but stresses that stronger nurse-patient ratios must go hand in hand with salary increases.

Many interviewees feared changing the government’s mind. “I’m disappointed that we had to rally just to get a dollar or two over our paycheck,” says Abbie. “It really reveals how respected we are in society.”

Laura also wants to talk about “really can’t change anything” about early childhood education. She was disappointed with child care centers that consistently break staffing and child safety laws, but “we don’t have enough child care centers as they are…if they close, the kids won’t have anywhere to go” .

Kristine’s supervisors were told they couldn’t strike because they were still registered for patient safety. “It misses all the interest of a strike. It’s ridiculous and frustrating… Until the system collapses, I know nothing will change. I don’t think any government is ready for that.

The experiences of USyd students have shown how talented young people are forced out of teaching and nursing due to poor pay and conditions. But if there’s a silver lining, the “historic” strikes have galvanized many future grads, like Charley, to stay strong.

“We need to show solidarity between teachers, nurses, railway workers… We face similar problems, we are ashamed when we try to defend our rights because we are seen as disturbing the public.” Charley is excited to return to teaching after traveling next year, and they’re confident they’ll “overcome the odds.” But I would like to be more sure.

*Names have been changed.

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