Thousands of workers in NSW have gone on strike this year. Various professions, most prominently teachers, nurses, and rail workers, have shown that workers across the NSW public sector have felt systematically silenced, underpaid, and exhausted after a brutal pandemic.
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, many USyd students will soon be graduating from degrees and potentially entering the public sector. They’re in a unique position of transition, especially since they’re entering the workforce in a time of crisis.
I interviewed final-year teaching and nursing students at USyd about how they feel looking out at their professions and the recent strikes. What emerged was a picture of distinct uncertainty about the future, fear of burnout, and anger at exploitative systems.
‘There’s no end in sight’
Workloads in teaching and nursing are increasingly unmanageable and complex. A whopping 95 per cent of teachers work unpaid overtime in a typical week, spending more time on administrative, planning, and marking tasks than teaching itself.
“It’s at this point where paperwork keeps piling up, and there seems to be no end in sight,” says Thomas Lawes, an incoming maths teacher and president of USyd’s Education and Social Work Society.
In today’s schools, teachers aren’t just tailoring lessons; they’re also expected to be counsellors, volunteers for camps and extracurriculars, and even quasi-COVID marshals. Jason*, who has taught economics for eight months, believes there’s pressure to work unpaid because “every other teacher is doing it, you feel like you’re not contributing enough.”
Public school teachers in NSW start at $73,000, but salaries quickly stagnate unless one becomes a head teacher or manager, while proposals to introduce bonuses for “top teachers” won’t help new entrants.
“Teacher pay does not reflect the amount of time and effort put into preparing lessons, completing extra-curricular activities, and marking students’ work,” says Tessa*. She thinks young people aren’t incentivised to enter teaching, when they’ll be “overworked and getting paid nowhere near enough for the extra hours we’ll have to sacrifice”.
In nursing, the pandemic has exposed clear vulnerabilities in Australian health systems. Ramping is at a record high in South Australia, while just last week, a Tasmanian woman died while waiting for a hospital bed. Now, as Omicron cases remain high even as NSW restrictions rapidly disappear, nursing students are fearful about the impact of the pandemic for years to come. Tristan* and his cohort are worried that they’ll have to sacrifice their well-being because of the overwhelming pressure to prove themselves in a new full-time job. USyd lecturers have warned them that the profession requires resilience and huge sacrifices of time and money, and it starts with the university workload.
Nurses’ starting salaries, which hover around $65,000, “aren’t adequate at all for what’s expected of them,” says Tristan. “People can just go into other professions and make a lot more money [while avoiding] a scary and almost unsafe environment.”
During recent strikes, public sector workers rejected the Perrottet government’s “insulting” offer of a 3 per cent wage rise, pushing instead for a 5-7 per cent 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 an assistant nurse.
Many interviewees also believe their USyd education has left them unprepared for the real world. Patrick says training materials are out-of-date and hopes it won’t lead to “injury or poor outcomes for patients.” Tessa’s placements were pushed back to fourth year due to COVID, whereas other universities start placements from first year. Dropouts “skyrocketed,” and many students felt “ill-prepared for the realities of teaching”.
‘There is literally no one left’
As teachers leave the profession in droves, NSW needs 1,700 additional high school teachers over the next three years, while STEM teachers are desperately needed, especially in rural and regional areas. The staffing crisis is so large that last Friday, federal and state education ministers met to discuss potential solutions.
“COVID has laid bare a lot of issues facing the education system,” says Arkady, a recently-graduated languages teacher. This year, he says, schools are so short-staffed and scrambling for casual teachers, that Year 11 and 12 classes are sent to the library because there are “literally no teachers left.” 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 inequities, thinks junior nurses are scared because their concerns, such as around mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios in NSW, have consistently been ignored in favour of politicians’ singular focus on cost-efficiency. It’s led to shockingly unsafe environments, and ironically, higher health costs.
“These ratios aren’t made up,” says Kristine*, who wanted to pursue nursing after caring for her grandparents. “Ultimately, it’s the patient that suffers, because they don’t get the care they need.”
‘You get exploited for your nature’
Since first year, Tristan has experienced a professional culture which instils a “fear of speaking out and asking for what you deserve.” Patrick echoes that “severe bullying towards junior staff” creates a vicious cycle of bitterness and burnout amongst nurses.
This cycle, Tristan believes, thrives on exploiting nurses’ desire to be altruistic. “I feel like you do get exploited for your nature, and because you’re in this caring profession you’re not going to speak out … If you are not strong in your voice or your opinion, you will get rolled over.”
It’s similar for teaching, Arkady says. “The system relies on people wanting to spend their free time giving back.” While young teachers want guidance from colleagues, other teachers are so overworked that “there’s a limit to how much they can support you without themselves suffering … [it’s] one of the main reasons quitting happens.”
Both teachers and nurses are frustrated at how their professions are undervalued and not respected in society. Laura*, who completed a Master of Teaching (Early Childhood) last year, often hears people asking, “why are you doing a Master’s degree for kindergarten teaching? … [but] it’s really physical and mental work. I come home exhausted.” Abbie* also feels under immense pressure from parents, who can download mobile apps to observe what their children are doing at childcare.
“We get the nicknames ‘baby minders’ and ‘nappy changers.’ It irritates me because they’re not seeing us as educators. We teach children about the world.”
‘It doesn’t give you confidence’
Unsurprisingly, all these factors can lead to burnout very quickly. Up to 30 per cent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, disillusioned by the reality of constant work. Interviewees were strongly aware that they might become part of that statistic.
Jason says that even as a part-time teacher, he “sometimes feels like full-time … Maybe I’d be better off doing a 9-5 where I don’t have to care about much else.”
Charley worries a lot about getting burnt out. “It’s my dream job. I don’t want to leave. But I worry that I might be forced to, because of my physical and mental health, and that’s just the last thing I want.”
“It doesn’t give you much confidence in your decision [to teach] when you constantly see media reports of teachers feeling tired,” Thomas adds, saying he would feel guilty considering alternative careers later on because he feels like he would be leaving students behind and contributing to systemic shortages.
Tristan says some of his cohort feel they can’t waste their degree and their 800-plus hours of unpaid placements, even if they know they’ll feel drained by working in an overstretched health system. But Kristine has accepted that she can’t see herself doing nursing full-time. It’s painful, she says, but the pay and workload is just not worth it.
‘Until the system collapses, nothing will change’
When looking out at their professions on strike, people’s emotions were often internally complex. While Arkady felt “really empowered” at his first strike as a teacher, he was also upset at hearing teachers’ stories.
“I thought, oh no, is this what I’m signing up for?” Tristan remains cautiously optimistic, but stresses that stronger nurse-to-patient ratios must go “hand-in-hand” with pay rises.
Many interviewees felt bleak about changing the government’s mind. “I feel disappointed that we have to do rallies just to get a dollar or two above our wage,” says Abbie. “It really reveals how respected we are in society.”
Laura also feels like speaking up “can’t really change anything” in early childhood education. She’s been disillusioned by childcare centres consistently breaking laws around staffing and child safety, but “we don’t have enough centres as is … if they shut down, children will have nowhere to go.”
Kristine’s supervisors were told they couldn’t strike because they were still rostered on for patient safety. “It misses the whole point of a strike. It’s ridiculous and frustrating … Until the system collapses, I know nothing will change. I don’t think any government’s ready for that.”
The experiences of USyd students have shown how talented young people get forced out of teaching and nursing, because of poor pay and conditions. But if there’s one positive, the “historic” strikes have galvanised many soon-to-be graduates, such as Charley, to stay strong.
“We need to show solidarity between teachers, nurses, rail workers … We face similar problems, we’re shamed when trying to speak up for our rights, because we’re seen as disrupting the public.” Charley is excited about returning to teaching after travelling next year, and they’re confident they “will push through the difficulties. But I wish I could be more certain.”
*Names have been changed.