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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.
Casual relief teachers, or CRTs, are an integral part of the teacher workforce, but many often report feeling a lack of support and exclusion at schools they’re working in. We know this ourselves at Teacher magazine, with many of you getting in touch to share these same challenges you’ve faced as a CRT.
Minami Uchida from Macquarie University has analysed the experiences of casual relief teachers working in primary schools in Australia. Her study involved surveying 104 teachers who were at various points in their career as casual teachers, and interviewing executive staff for their perspectives. Common challenges faced by casual teachers emerged, as well as useful supports that can be provided by executive school staff to mitigate these concerns.
I’m joined by Minami to discuss all of these things and more. So let’s jump in to hear a bit of background on her career in education so far.
Minami Uchida: So at the moment my main role is a unit convener. So I’m co-convening a first year education course for pre-service teachers. And I’m also a tutor and a research assistant at Macquarie School of Education. So I have been in educational research field for about six years now starting with my masters and last week I got the official confirmation that I was awarded my PhD so that’s very exciting. And hopefully it’s the start of my further research career in educational studies.
Dominique Russell: And so you’re also a casual relief teacher, aren’t you?
MU: That’s exactly right.
DR: And so how long have you been doing that?
MU: Yes so about six years now. Yes, so I started sort of my career in education as a casual teacher. Like a lot of graduates, I didn’t get a permanent contract role to start off with. So that’s how I started my profession.
DR: And so you’re working in the primary education sector, aren’t you? And that’s also what this study was concentrated on, specifically casual relief teachers in primary education?
MU: Yes, that’s right. So the experiences of casual teachers within the primary school context. However later on I had interviews with executive staff – so principals and deputy principals – in primary and secondary context, just to kind of get a broader overview of what they’re like.
DR: Fantastic. So why was it important then for you to conduct this study?
MU: So this study was quite a personal one to me, being a casual teacher myself and it was quite cathartic in the sense that it really reflected my own experiences in starting out as a casual teacher. And I don’t think university really prepared me or pretty much anyone else in my cohort for, you know, how to be a good casual teacher and just that sort of very practical element of it.
In my first year I taught across six different schools to get my foot in the door and it was quite an isolating and difficult experience for me as a new grad. Just that, you know, without having any sort of mentoring or any in-depth induction, you’re kind of thrown into the deep end.
So I decided to conduct my masters on experiences of casual teacher just to kind of look at what other casual teachers are going through and if they have similar experiences that I have had. And ultimately I conducted my research so that casual teachers don’t feel alone, that ultimately, hopefully, they feel more valued and recognised by the profession and in the wider education community.
DR: Absolutely. And so practice architecture theory was utilised for this research, which is something we haven’t really covered all that much at Teacher magazine. So, for our listeners, could you just describe what this involves, and why you chose this theory for the research?
MU: So in a nutshell practice architecture theory is basically a framework that allows researchers to kind of observe collective human activity in a particular environment or setting. So, very simply put, it states that within any practice or place where social interactions take place, there are three main dimensions which hold it together and make it a cohesive whole.
So the first dimension is the ‘sayings’. So that’s basically the language or any sort of communication or shared understanding between individuals that take place within a practice. The second dimension is the ‘doings’, or medium of work or activity within a place of shared social communication. And then the last is the ‘relatings’. So, you know, as it sounds, it’s a relationship, it’s a relational hierarchy or power dynamic between the individuals. So within a school setting it could be between teachers and students or between casual teachers and executive staff. Those are some of the examples of relatings.
We chose this because it was a really simple and concise way to really represent how individuals can shape the environment, but also how the environment can shape us.
DR: And so what were then those three dimensions that emerged from the survey for your participants? What were the sayings, the doings and the relatings?
MU: Yeah, so for the sayings, we asked casual teachers to sort of summarise their experiences and what they have learnt. And we found that flexibility was a main saying that came up over and over again for a lot of participants. And another saying was that of behaviour management. So that’s something that was also a repetitive theme which indicates it’s such an important part of their practice.
For the doings, we have two main doings. So the first one was professional development and the second one was accreditation. So casual teachers indicated that there was little to no opportunity to engage in professional development that was meaningful for them. And in terms of accreditation, this was a concern for quite a lot of casual teachers, especially for the new early career teachers to make sure that they are appropriately meeting that sort of proficient status according to the conditions in their respective states.
Last we had relatings. So we asked in the survey about the overall inclusion they felt and to what extent they felt like they were part of the school community. And it was really interesting, it was a really mixed bag. In some schools casual teachers felt very much welcome and included, however in other schools they felt like they were very out of the loop and like they were alien or foreign entities just entering a school community and then leaving.
DR: And were you able to drill down – just on that point just there, how you had vastly different experiences – were you able to drill down into why that might have happened at all, or did your research not show any of that?
MU: I think in terms of why they felt excluded or included, one of the main things was it was just really dependent on the atmosphere of the staff, in particular the executive staff. So usually when casual teachers are hired by schools it’s from the deputy principal or the head coordinator, so that’s their first point of call and, you know, if they don’t feel welcomed by those executive staff, then that really sets the tone for the rest of their school day. So that was one of the main things, just feeling like they are valued by execs was really important.
DR: And from all the CRTs you did survey, you were able to identify three clear demographic categories of them. So what were these three categories, and how did their experiences differ from one another?
MU: Yeah so the first category we found were the early career teachers. So those were teachers within about five years of their graduation from their teaching degrees. The second category was casual teachers returning from leave, so that could be maternity leave, sick leave, stress leave, study leave, any sort of extended leave. And then the last category was the experienced casual teachers. So they have had more than three years of experience casual teaching and have not taken any leave of absence.
So within those three groups we found that there were some differences. Casual teachers returning from leave really emphasised the importance of their own mental health and the wellbeing of their families. So they found that, you know, they really emphasised self-care and making sure that they were looking after themselves and not letting teaching take over their entire lives. And other groups did not raise this point of self-care in their responses. And maybe one reason could be that casual teachers returning from leave are mostly caregivers. So they have responsibilities at home or they have other things that they have to maintain, or perhaps they returned from sick leave or stress leave and they really prioritise their personal wellbeing over working at schools where they feel like they’re not being valued or they’re feeling dissatisfied.
Another point of difference was that early career casual teachers were the group with the least access to professional learning and development. So in fact only two out of 50 early career casual teachers that we surveyed said that they had consistent, regular access to professional learning. So they are the ones that are quite vulnerable in falling through the cracks of getting that adequate professional development to maintain their accreditation. That was some of the biggest discrepancies that we found between the groups.
DR: And was there anything else that came up in terms of what they all have in common that we haven’t already discussed yet?
MU: I think the aspect that we kind of flagged earlier was the flexibility and behaviour management. So no matter the years of experience, across all three groups, being flexible was something that casual teachers found to be a really important asset to have within themselves. And it also was a bit of a coping strategy to make sure that they were surviving throughout the day and being flexible is also a really valued asset by executive staff as well.
And behaviour management was another aspect that was common across all three groups. You know, even experienced casual teachers with decades of experience expressed some difficulties that they have had with classroom management. And that’s totally understandable since casual teachers are confronted with a different cohort of students every single day. And it’s such an advanced skill to make sure that you’re maintaining a harmonious classroom community with students that you don’t really even know.
Coming up, we’ll discuss how staff members can better support casual teachers working in their schools, but first, here’s a quick message from our sponsor.
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DR: And so in terms of the implications of this research then, like we’ve already mentioned, you'd said the executive staff really set the tone in some ways for CRTs. So what are some practical considerations for senior staff members and also school leaders that they can give to CRTs, to ensure that they feel as supported as possible?
MU: Yeah that’s such a great question. So we found there were three main practical strategies that can be integrated for casual teacher support. So they are inductions, having a classroom folder and informal mentoring.
So in terms of inductions, that could be having hopefully about 10 to 15 minutes of the day in the morning to go through some of the important aspects of the school. Things like where the staffroom is, how to use a photocopier, if you’re even allowed to use the photocopier or if there’s a password, the bell times, details about playground duty and what sort of areas of the playground that you’re allocated to for the day.
These sort of nitty-gritty, really practical day-to-day details can mitigate anxiety for new casual teachers going to schools for the very first time. Even just having a sheet of paper with all of that outlined is such a great help.
Then we have a folder. So, important information about students including their medical needs and things like up-to-date classroom timetables or routines can be included in a classroom folder for each and every single class hopefully so that the casual teacher can walk in, flick through the folder and just note some of the important information.
And then lastly, informal mentoring. It doesn’t have to be quite a formalised process where you sit down one-to-one with an executive staff, that could be a little bit intimidating, but participants would tell us they liked being paired up with the teacher next door in the classroom. Or an executive staff might volunteer and they might say, ‘okay, if you have any questions throughout the day or anything that you’re unsure of, I am the first point of call, so feel free to come to me’.
Just to have that informal support network is such an important aspect of being a casual teacher so that you’re not feeling isolated and that you’re not like an island within your own classroom if that makes sense.
DR: And looking at professional development which was another big thing that came up, is there anything that school leaders can do to attempt to meet the professional development needs of CRTs?
MU: Yeah, so at a practical scale I think the most important aspect is communication and also inclusivity. So, you know, executive staff could communicate to casual teachers through any means that they find is not too stressful, because I know that they have a lot going on themselves. So that could be just a mass group email to casual teachers just flagging to them, you know, this is a professional development course that’s coming up at our school. Feel free to attend on those days, it’s at this location.
I know that another executive staff within my study said that she had a staff noticeboard at her school just outside the staffroom. So that was basically an open invitation for any teacher to look at the staff noticeboard and then just notice that if there’s any professional development that they found interesting or they want to attend, that’s something that they could just rock up at any point in time. So that was also communicated to casual teachers as something that they can draw upon.
I think that sort of open communication and unconditional inclusion, regardless of whether you’re casual or permanent or full-time or part-time, I think that was something that was highly appreciated by casual teachers in the study just to make them feel like they are legitimate members of the school community.
DR: Absolutely. And so just finally, looking ahead now, are there any plans or opportunities for future research in this area?
MU: Yeah I would really hope to try and investigate casual teachers in an international space. So I would love to explore some of the experience of casual substitute teachers across different countries and compare and contrast their experiences to Australian teachers. So that could be my next project, although now that I’ve finished my PhD I think I might need a bit of downtime to try and relax a little bit before diving into something new.
I think the only thing that I would really like to add is just a very brief message to any casual teachers out there listening to this podcast. I really want to say that you are such a valuable member to any school or any schools that you may work at. And remember that we as professionals are integral to schools, in order for them to operate. So you might only be there for one day or maybe just a couple days a term, but you are really essential. So remember that, remember how amazing you are, and seek out schools who value you and see you as important.
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Uchida, M., Cavanagh, M. and Lane, R. (2020), Analysing the experiences of casual relief teachers in Australian primary schools using practice architecture theory. Br. Educ. Res. J., 46: 1406-1422. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3653
Minami Uchida’s research found three main practical strategies that can be integrated for casual teacher support: inductions, having a classroom folder and informal mentoring.
As a senior staff member, reflect on the last time you welcomed a CRT to your school. How many of these three supports did you provide? Is there room to improve how you are currently supporting CRTs?