The state of affairs across Australia’s schools sees teachers burdened with an enormous number of tasks above and beyond teaching. One of these is known as “pastoral care”, for which teachers are not trained. It is a massive addition to the workload, contributes to burnout and early departures from the profession.
Consider the tasks facing a high school teacher loaded with typical demands: preparation for around five regular classes, each with perhaps five 45-minute lessons a week. (Timetable structures vary from school to school) That means a semester or term plan, followed by an individualised lesson plan for each day. The subjects are usually grouped around a teacher’s main field of expertise — science, for example.
Teachers prepare for lessons and deliver them. Then they receive student assessments, mark them, and over a term or semester arrive at a grading for each student. It’s a formidable workload made worse by the combination of necessary knowledge and the actual delivery of each lesson.
A lesson is like a mini-drama performance, and it needs to be very much prepared. Arriving in a classroom without something crucial does not mean a teacher can simply return to the staffroom – usually across an extensive campus – for now they are in charge of the safety of anything up to 30 teenagers. The lesson is a combination of instruction, behaviour management and dealing with the unexpected. Try doing that five or six times a day, five days a week and you will see why teaching is a demanding and stressful occupation.
What has happened over the last 40 years, however, is that a further obligation has been added to teachers’ workload. Check the websites of high schools across the nation and you find they emphasise the “pastoral care” of students. These examples all come from such websites:
Pastoral care is embedded in the curriculum and culture of our school.
The Pastoral Care Curriculum has a large focus on social and emotional learning
Each student is assigned to a support group with a teacher who has a special responsibility to help them through their time at college. The teacher meets with them every week and monitors progress, attendance, and their curriculum package.
Pastoral care is a provision of support for students to develop with their academic, emotional and welfare needs.
In a practical terms this means each teacher is assigned the welfare of a group of students. Sometimes this is known as a “home group”, “home form”, “pastoral care group” or whatever, but it’s basically the same thing. The teacher meets the group on a regular basis, usually daily, and an attendance roll is kept. This is often the one which records whether a student is “at school” for the day, with non-attendance meaning an absence notification will be sent to parents.
What does this mean? A new teacher starting a new year might well find time on his or her hands. But not to worry because those unoccupied hours won’t last. Within days there might be a complaint from a student that “I’m being bullied.” A process of finding out about the accusation begins, plus what should be done to stop the bullying. The time allocated for this is not structured. The teacher will likely meet with the student at recess, lunchtime, or after school. Investigations must be done, of which liaising with other teachers will be part. Parents might become involved. The young teacher also might consult the “year co-ordinator” – a role which didn’t exist until recently. The school websites typically tell us ‘Year Coordinators monitor the welfare and progress of students’. In other words, they are the backup for the classroom teacher and can make bigger decisions – eg: changing a child’s classes to avoid bad peer group situations.
The trouble with the whole concept is the placement of the typical new teacher in the mix. Their pastoral care duties can take many hours of a week already crowded with academic demands. An experienced teacher develops time-saving techniques – for example, they may have a collection of articles which give wise advice and can be given to students. But teachers are generally empathetic individuals and want to get involved.
For all the good intentions, the teacher’s advice may not be the best. They are not necessarily that experienced – for example, teachers in their early years may not be, most likely aren’t, parents themselves. Nor are they trained psychologists, and the advice they give may not be expert. Also, they may have little or no experience in the areas where advice is sought – for example about sexual assault (which should be referred to the police in any case). In all those areas where teenage life is fraught with difficulty they might give advice which is just plain wrong – and this will likely have all sorts of repercussions down the track.
So, what to do?
First, drop the daily attendance advice for start; instead, link it to the rolls teachers take in lesson time. Use those as the source of “absentee advice” to parents.
Second, a more radical solution, would be to move teachers out of the area of pastoral care altogether. If necessary, employ more counsellors and psychologists while letting teachers concentrate on what they are trained for, especially in high schools, where many teachers have a minimal one-year graduate diploma added to a bachelor’s degree, which is where their real expertise lies.
Such reforms would allow them to do what teachers do best – teach. That might go some way to stemming the exodus from the profession.
Dr Tom Lewis OAM taught in the high school and adult areas for over 20 years. A former naval officer, he is also a military historian, with 20 books published. His latest is Attack on Sydney, a study of the command failures in combating the midget submarine attack of 1942