Why languages teachers leave

by Shannon Mason
former Queensland language teacher and QTU member
PhD candidate, Griffith University

Languages education plays an important role in the education of Queensland students. It forms the foundation for global awareness for many of our students. It is regularly brought up in political discourse, linked to Australia’s ability (or otherwise) to engage fully in a multicultural, multilingual, and increasingly borderless world. However, the quality and quantity of languages education in Queensland schools varies considerably. While the discipline faces many challenges, perhaps the most pressing is the issue of teacher supply. That is why a recent study was conducted to better understand why some language teachers have long and prosperous careers, while others leave after a short period.

Questionnaires completed by 227 current and former Queensland languages teachers revealed that the experiences of teachers are highly varied. Some teachers feel valued and supported in inclusive and positive school communities, with strong leadership and strong workplace relationships. Others, however, feel that they do not have the support of their leadership or of quality workplace relationships, and are floundering in schools where they are not supported or valued. It is this second group of teachers, showing low levels of social capital, who were found to be statistically more likely to leave their jobs.

When language teachers leave, they do not always leave the education system, but find employment teaching other areas of the curriculum, indicating issues that are inherent to the teaching of languages. Follow-up interviews were conducted with 10 participants in order to delve deeper into why some language teachers struggle to build their social capital. A recurring theme was teachers’ feelings of being an ‘outsider’, of being forgotten, and not included. In particular primary school language teachers spoke about how they were not seen as ‘real’ teachers, and that their role was reduced to that of babysitter, to provide Non-Contact Time for the ‘more important’ classroom teacher. 

The nature of language teachers’ work was also found to have a negative impact on their ability to develop relationships with their students. The teachers in this study taught up to 650 students, with an average of 190 students, some for as little as 30 minutes a week. Language teachers are often required to move from classroom to classroom, and some are itinerant, teaching at multiple schools. These conditions mean that many teachers’ struggle to develop the strong relationships with students that are needed not only to effectively deliver the curriculum, but also to sustain them in their careers.     

While policies are being made to improve the number of students continuing their language studies throughout their schooling, the findings of this study show that more is needed at the school level, to support language teachers in their delivery of the curriculum, and in their integration into workplaces where they are supported and valued for the contributions they make to the all-round education of Queensland students. 


Readings

Mason, S. & Poyatos Matas, M. (2016). Social capital: A vital ingredient for retaining foreign language teachers. Asian-Pacific Journal of Second and Foreign Language Education, Vol. 1, no.3 (published  14 April 2016)

Mason, S. (2015). ‘Hey, I’m a real teacher!’ The value of language teachers and the role of Non-Contact Time in Queensland primary schools. New Zealand Language Teacher,Vol 41, Nov 2015:pp. 9-22

Mason, S. (2014). I Quit! An exploratory study into language teacher attrition in Queensland     schools. In C. Travis, J. Hajek, C. Nettelbeck, E. Beckmann, & A. Lloyd-Smith (Eds.).   Practices and Policies: Current research in languages and cultures education (pp. 207-  222). Canberra: Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities.  Available   at http://www.lcnau.org/pdfs/LCNAU_2013_Proceedings_MASON.pdf