Back to school: Teacher shortage almost solved thanks to returning Kiwis

Kiwi teachers coming home from Covid-torn parts of the world have dramatically eased New Zealand’s teacher shortage as the new school year starts this week.

The Ministry of Education says the number of teaching vacancies in primary and secondary schools dropped by a third from 349 last January to 233 last month.

Secondary Principals’ Association president Deidre Shea said the staffing situation was “better than it’s been for many years” – due to Kiwi teachers not going overseas, many returning and, ironically, jobs teaching overseas students that have evaporated because the border remains closed.

“A majority of secondary schools will have reduced their total staff for 2021 because of fewer international students,” she said.

Her own school, Ōnehunga High School, has cut its teaching staff by six even though it usually has fewer than 40 long-term overseas students, because it normally hosts short-term study tours.

But it is also one of many schools that have gained from returning Kiwis, picking up music teacher James McCaffrey, who has come home from Japan with his partner, English teacher Anna Williams, who has got a job back at Glenfield College where she has taught before.

The couple went to Japan in December 2019 to teach English, and would have stayed overseas longer if it wasn’t for Covid.

“We had briefly discussed somewhere in Scandinavia as a possibility,” said Williams, 31.

Williams has a sister in Japan, who is married to a Japanese and has a family there, and the couple were looking forward to experiencing a different culture. But when all schools closed last February, they found themselves confined to their apartment in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku.

“It was very difficult to participate fully in the culture of Japan because everything had been cancelled,” said McCaffrey, 38.

Neither of them could speak Japanese, and when the borders closed they felt isolated.

“When you go away there is that idea at the back of your mind that if something goes wrong you can just come home. Having that taken away was really quite difficult, quite isolating,” he said.

“We were isolated because it was very, very difficult to meet people, and it was very, very difficult to come home, so we were kind of stuck in this limbo.”

They watched the NZ election results from Japan worried that a new government might shut even New Zealanders out. They came home in December.

Williams said: “There was a huge relief when we got on that plane to Auckland, just knowing we were not going to be stuck somewhere because there was constantly this underlying fear.”

Shea said a survey at the end of the year found that 60 per cent of secondary schools were fully staffed for this year. The other 40 per cent had vacancies mainly in the always hard-to-staff subjects of te reo Māori, technology, maths, chemistry and physics.

The Education Gazette listed 271 teaching vacancies in schools on February 1, down from 370 on January 23 last year.

Only 60 of Auckland’s 550 primary and secondary schools listed vacancies, or one in nine – down from 82, or one in seven, last year.

The Ministry of Education said the biggest gains were in secondary schools, where new vacancies listed in January plunged from 245 last year to 141 this year, including a drop from 83 to 45 in Auckland.

The improvement was less dramatic for primary schools, which do not generally have overseas students. New primary vacancies listed in January dropped from 104 last year to 92, but actually rose slightly from 27 to 28 in Auckland because of continued population growth.

Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president Stephen Lethbridge said 50 out of 132 schools surveyed last week said they were more confident about staffing this year, 67 said the situation was unchanged and 14 said they were less confident this year.

“It’s more buoyant,” he said. “But there are pockets where we don’t have enough teachers because people are not wanting to move or travel long distances on the motorways.”

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