Lawfully Unpaid: Teaching Placements in a Time of Crisis

By Harry George Wallace


If you were to google “teacher crisis” at the time of writing, here’s what you’d find:  

Covid and schools: we’re heading into a teacher shortage crisis – The University of Sydney 

Queensland teacher shortage reaching ‘crisis point’ – The ABC  

Australia’s teacher shortage crisis must be an election priority – The Educator Australia 

These headlines have become a familiar part of our news cycle. University studies, think pieces, and newspaper headlines all agree on one thing: there aren’t enough teachers, and the problem is getting rapidly worse. In the face of this, one might wonder why there aren’t enough teachers. There appears to be a lack of supply and mounting demand, and this supply problem is multifaceted. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves and there simply aren’t enough graduate teachers to fill the gaps. 

Why are teachers leaving? And why aren’t there enough graduates? are both formidable, looming questions – but if you asked your average Queensland education student what their biggest obstacle to graduating was last month, they might have replied with ‘well for starters I’m struggling to pay my rent because I’m halfway through a month of unpaid placement.’ I know I would have.  

Myself and my peers are what universities optimistically refer to as “pre-service” teachers – in other words, education students. The optimism here springs from the assumption that those studying teaching will naturally become teachers. According to evidence, this assumption is wrong.  

A recent study by Associate Professor Rachel Wilson of The University of Sydney found that of undergraduates who had entered a teaching qualification in 2012, only 51% managed to complete the program by 2018. In other words, half of the potential teachers dropped out or postponed their studies – and this is pre-pandemic. The report also found that although the number of students entering undergraduate programs per year has grown considerably, the number completing these programs has actually fallen. The report lists a number of possible contributing reasons for these worrying trends but misses one glaring problem that education students deal with every year: vocational placement, the months of unpaid labour mandated by teaching organisations across Australia.  

Student teachers in Queensland are required to undertake between 60 and 80 days of placement in order to finish their qualifications. This experience is described by the Fair Work Act 2009 as ‘lawfully unpaid’, an impressively innocuous term that obscures a big problem: unpaid placements mean fewer graduate teachers.  

Myself and my cohort have completed two placements, and each time have re-assembled afterwards to fewer faces. This can, of course, be partially attributed to the realities of the profession being experienced by students for the first time. However, all you have to do is listen to the classroom conversations to realise that this is far from the only problem. Students trade stories of financial hardship and stress, and many question whether the sacrifice is worth it – particularly for a profession with such a high burnout rate. 

Before our cohort’s first placement, we had an information lecture offered to potential teachers informing them of the realities that we were to expect from the experience. Long hours, emotional exhaustion, and the reality of giving up months’ worth of wages, financial security, and even job security. After all, casual jobs are under no obligation to keep a staff member who needs to take a month or more of leave. With Centrelink payments for students still below the poverty line, daily living becomes a struggle. Memorably, one of the speakers described her time on placement as ‘a breakdown every day.’  

Many industries that mostly feed into private employment have options to work around unpaid placements. William Leach, a professional engineer, commented that his alma mater ‘has a requirement of three months of work experience, and it’s paid. There are more hoops to jump through to get an unpaid position funnily enough.’ Alani Tenaglia faced a similar situation in her law degree: ‘To practise law, you need to undertake 75 days of placement, or 15 days and an additional course. You’re not inherently paid to complete a placement, but if you are working in a particular type of legal role, you can claim your work as your placement.’ These options are not open to Education students.  

Teaching is a public service – often described as not just a job, but a calling. Somewhere along the line, Australia decided it would not only charge people tens of thousands of dollars to perform this act of public service but also force them to give up wages and job security in order to complete lengthy, challenging placements. This indicates an utterly stunning disrespect for a critical industry that’s become typical of neo-liberal trending governance in Australia. 

These placements are just one of the many barriers keeping potential teachers out of education. There are overstocked classrooms, a lack of support for new teachers, meagre salary progression, and staggering workload expectations. But rarely is a problem so obvious and solvable as the problem of unpaid placements.  

Any English teacher worth their salt will tell you that an effective way to end a persuasive essay is with a call to action or a concluding statement. The obvious fit for this article would be “we need to pay pre-service teachers for vocational placements.” However, this is one facet of a broader problem. There is a much more important statement to be made here: we need to start treating our critical industries like they are valued by Australian society.  

Teachers in this country feel disrespected and burnt out. Education students feel like martyrs struggling against the odds. The cost of living is rising day by day, and there is less incentive than ever before to become a professional working in education. There is no one simple fix to these problems, but a good start might be allowing our potential teachers a living wage while they learn how to shape our society’s future.


Harry (he/him) is a writer, pedagogue, and dilettante operating out of Meanjin (Brisbane). He holds a dual degree in Arts (English) and Journalism, and is currently completing his Masters of Teaching (secondary) at QUT. You can hear his voice on the podcasts Castology and Bookworms and Barflies.


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