Teacher shortages: Why are so many teachers emigrating?

Lack of regular hours and permanent contracts is a major issue for young graduates


Many secondary schools are finding it near impossible to find qualified substitutes available to cover for teacher absences in key subject areas.

Primary principals are reporting major problems finding substitute teachers to fill in on sick days at primary level.

So, where are all our teaching graduates going?

Teaching unions say a lack of regular work, two-tier pay gaps and difficulties securing permanent contracts mean that working abroad for many is a “no-brainer”.

“There has been a significant increase in teacher emigration over recent years,” said president of the INTO John Boyle.

“This is due to a number of factors including a worldwide shortage of teachers, the quality of Irish-trained teachers, housing costs in Ireland, especially in urban areas, and unequal pay.”

“Approximately 700 primary teachers leave the primary payroll each and every year other than for retirement” Boyle said.

At second-level, the situation is complicated by an oversupply of teachers in some subject areas - such as English and geography - and an undersupply of teachers for languages, science and maths, say school management bodies.

The Irish Times spoke to a number of teachers who have emigrated to see why they left the country and what it would take for them to return (see below).

Sunnier climates, the chance to save for a mortgage and a better quality of life are some of the other reasons why newly-qualified teachers are ditching casual work in Ireland in such large numbers.

Boyle said there has been an increase in teachers applying for a career break of 30 per cent since 2012, many of whom are going abroad to work. Many others moved abroad at the end of temporary employment here, while others emigrate straight from college.

Government ministers have resisted calls to restore pay levels for thousands of younger teachers hired on lower pay scales following the economic crash. They say it is unaffordable given that the knock-on costs of reversing austerity-era pay scales would weigh in at about €80 million a year for teachers or €200 million across the wider public sector.

Ministers, however, point out that a new pay deal will see the gap narrow significantly and that starting salaries for new entrants will climb from €35,000 to just over €37,500 over the duration of the pay deal.

The issue of the two-tier pay gap, meanwhile, is to examined by a special group over the next 12 months.

Boyle said two key policy decisions are needed to prevent more teachers emigrating: fair and equal pay for teachers, and regular contracts of employment.

“Teachers graduating from colleges of education after four years of study deserve better than zero hours contracts,” he said.

‘It was disheartening doing the same work on a lower wage’

Mairéad Penston, 26, is a primary school teacher who qualified in 2011. She is currently teaching in Shanghai, China.

Mairéad Penston, a primary school teacher who qualified in 2011, is currently teaching in Shanghai, China.
Mairéad Penston, primary school teacher, currently teaching in Shanghai, China.

“It started as an opportunity to travel. But I then realised the amazing benefits teachers get working abroad and to experience other curriculum and teaching methods in action.

“I work in an International Baccalaureate school. It’s an inquiry based approach to learning, where children explore topics using hands-on activities.

“There are no textbooks, just activities designed by the teacher, so it is very student-led and allows them to develop thinking skills, teamwork and communication.

“Children come up with questions about topics and through activities and exploration they find the answers. It also gives ownership to the children and allows them to find the best way that suits their learning.

“I loved teaching in Ireland and miss the Irish language. But it was so disheartening having a different wage to someone who was doing the same job as me, purely because they graduated a year earlier.

“The wages here are so much better, which allows me to have a much better lifestyle and to travel more. I definitely wouldn’t have had that chance if I was working in Dublin.

“Ireland has an amazing educational system and a talented bunch of teachers but from travelling I can see why more and more teachers are leaving to venture abroad.

“Home will always be where my heart is but at the moment there are simply more opportunities for me here.”

‘Teaching abroad a no-brainer

Daniel Flynn, 33, is a maths teacher who qualified in 2014. He is currently teaching in Austria.

Daniel Flynn, 33, is a maths teacher who qualified in 2014. He is currently teaching in Austria.
Daniel Flynn, 33, maths teacher, currently teaching in Austria.

“What makes teaching abroad an absolute no-brainer, to pack up and go, is the simple fact you do not feel valued as a young teacher in Ireland.

“Given the hours, the pressure and the insecurity, you earn so little in the first years of teaching relative to the cost of living, especially in Dublin.

“I now teach the International Baccalaureate curriculum in a very well run, independently-managed boarding school in the heart of the Alps.

“The IB curriculum, which can be found worldwide, is very much inquiry led, which is where current research is pointing to. It makes students consider not only the content but also context, application, presentation and communication. All of these words have been included in the Irish maths syllabus for a long time but lose any real meaning if not examined in some way.

“Here, final year students must write a project in every subject, including maths. It’s called an Internal Assessment and is worth 20 per cent of their final grade. As the name suggests, it is marked internally, similar to the way the Junior Cert is proposed.

“That means I correct it, pass it to my colleagues for moderation and we agree on a mark. A selection of them are externally moderated. With all these checks and balances it is up to me as a professional to get the mark right.

“The fact that I know whose work it is and how much effort went into it, yes, I feel that deserves to be taken into account. But I am doing my job as it should be done and feel the Junior Cycle reforms are an opportunity for change.

“Even by being abroad I feel I am part of a bigger change in Irish teaching. I see my time here as learning experience that, given the opportunity, I may well have cause to take back to Ireland and apply. I certainly would like to think so anyway.”

There’s little reward for good practice in Ireland’

Emma Ryan, 32, is a science teacher who qualified in 2007. She is currently teaching in Manhattan, New York.

Emma Ryan, 32, is a science teacher who qualified in 2007. She is teaching in Manhattan, New York.
Emma Ryan, 32, science teacher, currently teaching in Manhattan, New York.

“I had been working in a VEC school for seven years and had not been made permanent. I felt every year was a battle to show my worth, the CID [permanent contract] being the prize that was always out of reach.

“Being in New York, I have the benefit of having science museums, workshops and education centres on my doorstep.

“The school that I teach in has many strengths, including being well funded, a flexible science curriculum with inquiry teaching methodology, promotion opportunities and salary.

“My senior management team leaders are flexible and trusting of me. They allow me to do what I do best by supporting ideas I bring to them to enhance the students’ experience.

“The colleagues I work with are not just teachers but tend to have other varying and significant talents that they draw from and use in class and school.

“I would have second thoughts about returning to Ireland to teach. I feel there are few incentives to reward good practice. After seven years I grew frustrated with the erosion of working conditions, no promotion opportunities and a mentality that I should be grateful to have a job at all.

“I would change the education system to take a more privatised approach and to be made more career-competitive. If you’re not doing a good job, in the classroom and not contributing to the school community then you shouldn’t be allowed hold a position indefinitely.

“And I would like to see all teachers in secondary school have the same union. We are divided among ourselves when we should be standing as one.”

‘With so many Irish expats here, it feels like a home away from home’

Gemma Gallagher, 30, is an art teacher who qualified in 2012. She is currently teaching in Abu Dhabi.

Gemma Gallagher, 30, is an art teacher who qualified in 2012. She is currently teaching in Abu Dhabi.
Gemma Gallagher, 30, art teacher, currently teaching in Abu Dhabi.

“My initial plan was to stay in the UAE for a year and save, while enjoying the travel experience.

“However when I arrived I soon realised that this experience was better than I had anticipated, in terms of both opportunity and social life. The UAE offering attractive salaries for teachers was an additional bonus and having an Irish company to go through made a big difference.

“Creative subjects are relatively new in the national curriculum here, so I find institutions value employees who have international experience in these areas. And as an artist and art teacher, I feel I have brought substantial experience into the system.

“One of the biggest strengths in education here is their focus on technology. I teach students as young as 12 who are completely computer literate on both operating systems and a range of industry used software. Schools are forward thinking and progressive in their approach to integrating technology into education.

“With so many Irish expats here it almost feels like a home from home. I do miss being able to see family and friends, but apart from that I’m very happy and feel fortunate to be in the position I am in.

“Since moving here over two and a half years ago, I have exhibited my work in high-end galleries, won competitions and hosted a series of workshops which have grown so much in popularity they have sold out every time.

“I see a lot of potential for young professionals and entrepreneurs here. My plan to stay for one year has increased to several, in order to give myself the best career opportunities I can.”