More than 16,000 secondary teachers are taking part in the meetings, which began on May 23 in the Bay of Plenty and will continue until the end of this week.

Jack Boyle, president of the PPTA, said it was time for the government to work with the union to address the main issues facing teachers, including “an unprecedented shortage” of educators.

“... We’ll be discussing what we want to take to the negotiating table and the solutions we expect,” he said.

His comments followed a recent survey of 162 secondary and composite school principals which found that the shortage had worsened over the past year.

The annual survey, administered by the PPTA, found that schools all over New Zealand are experiencing significant teacher shortages – in some cases, worse than ever before.

“There’s a perfect storm happening in education right now and it’s our young people who are bearing the brunt of it,” NZ Secondary Principals’ Council chair James Morris said.

“There is a wave of teachers about to retire and I’m embarrassed to say that we have reached the point where we are begging them to stay on, for another term, another year, until the crisis is over.”

“Young graduates no longer want to enter the profession, the pay is far too low compared to what they earn in other careers and, of the new teachers who do enter the profession, nearly half burn out and leave within five years.”

Principals reported feeling more negative about the recruitment and retention of teachers than they have been since the end of the 1990s.

They said that some subjects were more difficult to staff than others, including maths, science, Te Reo Māori and design technology.

Those surveyed also cited difficulties in finding relief teachers; eight per cent of schools had no relievers.

In addition, the average number of applicants per position, across all positions, declined to its lowest point since the survey began in 1998.

The shortage is also impacting middle leadership positions.

As a result of the teacher shortage, schools reported having to cancel classes, transfer them to Te Kura or other distance learning options, or ask teachers to take subjects they were not trained in.

Boyle said teachers needed to protect the system for students.

“Teachers care deeply about the students they work with.

“We won’t sit back and allow their futures be affected by a degraded education system.”

In a speech to open the first meeting, Boyle reminded members that they were stronger together.

“Each and every one of us is important in this campaign,” he said.

“From time to time in our history we have had to respond to major threats to our profession and to our schools and students.

“This is one of those times.

“Now is the time for the Government to work with us to implement the solutions and make secondary teaching the desirable career it should be,” Boyle said.

The union’s core claim and any extra claims for this collective bargaining round will be finalised later in the year.