School and district-based staff are understandably wary about the new school year. Teachers, the majority of whom are women, are struggling under the immense pressure of pandemic schooling. Many have worked long hours to try to support their own families while keeping up with the demands of online teaching and changing COVID-19 protocols.
Teacher retention rates were already declining pre-pandemic, and the shortage of educators across roles may be widening. Preparation programs are facing fewer numbers of new educators entering the workforce; thirteen percent of graduate programs surveyed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reported seeing “significant declines” in the numbers of new students. Of those graduating, many may be turning to remote options right out of the gate. Member programs in the national Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance reported increased hiring of online teachers since 2020.
Educators want the same flexibility that’s traditionally more available to those in corporate settings. In a 2021 survey, fifteen percent of teachers said flexibility to work from home would “make a major difference in reducing the likelihood they leave the profession.”
There’s no shortage of remote-first education companies that attract school-based talent with their social mission and flexible work. “We are seeing significant growth in applicants seeking to leave the structured onsite work environment in schools in favor of more flexibility and the ability to teach and work remotely,” shared Jamie Candee, CEO of Edmentum.
Schools and districts must approach this year with that same level of creativity and urgency as they did in the early days of the pandemic, rethinking long-held beliefs about schooling and implementing new ideas that once seemed impossible to meet the changing needs of their communities. Here are two ways that administrators can apply that same thinking to the coming school year, transforming their schools as workplaces and considering teachers as employees with attractive employment options.
Rethinking school schedules
The concepts of the four-day workweek and remote work opportunities have been gaining momentum in the world of education. Veteran educators may balk at the concept, but now is the time for districts to try more innovative ideas in an effort to retain teachers.
While research on the impact of a four-day workweek in education is still early, some studies do suggest benefits to school districts that participate. A 2021 study completed by Rand found that districts reported that this schedule shift improved retention and teacher attendance; teachers reported that the fifth day was a combination of work and personal activities.
Remote and flexible work schedules are increasingly being used by districts as hiring and retention tools. Butler Tech, a career technical center in Hamilton, OH, schedules fifteen consecutive four-day workweeks – with a twist. Each Friday is an opportunity for students to control their own time, including working off campus, pursuing personalized learning opportunities, or remaining at home to focus on their family priorities; the district calls this the Fifth Day Experience.
“Innovating on the traditional school calendar presented a win-win scenario for student and teacher engagement,” says William Sprankles, Butler Tech’s Assistant Superintendent of Innovative Teaching and Learning. “Teachers spend half of their Fridays delivering an interest-based session and half of the day planning to complete tasks they might not otherwise have time to tackle.”
Schools in districts that aren’t ready to make the switch to four-day weeks can use creative approaches to scheduling to accommodate work from home days or reduced time spent in the school building. With a little planning, administrators can pre-arrange each teacher’s remote day or proactively establish an alternate schedule to ensure coverage.
“We are a single-site school without a district office to rely on for recruitment or staffing assistance. Increasing flex time for teachers has become one of my main concerns going into the new year,” explained the middle school principal of a charter school in New York. “We’re considering a four-day student week where grades will alternate coming to school Monday through Thursday and Tuesday through Friday. The fifth day would be flexible for teachers, either used for in-person meetings and planning or work from home days.”
Administrators can identify room for more flexibility within existing systems. For example, now might be the time to reconsider structures for professional development. Schools can offer teachers “work from home” days in lieu of traditional in-service days or re-evaluate “one-size-fits-all” training, only requiring attendance to those most affected then offering a recording of the session to staff who want to learn more. Rather than keeping teachers in the building longer, principals could deliver all-staff announcements, which typically require staff to gather in a common space after school, via recorded video.
Instead of traditional teacher job descriptions and staffing solutions, employ creative solutions that reduce in-building time for teachers. Educators in many school settings are often required to spend a significant portion of their days on cumbersome tasks like paperwork, forcing them to spend more time in the school building and less time at home or taking care of their families. Consider how to outsource duties to non-certified personnel who might be easier to hire.
A regional superintendent in New York shared her school’s creative hiring strategy this summer. “As we entered this year with several open positions, we sourced building assistants to take on clerical duties from teachers. We were looking for anyone with time to give – no background in education required. As a result, we were able to give teachers some of their time back and make new community connections.”
Just as corporate workers are nervous to come back to in-person workplaces, many teachers are nervous to come back to school or begin in-classroom teaching for the first time. Districts can draw inspiration from the creativity displayed by educators and reimagine their approach to teachers as employees. What might have seemed impossible pre-pandemic is not only possible now, but it’s what’s needed to address the deepening challenge of teacher retention.
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