Teaching Must Get More Flexible Before It Falls Apart

A major renegotiation is coming for schools.

According to national data, schools are not facing more teacher vacancies this year than in previous years. But if you’re reading this article – if you’ve been educated enough to read EdSurge – you probably won’t believe this data. And for good reason.

Teachers have reported experiencing stress as the pandemic continues, and are more likely to leave the profession than they were before March 2020. Every school I know is struggling to retain their teachers and even their principals; Every leader I know constantly balances children’s pressing needs with the need not to push teachers away for fear of leaving them. If the Big Quit for Educators hasn’t come yet, it will be. I was going to be putting money (although I’d be more than happy to lose it!) on a much higher turnover than ever before by the end of this school year.

The problem isn’t just the pandemic, but the mismatch between workers’ changing expectations, and what it’s like to work at school. Planet Money calls the broader phenomenon “The Great Renegotiation”: redefining our relationship with our workplaces. The problem with schools is that redefining the meaning of work in school is very difficult. But in the coming years, schools will have no choice. They will need to find ways to work in schools to be much more flexible, which means profound changes in the way they work.

What do teachers want?

The Big Quit is an eloquent term for a real phenomenon: the largest number of job quits ever. More Americans than ever are saying now is the time to find a new job, and more than half of Americans are planning to look for a job next year.

What will they look for? More flexibility is the number one priority for job seekers. Nearly three-quarters of knowledge workers plan to quit their jobs if they don’t get enough flexibility. Flexibility is especially important for young workers that schools need to hire in the future. Like their peers in the workforce, educators want flexibility, too. A recent survey of teachers in Washington, D.C. found that flexible scheduling is the number one factor (above higher pay!) that will keep them in the classroom.

Compared to office workers or remote jobs, teachers have always had a harder time keeping up with the diverse needs of adult life: fixing cars, doctor appointments, and meeting a plumber. Making a personal phone call while at work is something that most college professionals take for granted, but it’s very challenging for teachers. Recent needs for COVID-19 testing, assistance to family members and emergency child care have emphasized this disparity.

During large-scale distance learning in the past year, teachers have found more flexibility — no commute, no hallway assignments — and they like it, even if they don’t like teaching virtually. After this experience, the rigors of a personal school week is a big reason teachers find this year even more stressful. Managers are also getting nervous: Twice as many are expected to leave the presidency then before the pandemic. Low-paid employees such as bus drivers have already left.

Access to Flex

If teachers need more flexibility, why not make the school partly away? Well, simply put, the remote school does not work for children. So what else can schools do to make teacher jobs more flexible?

Before we get there, a warning: These ideas will seem unlikely or impossible. The school schedule is an essential part of the grammar of schools: the ways in which we unconsciously speak grammatically, we perceive how schools operate. For example, we only know that students spend their days in groups of about 25: not 5, not 50. It’s even hard to think of.

But what are the alternatives? If a quarter of teachers quit the job at the end of this year, and smaller knowledge workers aren’t interested in entering this inflexible profession, how will schools continue as they are?

We can increase salaries dramatically to retain school staff — if taxpayers and politicians are willing to raise taxes or make big cuts elsewhere. (More than 80 percent of education budgets are devoted to salaries and benefits; the money is not there to raise wages without increasing the budget.) Without a major change in the economics of education, changing the rules of education is actually the most realistic approach.

So let’s imagine. How would a school function if teachers only taught 4 out of 5 school days a week?

In primary schools, we will have to get rid of the 1 teacher / 1 class / 5 days equation. In high schools, we had to forgo courses for 5 days a week. Without hiring more teachers, we will have to abandon the idea that children spend their entire learning time in groups of 25. Essentially, we have to create new learning options.

A relatively easy option is for elementary classes to have their regular classes 4 days a week. Instead of a ‘special’ class each day, they may set aside one day each week for two 3-hour workshops in Art, Music, STEAM, or Phys ed. High schools can meet each class 4 days a week (alternately where each class meets 5 times a month), leaving each teacher free for a day out of school each week. Schools in group schedules can modify their rotation so that each teacher has two consecutive sets of “planning” to use as and where the teacher prefers.

These modifications take the parts of the current school and rearrange their schedules. But a more creative approach may be necessary. High school students can conduct training sessions or community service one day per week, with light (or remote) supervision by adults in the school with more flexible time elsewhere. Elementary schools could “one day have younger children interact with experiential learning with partner organizations,” suggests Scott Goldstein, founder of Teacher Advocacy in Washington, DC. class, or environmental group that takes fifth graders for a walk every Friday.

We can be more creative with the school staff, too. If a fourth teacher moves between three classes (at any K-12 level), that teacher can take over each class one day per week and spend time with each class on another day. This would leave each of the four teachers with a flexible day once a week. In this scenario, to keep the same number of teachers in the school budget, we would have to increase the class size by about 25 percent. Yes, increasing the class size leads to bad results! Also, qualified teachers are not retained or hired.

Likewise, administrators and office workers can do part of their jobs from home. Allow them to create schedules to do this one day a week. Changing school culture throughout the week can allow even dedicated assistants and other support staff a half day per week of personal flex time.

Personal flex time may seem silly, given our current school grammar. In some years I have been studying, I have never taken a sick day; As a principal, I told teachers I didn’t want them to be absent unless they could literally drive themselves to school. I was right, given the way schools currently operate, that our students wouldn’t get much from the day their teacher was absent. But I’m also exhausted, as have a lot of the teachers I’ve supervised.

We need a system in which we can treat teachers and other school staff like adult professionals who can, at least one day a week, manage their lives and their time. It cannot be at the expense of students; But if we don’t figure out how to do it, the cost may be the teaching profession as we know it. If we don’t want an important ending, we need a major renegotiation.

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