Education must become more flexible before it collapses
The Great Renegotiation is coming for schools.
According to national data, schools do not face a greater number of vacant teaching positions this year than in previous years. But if you are reading this article, if you are sufficiently committed to education to read EdSurge, you probably do not believe this data. And for good reason.
Teachers report being more stressed as the pandemic continues and much more likely to leave the profession than they were before March 2020. All the schools I know of are struggling to keep their teachers and even their principals; every leader I know constantly balances the urgent needs of children with the need not to push teachers too far lest they resign. If the Big Quit hasn’t come for teachers yet, it will. I would put money (although I would be happier to lose it!) On a much higher teacher turnover rate than ever before by the end of this school year.
The problem is not just the pandemic, but the mismatch between the changing expectations of workers and what it is like to work in a school. The NPR Planet Money podcast calls the larger phenomenon “the great renegotiation”: a redefinition of our relationship with our workplaces. The problem for schools is that redefining what it means to work in a school is incredibly difficult. But in the years to come, schools will no longer have a choice. They will have to find ways to make school employment much more flexible, which will lead to profound changes in the way they work.
What teachers want
The Big Quit is a concise term for a real phenomenon: the most number of job quits on record. More Americans than ever are saying now is the time to find a new job, and more than half of Americans plan to look for one next year.
What will they be looking for? More flexibility is the number one priority for job seekers. Almost three-quarters of knowledge workers plan to quit their jobs if they don’t have enough flexibility. Flexibility is particularly important for young workers that schools need to hire in the future. Like their peers, teachers also want flexibility. A recent survey of teachers in Washington, DC found flexible scheduling is the number one factor (above higher pay!) That would keep them in the classroom.
Compared to office workers or remote jobs, teachers have always had a harder time keeping up with the different needs of adult life: auto repairs, doctor’s appointments, a plumber’s appointment. Just making a personal phone call at work is something most college graduates take for granted, but it’s incredibly difficult for teachers. Recent needs for COVID-19 testing, assistance to family members and emergency child care have accentuated this disparity.
During the widespread distance education last year, teachers found more flexibility – no commutes, no hallway homework – and liked it, even if they didn’t like teaching. virtually. After this experience, the relentlessness of the school week in person is one of the main reasons teachers find this year even more stressful. School principals are also feeling the pressure: twice as many as before the pandemic expect to leave school administration. The lowest paid employees like bus drivers have already left.
Getting to Flex
If teachers need more flexibility, why not make the school partly remote? Well, quite simply, distance school does not work for children. So what can schools do to make teachers’ jobs more flexible?
Before we get there, a warning: these ideas will seem improbable or impossible. The school timetable is at the heart of school grammar: the way in which, just as we unconsciously speak grammatically, we conceive of the functioning of schools. For example, we just know that students spend their days in groups of about 25: not 5, not 50. Fundamentally changing this grammar is difficult to do; it’s even hard to think about it.
But what are the alternatives? If a quarter of teachers quit their jobs at the end of this year and young knowledge workers have no interest in entering such a rigid profession, how do schools continue as they are?
We could dramatically increase salaries to retain school staff, if taxpayers and politicians are prepared to raise taxes or make deep cuts elsewhere. (Over 80% of education budgets go to salaries and benefits; the money is not there to increase wages without increasing the budget.) Without a significant change in the economics of education, changing school grammar is actually the more realistic approach.
So let’s imagine. How could the school function if the teachers taught only 4 days in a 5 day school week?
In primary schools, we should get rid of the 1 teacher / 1 class / 5 days equation. In high schools, we had to cut class rotations of 5 days a week. Without hiring more teachers, we should abandon the idea that children spend all their learning time in groups of 25. Basically, we should create new learning options.
A relatively simple option would be for elementary classes to have their normal classes 4 days a week. Rather than a ‘special’ class every day, they could devote one day per week to two 3-hour workshops in art, music, STEAM or physical education. High schools could have each class meet 4 days a week (on a rotation where each class meets 5 times a month), which would leave each teacher free for a day outside of school each week. Schools with block schedules could adjust their rotations so that each teacher has two consecutive blocks of “planning” to use as and where the teacher prefers.
These adjustments take current school chunks and rearrange their schedules. But more creative approaches may be needed. High school students could do internships or community service one day a week, with light (or remote) supervision by adults in the school with more flexible hours elsewhere. Elementary schools may have “a day when young children engage in experiential learning with partner organizations,” suggests Scott Goldstein, founder of a teachers’ advocacy organization in Washington, DC. who spends the equivalent of a Tuesday semester with the full second of a school or environmental group that takes fifth-graders on hikes every Friday.
We can also be more creative with school employees. If a fourth teacher floated among three classes (at any K-12 level), that teacher could resume 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 a school’s budget, we would have to increase class sizes by about 25%. Yes, increasing class sizes stinks! And therefore do not retain or hire qualified teachers.
Likewise, administrators and office staff can do some of their work from home. Let them create schedules to do it one day a week. Changing the “everything there all week” culture of schools can allow even dedicated assistants and other support staff half a day a week of personal time off.
Personal free time may seem absurd, given our current academic grammar. Some years I was teaching I never took sick leave; as a principal i told the teachers i didn’t want them to miss out unless they literally couldn’t make it to school. I was right, given the way schools operate now, that our students wouldn’t get much out of a day when their teacher was away. But I also burned out, as did too many teachers I supervised.
We need a system where we can treat teachers and other school staff like adult professionals who can, at least one day a week, manage their own lives and time. It cannot cost the students dearly; 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 a big shutdown, we need a big renegotiation.