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Published in Print: January 29, 2003, as Job Sharing: Appealing for Teachers

Job Sharing: Appealing for Teachers

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A new law in North Carolina is encouraging job sharing between teachers.

The law, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, took effect this month. Passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature, it offers school districts the option of giving part-time K-12 instructors full health-care and retirement benefits as an incentive to work. Such educators received partial health benefits previously, but could not participate in the retirement system.

Howard N. Lee, the former state senator who wrote the measure, says it was designed to attract teachers who have left the field to raise children, help elderly parents, or retire. Such people are an untapped pool of experienced, highly qualified candidates in a state that needs to hire 10,000 teachers annually, he said. State officials report that teacher-preparation programs produce only about one-third of those needed.

"The whole idea here is to make part-time job sharing more attractive," said Mr. Lee, a Democrat who was defeated in last fall's elections. "I'm not sure we'll necessarily attract people to North Carolina [from outside the state], but what the law will do is draw people out of their homes."

Proponents say job sharing—in which two teachers split their workweek to oversee one classroom—fosters a collaborative atmosphere, enhances accountability, and reduces burnout. They say students also benefit by having two energized teachers invested in their education.

"It is a great opportunity," said Debra L. Neitzel, who began sharing a 2nd grade position at Eagle Crest Charter Academy in Holland, Mich., after the birth of her second child earlier this year. "I used to feel so stretched out. Now, I have more time to put into certain subjects. I can focus on lessons and do some extra activities."

She cautions, however, that such situations aren't for every employee. They require teachers to give up autonomy and spend considerable time communicating with each other.

"The big problem is making sure there is consistency and quality control of curriculum," added Mildred Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit group. "These programs must be designed to support children and not just to accommodate teachers."

Framed in Contracts

North Carolina's effort appears to be part of a broader trend. Districts from California to Maryland are increasingly offering job sharing as a way to give teachers flexibility, though such accommodations tend to be concentrated in specific schools willing to innovate and are initially instigated by educators themselves.

Teachers' unions are pleased with such endeavors. Some have even written language into their contracts outlining conditions under which the arrangements can be used. Such wording, for example, appears in documents in Land O'Lakes, Fla., Minneapolis, and Cincinnati, all American Federation of Teachers affiliates.

"Districts see this as an innovative way to keep quality teachers in the classroom," said Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the AFT. Job sharing could be especially effective as a retention tool in a profession in which many workers either have young families or are close to retirement, she said.

But few, if any, experts have conducted research on the effectiveness of job shares in recruiting and retaining teachers, though those who use the arrangements say they do have a positive effect.

"I think our retention rate is probably higher because of job sharing," said Rachel Kreger, a spokeswoman for the 700-student Mounds Park Academy, a private school in St. Paul, Minn., that has offered a handful of job shares during the past 15 years.

"We've had teachers who could have been making more money at other schools," she said, "but stay here because of the family-friendly environment and the flexible hours."

Lasting Effects?

Though North Carolina teachers will be offered full health-care coverage under their state's new law, it won't be free, said Mr. Lee, the former lawmaker. Like many full-time teachers, they will have to match the district's contribution of $80 every month.

The part-timers will also log time for the state pension system, earning half a year for every year they teach, which means more money when they do finally retire, Mr. Lee pointed out.

In many other states, teachers who job share are offered prorated salaries and partial benefits. Some are able to participate in retirement plans.

William R. McNeal, the superintendent of the 104,000-student Wake County schools who helped Mr. Lee shape the legislation in North Carolina, said that gauging the effect of the law would be difficult. "But even if it has just a small impact, ... that's a plus," Mr. McNeal said.

The superintendent expects 20 teachers to take him up on the offer in his district this year. He said he needs all the help he can get: Administrators were unable to fill 9 percent of the 7,000 jobs last year, up from about 5 percent the previous few years. The problem is likely to worsen, he said, as upwards of 18 percent of the district's teachers will soon be eligible for retirement.

Specifically, Mr. McNeal is struggling to find special education, science, and foreign-language teachers—a situation that mirrors teacher shortages elsewhere in the country.

Administrators in the Knox County schools in Tennessee are considering expanding a pilot job-sharing program in an attempt to become more competitive with surrounding districts, said William R. Oaks, a spokesman for the 52,000-student school system. Currently, it has two kindergarten teachers sharing one position.

"Schools within our local area and in adjoining states pay much more than we do, and we find ourselves being the farm team for other systems," Mr. Oaks said. "We bring teachers in and train them for five or six years, and then they'll go somewhere else. [Job sharing] could set us apart."

A Twin Solution

The Knox County system wants to attract and keep people like Renette M. Stinson and Renee M. Wright, twin sisters who began job sharing 15 years ago at Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul.

Ms. Stinson said the duo entered into the arrangement before her first maternity leave, at the suggestion of an administrator who hoped to avoid hiring a long-term substitute. It just so happened that Ms. Stinson knew the perfect candidate—her twin, who also happened to be a teacher.

That solution worked so well that the sisters have been sharing a teaching position ever since. Moreover, they've inspired copycat setups at various grade levels.

"It is a great system," said Ms. Stinson, who now teaches 3rd grade. "I teach Mondays and Tuesdays, my sister teaches Thursdays and Fridays, and we rotate Wednesdays."

The teachers say they ensure classroom stability by writing exceptionally detailed classroom plans, talking on the phone three to four times each day, and documenting morning and afternoon events in a folder that is swapped regularly. Both attend field trips and other special events, as well as teacher-parent conferences.

"The reason it works well for us is because we're twins and our philosophies and organizational strategies are the same," Ms. Stinson said. "In all of our years of job sharing, we've honestly never had a major parent's complaint against the [arrangement]."

Students who are uncomfortable with the job share, or need greater consistency, can request placement in the classroom of a full-time teacher, she added.

The downside is that such agreements require teachers be in synch and to give up full "ownership" of their classrooms, something many can't tolerate, Ms. Stinson said.

In fact, few job shares at Mounds Park Academy last longer than two years.

"It really has to be something that meets your needs and your personality," Ms. Stinson said. "Teachers have to be pretty careful about jumping into the situation."

Vol. 22, Issue 20, Pages 1,14

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