Education

It Takes Two

May 01, 2003 3 min read
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Job sharing helps keep teachers in the classroom.

When Renette Stinson, a kindergarten teacher at Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, learned she was pregnant with her first child, she planned to take several months’ maternity leave, then return to work full time. But her principal, who didn’t want to hire a long-term substitute, had a better idea. Stinson’s twin sister, Renee Wright, had applied for a part-time teaching job there, and the administrator suggested that they share a classroom, both working a little more than part time, with full-time benefits. Fifteen years later, the sisters are still sharing a job, and they’ve inspired copycat setups at the school.

“It is a great system,” says Stinson, who now teaches 3rd grade. “I teach Mondays and Tuesdays, my sister teaches Thursdays and Fridays, and we rotate Wednesdays.” The two ensure classroom continuity by writing exceptionally detailed lesson plans, talking on the phone three to four times a 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,” Stinson surmises. “In all of our years of job sharing, we’ve honestly never had a major complaint.” Students who are uncomfortable with the arrangement or need greater consistency can request placement in a full-time teacher’s classroom, she adds.

The sisters are at the forefront of what seems to be a growing trend. An increasing number of districts from California to Maryland are allowing job sharing to recruit and retain quality teachers. While such accommodations tend to be concentrated at specific schools willing to innovate, states are beginning to support flexible arrangements. In many places, teachers who job share are eligible for prorated salaries, partial benefits, or retirement plans. In January, North Carolina enacted a law, believed to be the first of its kind nationally, that allows districts to offer part-time K-12 instructors full health care and retirement benefits. Such educators had received partial health benefits but could not participate in the retirement system.

Howard Lee, the former state senator who wrote the measure, says it was designed to attract teachers who left the field to raise children, help elderly parents, or retire. Such people represent an untapped pool of experienced, highly qualified candidates in a state that needs to hire 10,000 teachers annually, he explains. “The whole idea here is to make part-time job sharing more attractive,” Lee says. “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.”

While little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of job shares in recruiting and retaining teachers, schools taking advantage of the arrangement say it keeps teachers happy. “Our retention rate is probably higher because of job sharing,” says Rachel Kreger, a spokeswoman for Mounds Park, a 700-student private school. “We’ve had teachers who could have been making more money at other schools but stay here because of the family-friendly environment and the flexible hours.”

Some worry that students can suffer when schools focus on pleasing teachers. “The big problem is making sure there is consistency and quality control of curriculum,” says Mildred Hudson, chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Massachusetts-based nonprofit. “These programs must be designed to support children and not just to accommodate teachers.” But proponents say job sharing can actually energize a classroom by fostering a collaborative atmosphere, enhancing accountability, and reducing burnout. “I used to feel so stretched out,” says Debra Neitzel, who began sharing a 2nd grade position at Eagle Crest Charter Academy in Holland, Michigan, after the birth of her second child earlier this year. “Now, I have more time to put into certain subjects. I can focus on lessons and do some extra activities.”

Mounds Park’s Stinson, however, cautions that the arrangement isn’t for every employee. She notes that many teachers can’t tolerate giving up full “ownership” of their classes; in fact, few job shares at her school last longer than two years. “It really has to be something that meets your needs and your personality,” she says.

—Julie Blair

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