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Education Opinion

What Teachers Want

By Justin Minkel — May 22, 2014 4 min read
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Hybrid roles are hot. Arne Duncan mentioned that 73% of teachers are interested in a hybrid role when he announced the Department’s Teach to Lead initiative. The founders of the Center for Teaching Quality came out with the book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave in 2013, and the organization currently has seven Teacherpreneurs in various regions across the country.

These teacher leaders spend half their time in a classroom, teaching either mornings, afternoons, or two to three days a week. They spend the other half developing curriculum, designing professional development, and working with policymakers to ensure that proposed policies actually do what they’re intended to.

Next year I’ll be doing my own version of a hybrid role, teaching 1st grade in the mornings and spending my afternoons at parks, libraries, and play dates with my three-year old son. I did a similar job-share a few years ago to be home with my daughter when she was two.

The decision to balance fatherhood with teaching is one of the best choices I have ever made. I couldn’t have made that choice if my principal hadn’t made her own decision: to take a flexible approach to staffing that shapes policies to human beings instead of the other way around.

The teachers at my school are dedicated to our principal to a degree I’ve rarely seen. The reasons have a lot do with those things that matter most to Generation X and Y: autonomy, opportunity to innovate, time to collaborate with like-minded colleagues, and flexibility.

When think tanks ponder how to recruit and retain teachers in high-poverty schools like mine, their go-to solutions usually involve factors that are easy to quantify--bonuses, salary incentives, or subsidized housing for teachers who commit to a high-needs school.

Policy wonks pay less attention to a set of factors that matter just as much to teachers of my generation and the next.

The student population at my school is 99% poverty and 85% ESL. Yet there is no teacher shortage at my school, and turnover is minimal.

The reason has less to do with salary than the structures and climate in place. These elements qualify as “working conditions,” but they’re harder to quantify than traditional measures like class size or prep periods. They include job-embedded professional development that involves plenty of peer observation and time to collaborate, a school culture that encourages innovation, and an approach to change enacted with teachers, not to us.

A crisis is looming like a slow-motion tsunami: a potentially devastating teacher shortage. Part of the solution is to raise teacher salaries and reform the incremental increases of most salary scales. But the heart of the solution requires us to change the nature of the profession itself.

Generations X and Y want fundamentally different things than the retiring Baby Boomers did. It may seem daunting to translate intangibles like autonomy, flexibility, and collaboration into policy. But there are plenty of ways to do it: funding hybrid roles, allocating Title II funds to build time for collaboration into the school day, and creating partnerships that enable teachers, parents, policymakers, and administrators to work together to shape policies to student needs.

If I got an offer tomorrow to leave my school for a position in a neighboring district, incentives like a $5,000 salary bump, subsidized housing, or a hefty performance bonus wouldn’t hold a candle to the incentives my principal has created for me to stay: autonomy to make decisions as a professional, a school filled with talented teachers who know they are respected for their expertise, and structures for professional growth that enable me to become a better teacher every year.

My job share for next year won’t cost the district a dime. I’ll receive half a salary, as will my partner teacher. But the impact of this kind of flexibility on recruitment and retention can be tremendous.

Teachers interested in hybrid roles vary widely in their goals and needs. Moms and dads who want more time with their young children. Veteran teachers who would like to take on a part-time role in a university’s teacher prep program. Young teacher leaders who blog for EdWeek, propose new policies to their state legislature, or design curriculum, who know something will have to give once they start a family. All these teachers have come to a point in their careers where time matters more than money.

The teacher shortage is like global warming--mildly troubling in the abstract, terrifying when you begin to feel its effects. When that crisis hits, we’ll see a stark contrast between principals, superintendents, and commissioners who have figured out what teachers want, and those who haven’t.

One of the only convictions shared by virtually every stakeholder in education is this: Every child, regardless of race, family income, or zip code, deserves a great teacher. One of the simplest ways to make sure children get those teachers is to step back from the spreadsheets of statistics and ask talented teachers, particularly those in Generation X, Y, and the Millenials, what they want. Those with the foresight to ask the question might be surprised at what they hear.

Note: I wrote a piece last week for my other blog, Career Teacher, on what balancing teaching with fatherhood has taught me: Reflections of a Teacher-Dad. Recent posts on Teaching for Triumph have explored the potential for teacher leadership in teacher prep programs, policy partnerships, and curriculum design/professional development.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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