Holding On to Older Teachers in the Pandemic: Ideas for Districts

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After months of online teaching and separation from students and colleagues, many educators are eager to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms—with the exception, perhaps, of one demographic: older teachers.

This group of teachers—who are 55 and older—have more reason than most to be anxious about going back into the classroom before there is a vaccine against COVID-19. That age group accounts for the majority of deaths from COVID-19. Further, anecdotes from older teachers point to frustration over technology demands posed by the pandemic’s virtual learning environment, which is likely to continue into the upcoming school year and beyond.

In Education Week’s 2020 Technology Counts Report, one anonymous elementary school teacher from Maine offered these thoughts: “As the oldest teacher in the school, I was not prepared for teaching online the way the younger teachers were and I wasn't ready for the loss of contact. The learning curve was steep and I'm still learning.”

At nearly 20 percent of all public school teachers, those who are 55 and older are an essential sector of the overall teaching force. And despite the outsized challenges that the pandemic and the pending return to school pose to older teachers, experts are urging K-12 administrators to make it a priority to address their health and safety concerns.

“Having a teacher with 20 or more experience translates to a lot,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy group. A report by LPI on student academic performance found that teaching experience translates directly to improved academic achievement and better attendance.

But just how schools plan to reassure and ultimately retain this valuable teaching demographic post-pandemic remains unclear.

Considering Health Concerns of At-Risk Teachers

Planning for a new school year has never been this complicated or cloudy. Most districts still don’t know whether they’ll return to school in the fall virtually, in-person school, or in some hybrid version. Some school officials suggest this broad uncertainty is undermining their ability to meet specific challenges, like addressing older teachers’ concerns about what lies ahead—even when they’re at least vaguely aware of them. Some administrators are hearing that older teachers may opt to retire early.

“I have heard: ‘I was planning on staying longer, but I have the years and I just … I’m done,” said Gladys Cruz, the superintendent of the Questar III Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides support and services to districts in upstate New York. But when asked if her regional district has made provisions for older teachers if schools reopen in the fall, she said: “The conversation around older folks hasn’t come up.”

If teachers are uncomfortable returning to school for health reasons, Cruz said schools need to address their concerns.

“We’ll have to deal with these cases on an individual basis,” she said.

Other school leaders responded similarly.

Brian White, the head of human resources for Auburn-Washburn USD 437 in Topeka, Kansas, said there’s too much uncertainty around what form the reopening of schools will take to have concrete plans at this stage for older teachers.

“It’s hard to make decisions because we don’t know what the fall will look like,” White said. “I don’t have a good answer for that yet.”

White did say, however, that the district routinely distributes engagement surveys to employees, and that recent responses did not indicate dissatisfaction or concern from older teachers regarding COVID-19.

Creative Retention Strategies

Others believe it’s in the best interest of schools to take a proactive stance around pandemic-induced concerns that, ultimately, could impact retention among older teachers. John P. Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says he’s surprised the issue isn’t getting more attention.

“I understand the challenges they [schools] are facing. On the other hand, nothing is more fundamental to school operations than having teachers able to teach,” Bailey said.

In a report written by Bailey and released by the American Enterprise Institute in May, Bailey provided some potential strategies for retaining older teachers. One suggestion involves the creation of a virtual teaching corps. When schools return to in-person instruction, that corps of teachers—comprised of those who choose to continue sheltering in place—would be online tutors, mentors to teachers, or even do televised instruction. Districts would provide professional development and ongoing support for the virtual corps to build their skills in those areas.

The tactics put forth by the AEI report could prove particularly useful to schools that adopt the widely proposed idea of returning to school in a rotated or staggered schedule, in which students stay home on certain days to allow for smaller, in-person classes. Such strategies could also help accommodate the scores of families who feel unsafe allowing their children to return to school in-person this fall.

LPI’s Darling-Hammond agrees that both older teachers and schools stand to benefit by investing in creative strategies that utilize the talents of these seasoned employees.

“I think you’re going to have some teachers who will opt out of returning to school, feeling it’s too stressful or too dangerous. But you’ll have a number of them who have a lot of knowledge and can contribute on the curriculum design front, the mentoring front,” she said.

Darling-Hammond notes that implementing these new roles would require schools to provide training for teachers. Finding the resources to do so could be challenging, particularly in light of significant pandemic-related school budget shortfalls predicted for this fall and beyond.

That hasn’t deterred some private sector companies, which see opportunity. Bailey points to a growing number of startups like BetterLesson and Bloomboard, which are offering their educational and coaching services to school districts with a focus on professional development for teachers. “A variety of these companies are rising to the challenge of helping train teachers quickly,” he said.

This support can be critical. Data reported by LPI suggest that teachers’ rate of improvement over time depends on the supportiveness of their professional working environment. Given the current unprecedented circumstances, the potential fallout from choosing not to take proactive measures to support older teachers could be significant.

“We don’t want to lose all that expertise,” Darling-Hammond said.

AEI’s Bailey suggests an even more dire result of inaction, saying: “You can’t reopen schools if there aren’t teachers that are able to teach.”

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