School & District Management Leader To Learn From

A Modern Solution to the Problem of Teacher Absences

By Liana Loewus — February 21, 2018 8 min read
Robert Harris
Robert Harris
Recognized for Leadership in Solving the Substitute-Teacher Problem
Solving the Substitute-Teacher Problem
Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources (retired)
Success District:
Lexington Public Schools, Lexington, Mass.
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When Robert Harris comes to the table with an idea, it’s likely to seem the kind of thing that came to him in a creative flash.
“At first you’d be like, ‘No way, that won’t work, nope,’ ” said Andrew Baker, a high school English teacher and the president of the local teachers’ union in Lexington, Mass. “But then, you’d think about it and say, ‘OK, there’s something here.’ ”

In truth, Harris, until recently the assistant superintendent for human resources of the Lexington public schools in Massachusetts, has long been studying the problem, wading through research, gathering opinions, and weighing outcomes before proposing one of his signature outside-the-box solutions.

“Part of the role of the innovator is to be somewhat opportunistic,” said Harris, who now works as a consultant for districts, “and to see when the stars align.”

Lessons From the Leader

  • Push New Practices: School leaders should build on successes, but also try new practices to support what students will need in the future.
  • Personalization Matters: Teach like a barista. For every person that comes into your classroom and every adult that comes into your school system, you’ve got to know what the order is for them.
  • Pay Attention to Work-Life Balance: Don’t let your work and life compete. The most effective leaders integrate work and life in a way that they are whole in whatever they do.

Most recently, before retiring last year, Harris devised a way to overhaul how the district deals with teacher absences—something very few schools around the country have found ways to address creatively.

Lexington’s system of hiring substitutes was costly and ineffective for nearly everyone involved. Students weren’t learning much. Teachers couldn’t count on their lesson plans being followed. And starting in 2009, the high-performing 7,000-student district had committed to an ambitious system of professional learning for teachers, which included training sessions during school—meaning teachers were out of their classrooms more than ever. At the same time, the economy was improving, and substitutes were getting harder to attract.

Harris, 61, came up with a way to replace some of the traditional substitutes with a combination of technology and a single full-time staff member. Lexington High School, which piloted the program starting in 2016, bought extra Chromebooks, increased its Wi-Fi bandwidth, and set aside a large collaborative work space. Harris hired a former special education teacher to serve as the school’s “electronic-learning facilitator,” fondly known as an ELF, who oversees several classes at a time.

Students would come to the “learning center” when their teacher was out and go through lesson plans, videos, and activities that had been left for them online. In the case of a planned absence, the teacher could meet with the ELF beforehand to brief him on the lesson and individual students’ needs.

Students scan QR codes to mark themselves present for class as they enter the Independent Digital Learning Center at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass. The learning center is a repurposed lecture hall that has been updated with technological improvements.

Teachers could even log in to Google Classroom (or whatever system they were using) to monitor student work in real time from afar.

“The goal for the program is if you’re a teacher and you’re going to be absent on Day 100, we want the curriculum you would run for Day 100 to run by itself,” said James Borden, the ELF at Lexington High. “So when you return on Day 101, ... it will run seamlessly.”

Teachers can choose whether they want a traditional substitute or to send students to the learning lab when they are out. Initially, there was plenty of skepticism from staff members. Now, though, the lab is full almost every period, hosting as many as five or six classes at a time.

“With high school students, you just never know how they’re going to respond to these things,” said Carol Pilarski, a former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “There weren’t those behavioral challenges that sometimes occur with a substitute, with an unknown figure. … And by giving that kind of freedom to the students, it actually was a way of honoring them as individuals and saying, ‘Look you’re in charge.’ ”

If all continues to go well, the program is expected to save the district about $72,000 in fiscal 2018.

From Jazz to Employment Relations

Harris’ path to human-resources management was, befittingly, unconventional.

A jazz guitarist, he studied K-12 music education at Boston’s Berklee College of Music as an undergraduate. Harris was a public school music teacher for several years before taking on the role of arts department chairman in the Athol-Royalston Regional school district, a small, rural system in north central Massachusetts.

His background in the arts offers insight into his leadership style, some say.

“He has a creative heart and mind and he thinks like a jazz musician,” said Craig Hall, the director of Lexington Community Education, which provides adult education. He’s “able to play many variations on a theme.”

In 1993, Harris became the president of the Athol Teachers Association, a post he held for nearly a decade and a half.

His experience as a labor leader gave him a deep understanding of collective bargaining and employee-management relations—a critical foundation for his jump to human resources. It also gave him credibility with teachers.

“Ultimately, you reach the conclusion when you’ve been on both sides of the table that there really are no sides of the table,” Harris said. “You [can] argue for both.”

Paul Ash, a former superintendent in Lexington, recalls that Harris, whom he hired in 2007, kept a small rock with the word “harmony” on his desk.

“I asked him about that, and he said, ‘I look at human resources as a way to develop harmony between the administration and the teachers so we can produce the highest-quality teaching and learning for students,’ ” said Ash, who retired in 2015. “That really is his guide star. Starting from there—that’s unusual.”

Early into Harris’ tenure as assistant superintendent, it became clear there was a morale problem among teachers in the Lexington district. Educators were feeling overwhelmed by a steady stream of new initiatives, including a new teacher-evaluation system. At the same time, the district’s health-care costs were on the rise. Harris proposed a strategy being used in the private sector: employee-wellness programs.

He partnered with Lexington Community Education, which was not technically part of the district, to give educators access to free classes. Teachers could take yoga, meditation, Zumba, drumming, pottery, and nutrition classes—some of which were taught by other teachers, school nurses, and cafeteria workers. The district began holding step-counting challenges and interschool volleyball games. He also opened up school fitness facilities to teachers outside school hours.

And within a year, Harris started a vegetable garden for staff members. To help justify that move with Ash, who was not easily persuaded, Harris worked with the elementary science coordinator to develop a curriculum around the garden for kindergartners and 1st graders. Now, both students and teachers are growing tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, corn, and pumpkins in a 46,000-square-foot organic garden.

“His idea was ... to make the school feel like it wasn’t a place that was just a pressure cooker for stress, that these were not only your colleagues but people, and this is a community,” said Hall, who worked closely with Harris on the wellness initiative.

The commitment to wellness is part of Harris’ broader philosophy on integrating work and life.

“Conventional wisdom stands for [work-life] balance,” he said. “For me as a successful leader, sure I could disconnect, but ultimately, I felt that if I had an insight, I’m not going to say, ‘I’m on vacation now,’ or ‘It’s the weekend.’ ” Effective leaders are “whole in whatever they do,” he said.

‘Opportunity to Shine’

That’s why stories abound about surprising moments in job interviews with Harris—and the varied extracurricular talents he’s discovered in his candidates.

One candidate mentioned during his interview that he liked to juggle, so Harris handed him a few balls. Another had just returned from an international whistling competition, so Harris asked if she could do an excerpt from the Jupiter Symphony (she stood on a chair and began gesticulating like an orchestra conductor while whistling the tune, according to Harris). A former college baseball pitcher showed Harris how to throw a curveball.

“In an initial interview, when you bring somebody into the school system, that’s your first opportunity to build a relationship with that employee,” Harris said. For those who open up, “you give [them] an opportunity to shine.”

I really ask people to look critically at their practices and to start to try and come up with better solutions than those we continue to rework.

Since Harris put the program in place in 2016, Lexington High School went from hiring about 12 substitutes per day to hiring about six. Teachers say their students are engaged, and it’s no longer just a lost day when they’re absent.

There are, of course, challenges with the model. Borden, the district’s ELF, has an average of about 110 students in his room at a time, and sometimes that goes up to 130. In a single period, there could be classes in personal finance, Advanced Placement chemistry, creative writing, and French going on at once.

“For me, the biggest weight on my mind is making sure all the students have what they need,” Borden said. “We have students with different accommodations because of their [individualized education programs] and different learning styles. … A lot of students haven’t developed soft skills enough to advocate for themselves and tell me what they need.”

The system works best when teachers know they will be absent and can plan ahead with Borden. But unanticipated absences add more students to the room and leave less time for co-planning.

Lexington is among the highest-performing high schools in the state—about 98 percent of students there graduate, and 90 percent go on to higher education. (The national graduation rate was 84 percent in 2015-16, its highest point ever.) Students there tend to be motivated and well-supported.

Harris recognizes that other districts struggle with behavioral and academic issues that could make the ELF model more challenging. (He also has said it’s not suitable for elementary students.)

“Can I say with confidence that I know this is applicable everywhere? I can’t,” he said. “But I think if you set the conditions out right and start small, you have an opportunity to test this in districts that might not be as high-performing as Lexington.”

As a consultant, Harris is now trying to bring his innovative thinking to other districts, which he admits is not an easy task.

“Things I’ve done … they’re progressive, and a lot of superintendents are very conservative,” he said. “I really ask people to look critically at their practices and to start to try and come up with better solutions than those we continue to rework.”

For school leaders to get on board with this kind of work, though, he said, “It’s not for the faint-hearted.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2018 edition of Education Week

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