David Pearl is the sort of teacher students and colleagues at Maine’s Yarmouth High School don’t easily forget.
Colleagues have called the 55-year-old educator “the consummate brainstormer” and a man with a passion for teaching history and coaching lacrosse. That passion got him invited to participate in the 2021-22 Peace Teachers’ Program, sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which provides educators with resources to teach about peaceful resolution of international conflicts.
Over time, veteran educators like Pearl—who are skilled and enthusiastic teachers and coaches—can become seemingly indispensable to a school community. The thought of losing them to retirement is, well, unthinkable. That’s why it made sense, when Pearl had a health scare four years ago, for his principal to ask him if he’d like to shift into a part-time teaching role rather than risk losing him entirely to early retirement.
Retaining experienced teachers who might be eyeing retirement by offering them part-time teaching jobs can be a creative piece of an effective teacher retention strategy, according to The Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research to improve education policy and practice.
In an email summarizing the benefits of part-time work, a spokesperson for the nonprofit said such arrangements “can help retain teachers, not only older teachers but younger ones as well (e.g. new parents, those with particular life situations) and allow teachers to create supportive bonds with another teacher with whom they share an appointment or continue as part of a team.”
The problem is that this more creative approach appears to be very rare in K-12 education.
Between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, the percentage of public school teachers working part time dropped from 6.7 percent to 6 percent, according to the most recent data available about part time work from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The global pandemic led to increased uncertainty among teachers regarding whether they would teach until retirement. In March 2020, 74 percent of teachers surveyed expected to work as a teacher until retirement, a figure that fell to 69 percent in March of 2021, according to University of Arkansas research. This uncertainty could have provided an opportunity for administrators or teachers nearing retirement to broach the possibility of working part-time. Yet there appears to be no evidence that this is happening on a wide scale.
It’s a disconnect that extends beyond the K-12 education sector. A recent, multinational study of thousands of employees by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that the majority of workers envision a “flexible transition” to retirement. But only about a quarter of workers nearing or at retirement age (55 and older) said their employers offer the opportunity to shift from full-time to part-time work.
This reality exists despite findings that point to the arrangement’s benefits, including the potential for increased employee retention and satisfaction. Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the subject extensively, summarized her research findings on the effects on employees this way: “part-time workers in Europe and the U.S. are happier, experience less stress and anger, and are more satisfied with their jobs than other employees.”
Such was the case for Pearl after he accepted a part-time position at Yarmouth High School, where he’d been teaching full-time for over two decades. The shift would mean significant changes: carrying a three-course load instead of five, and relinquishing duties as a student advisor, a role Pearl took very seriously. It also resulted in unanticipated benefits.
Escaping the grind of full-time teaching
When reflecting on his decision to step back from his full-time role at Yarmouth High School, Pearl points to the advice his doctor gave him. “My doctor said that, because of the exhaustion and stress [of my job], working part-time would be better for me,” Pearl said. “It definitely has been helpful for my health. I feel very refreshed.”
The transition also has given Pearl the perspective to recognize just how draining teaching full-time is. “I see the bleary-eyed, exhausted look of my colleagues,” he said.
“During the school year, this whole grind of teaching and preparing; there’s not a lot of room to breathe or find a rhythm to your life that’s sustaining,” Pearl said. “More than a few teachers are just stumbling to the finish line.”
The negative impact of exhausted teachers has to rub off on students, suggests Pearl, who acknowledges that as a part-time teacher he now has more time to do his job thoughtfully—for instance, carefully crafting lesson plans, something full-time teachers don’t often have the luxury to do.
Why veteran teachers are valuable as part-timers
School and district administrators also recognize the benefits of keeping valued, seasoned employees on a part-time basis as opposed to losing them to retirement. Yarmouth High School Principal Patrick Hartnett, new to the school as of this academic year, acknowledges that Maine is one of many states where a significant number of teachers are reaching retirement age, circumstances that coincide with fewer job seekers choosing teaching as a career.
“They [older teachers] may be willing to stay on in a part-time capacity, teaching those one or two classes they’re really passionate about,” said Hartnett.
Veteran teachers who possess community connections and institutional knowledge can continue to be valuable employees in a part-time capacity, Hartnett added. He counts Pearl among such teachers. “David is well respected within his learning area, and works with a number of teachers collaboratively,” Hartnett said.
Yarmouth Schools Superintendent Andrew Dolloff is also supportive of moving older, experienced teachers into part-time employment. “We’re a growing district. It has really worked for us to keep people on board who’ve been part of the fabric of our community,” he said.
The problems with part-time teaching
While transitioning experienced, older teachers to part-time roles can bring value to employees and employers, it also can pose challenges to both. Employees who are older and have made the transition to part-time work are likely to phase out of employment altogether sooner than their younger colleagues. And, as Hartnett observes: “When it’s time to replace that part-time staff member, it may be harder to do,” especially given that most job seekers are looking for full-time jobs and the benefits and pay that come with them.
Plus, reduced pay and benefits can deter full-time teachers from making the switch to part-time employment. “Not everybody can afford to do it,” Pearl conceded. Yarmouth teachers who work part-time receive prorated benefits, Hartnett explains.
Pearl also emphasized that financial benefits aren’t the only ones that decrease when teachers go from full- to part-time employment. “I have fewer connections with students and faculty,” he said. “You miss faculty meetings, contact time with students.”
As a result, Pearl said he’s made a conscious effort to lean into other opportunities in order to make and grow connections with students, such as staying involved in the high school lacrosse team as an assistant coach and routinely spearheading student volunteer activities.
Challenges notwithstanding, Pearl is satisfied with his decision to scale back to part-time teaching after a lengthy career as a full-time teacher. “It’s a great alternative to retiring,” Pearl said. “I love teaching. And I find it a lot easier to come in with energy and optimism. It’s really been fun to do.”