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Teaching Profession

4 Ways Districts Are Giving Teachers More Flexibility in Their Jobs

By Madeline Will — May 04, 2021 11 min read
Teacher working at home in front of camera.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns have permanently shifted the way many industries think about how and where people work. But will school districts follow suit and embrace workplace flexibility?

The model of one teacher standing in front of a class for six or seven hours a day has changed very little in decades. That’s despite persistent pushes for schools to adopt more flexible approaches, like team-based teaching or assigning teachers’ roles based on their expertise. But after a school year in which teaching was flipped on its head, some experts are hoping that there will be enough momentum for district leaders to permanently reimagine what a teacher’s role could look like.

Thinking beyond the traditional staffing structure could both lead to learning gains for students and help keep teachers in the profession longer, experts say. For teachers who left the classroom but found another job in education, more flexibility was the most common attribute that attracted them to their new jobs, a recent RAND Corporation survey found.

“Teacher retention ultimately depends on teacher satisfaction with their work, and that means having the conditions that enable them to succeed with their students, but also having a manageable work life,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ work conditions and satisfaction.

Change may be slow-going: Another RAND Corporation survey found just 4 in 10 school system leaders said last fall that they were planning to adopt flexible and non-traditional staffing models, in which teachers provided instruction to students other than those who would be assigned to them if instruction were in person. Another 18 percent considered doing so but couldn’t due to a lack of resources or flexibility.

But some level of remote instruction took place in most districts this year, and many tried out virtual professional development and meetings, and leveraged support staff in new ways. And many of the leaders surveyed said they’re open to keeping some of the innovative practices they adopted this school year in the future, even after the pandemic has passed.

“What’s common across most school districts is they’ve realized there are new possibilities they haven’t thought of before about how school has to look and how staffing has to work and how kids can benefit from all that,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which collaborates with RAND on its surveys of district leaders, including this one.

Student success must be at the center of any new staffing decisions, experts cautioned: “Schools should not be starting with the notion of a flexible schedule for teachers and then seeing what the consequences are for students,” Johnson said.

But advocates for alternative staffing models are optimistic that the pandemic’s impact on schools may have inspired more of a focus on collaboration, differentiation, and flexibility.

“There is so much that’s happening now that we’ve been pushing for so long,” said Lynn Holdheide, a senior adviser for the Center for Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institutes for Research. “There’s a momentum here we have to leverage.”

Here are four ways that districts can offer more flexibility in the workplace.

1. Allow teachers to work remotely post-pandemic

Remote learning will likely stick around once the pandemic is over. An EdWeek Research Center survey administered in February found that 68 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say that it’s likely a wide array of remote learning options will be available to students post-pandemic.

This could open the door to allowing some teachers to choose whether they want to teach students in person or virtually. Another EdWeek survey, conducted in March, found that 20 percent of teachers and school leaders said if given the choice, they would want to work both from school and from home once the pandemic ends. Four percent said they’d want to work entirely from home.

And 15 percent of teachers said having the ability to decide whether they work in-person, from home, or a combination of the two would make a major difference in reducing the likelihood they leave the profession in the next two years.

Everybody learns differently, everybody works differently—there should be options for everybody.

Of course, this pandemic school year has been exhausting for many teachers, and many have struggled with the abrupt shift to remote learning and especially hybrid instruction, which sometimes requires teachers to do two jobs at once. But some teachers say they have loved teaching remotely and would consider doing it permanently.

“I think teachers are working harder than ever,” said Madelyn Ross, a transitional kindergarten teacher in Santa Monica, Calif., and they “don’t want to be perceived as a lazy teacher working from home in their pajamas.”

But Ross has found success in remote learning, and it’s made certain aspects of her workday easier. She can have a lunch break without having to supervise students. She’s more hydrated because she doesn’t have to limit water to avoid restroom breaks. In fact, she’s been able to use the restroom whenever she wants—“a luxury that all of my friends who aren’t teachers have,” she quipped.

And teachers say there are pedagogical benefits, too. With remote learning, “I feel like an actual teacher again,” said Lauren Partma, an 8th grade English and history teacher in Pasadena, Calif., who taught remotely for more than a year.

There were fewer distractions to her instruction. (One recent study found that external interruptions in the classroom, like a tardy student or announcements over the loudspeaker, can add up to the loss of between 10 to 20 days of instructional time.) She had more guest speakers speak to her students. She planned creative lessons, and many of her students were more engaged than they might have been in the classroom.

“Being able to focus on the relationships and the instruction has just made the time more valuable,” said Partma.

Still, remote learning doesn’t work for all students, especially those who might not have an adult at home to troubleshoot technology issues or help with any other problems that arise. But some have thrived, teachers say.

“Everybody learns differently, everybody works differently—there should be options for everybody,” Partma said.

2. Put teachers on a team

Experts say that reconfiguring the staffing model so that teachers have more time and space to collaborate and learn from one another can help improve student achievement—which will be a particularly important goal next school year. Research has shown that the pandemic has set back student learning, especially for students of color.

“Rethinking staffing has that potential double power of boosting student learning by giving more students access to great teaching and helping teachers be more successful and feel more supported and therefore, be more likely to stay,” said Bryan Hassel, the co-president of Public Impact, an education policy and management-consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Public Impact runs the Opportunity Culture initiative, which seeks to put high-quality teachers in front of more students. Teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness with student learning are named “multi-classroom leaders,” and earn additional pay by leading teams of teachers and taking responsibility for the student growth in all classrooms under their guidance.

Research has shown that this model can lead to student learning gains, and Opportunity Culture surveys have indicated that teachers involved are more likely to say they intend to stay at their school. That’s because teachers are given much more guidance and support than they normally would receive, Hassel said.

During remote learning, that support was crucial, he said. It also became easier to extend the reach of the multi-classroom leaders beyond their teams. Hassel said districts experimented with having those lead teachers prepare lesson plans and materials for others in different schools. This had been a possibility prior to the pandemic, but few districts considered it as an option.

Now, it might become more common post-pandemic. Even school systems that don’t use the Opportunity Culture model have been asking highly effective teachers to take on new roles in remote learning, said Lake, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. For instance, a master teacher might film herself giving a lecture on a specialized topic that students in different classrooms can watch, and other teachers can help facilitate subsequent small-group instruction or help students individually.

Almost 50 school districts and charter networks in 10 states are part of Opportunity Culture, and Hassel expects more districts to sign on in the fall. Surveys of participating teachers found that the percentage who wanted the model to continue went up during the pandemic, as did those who said they’d recommend this model to others.

“In a time when overall [teacher] satisfaction was pretty low, we saw increased levels of satisfaction which I chalk up to the support,” Hassel said. “It’s made [teaching] a much less lonely existence.”

3. Consider teachers’ strengths

Teachers consistently say in surveys that they want more time to collaborate with their peers. The EdWeek Research Center survey done in March found that 13 percent of teachers said having more opportunities to collaborate with, learn from, and plan with colleagues would make a major difference in reducing the likelihood that they leave the profession in the next two years.

“Teachers like to collaborate, they just don’t have time to do it,” said Holdheide, of the Center for Great Teachers and Leaders. “When we’re thinking of a school day where you’re teaching from 7 to 3 every day in your own classroom, it doesn’t afford for that level of collaboration.”

Holdheide said the pandemic has prompted districts to reconsider how they can best leverage their effective teachers and specialists. One such way is implementing a differentiated staffing model, in which schools build instructional teams based on each teacher’s strengths.

Teachers would have roles according to their expertise, “rather than one person trying to be a data specialist and a curriculum specialist and a community engagement specialist and a technology specialist,” said Gretchen Weber, a senior managing director at the nonprofit research group WestEd. Currently, she added, “all of those things sit on the shoulders of teachers.”

That would allow teachers to learn from each other, focus on their strengths and interests, and provide a more intentional learning experience for students, experts say.

Elementary teachers, for instance, are typically generalists, expected to teach all subjects. But there are models, already in place in some schools, that allow elementary teachers to be content specialists instead: Students rotate between teachers, learning language arts from one and science from another. A teaching assistant or paraprofessional can handle homeroom or other transitional times.

In these models, much of the administrative tasks could be outsourced to teaching aides, too. In the EdWeek survey, 43 percent of teachers said reducing administrative burdens, such as paperwork, meetings, and hall duty, would make a major difference in getting them to stay—the second-highest answer, behind increasing their salaries.

4. Offer flexibility beyond the school day

Even if school and district leaders aren’t ready to shake up their staffing models just yet, some teachers are hoping they will at least provide more flexibility outside of the classroom by offering virtual professional development and staff meetings or giving parents the option to have remote conferences with teachers.

“If any of those kinds of meetings can happen online, that might free up some time that teachers need and deserve,” said Harvard’s Johnson, adding that a remote option could especially be helpful for teachers with young or school-aged children or those who live far from the schools in which they teach.

Sometimes we can learn from the worst events in our lives, and this may be shifting people’s views for ways that can be more efficient to do things.

While the RAND survey of school system leaders from last fall found that only 4 percent expect virtual parent-teacher conferences to stick around after the pandemic, Lake said she expects more district leaders to get on board after this school year, in part to meet parent demand.

“Parents have really loved virtual meetings,” she said. “The idea that a parent might have to drive 30 minutes for an hour-long meeting ... I think [a remote option] will at least be offered” post-pandemic.

They’re helpful for teachers, too. Steven Boyd, a high school engineering teacher in Coral Springs, Fla., said he enjoys being able to log into meetings from home instead of having to stay at school late or come early. Remote parent-teacher conferences also make it less of an inconvenience if there’s an unexpected cancelation, he said.

“How many times did you go to the guidance department and have a no-show?” he said. “At least with remote, I don’t have to go anywhere. I’ll be working [on my computer], and parents can dial in. … I find the remote [option] to be very productive.”

While some parents might not have reliable internet access or a laptop to easily dial into a video conference, a remote option is beneficial for parents whose work schedules don’t allow them to come to school for meetings, Boyd said.

Meanwhile, the EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in February found that 41 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they think it’s likely professional development will continue to be done virtually after the pandemic. Johnson said that while sessions that are more discussion-focused might be more effective in person, large-group PD could easily remain online.

Laurie Ferguson, an elementary reading intervention teacher in Cumberland, Md., prefers the flexibility virtual PD offers. Teachers were able to complete some trainings this year from the comfort of their own homes, before or after school, she said.

“It keeps you totally on track, there are not a lot of other distractions,” she said. “You get your content, and you’re done.

“Sometimes we can learn from the worst events in our lives,” Ferguson added, “and this may be shifting people’s views for ways that can be more efficient to do things.”

Coverage of teacher retention and recruitment is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, at carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4 Ways Districts Are Giving Teachers More Flexibility in Their Jobs

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