Clarification: This story was updated with new information from Public Impact. There are now schools in 12 states using the Opportunity Culture staffing model.
The traditional model of teaching—one or two teachers in front of a classroom of students—is practically ubiquitous in schools. But is there a better way?
A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education examines efforts to reconceptualize teaching roles to see whether those models can make the profession more sustainable and fulfilling.
“The teach[ing] profession is not doing particularly well right now,” said Steven Weiner, a research analyst at CRPE and the author of the report. “There are huge issues—some are long-standing, some have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Teachers report being stressed at work and experiencing burnout more often than other working adults, according to a RAND Corp. study. Just 20 percent of teachers say they’re “very satisfied” with their jobs, a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center poll found at the start of this year.
Perhaps as a result, fewer people are considering becoming teachers and enrolling in preparation programs, and many of those currently in classrooms are eyeing the exit.
Policymakers and district leaders are trying a variety of strategies to help repair the teacher pipeline, including raising salaries. But Weiner said these efforts don’t address the root of the problem—the teaching job itself.
“There are feasible, practical ways for systems to help educators love their jobs more,” Weiner said. “And if the North Star on that is, how do we get teachers more freedom and more autonomy, but also more social connection to their students, their peers, their administration, and families in the school [community]—there are ways to do that.”
Here’s what unconventional teaching roles look like
Weiner found nine school systems that have reconfigured the teaching role and interviewed 32 teachers from those systems about the benefits and drawbacks of their jobs.
Those teachers were still primarily responsible for students’ core learning experiences, and they were supported by a larger system, Weiner said.
“We didn’t want to find rogue teachers who were going off and doing something on their own,” he said. “We were looking for wide-scale or potentially scalable programs.”
Weiner identified several kinds of unconventional roles:
- Lead teacher, who serves as a mentor, curriculum developer, and co-teacher for a small team of teachers in the same content area or grade level;
- Empowered teacher, who helps determine school-level policies, such as the academic calendar or the dress code, and sets student learning targets;
- Team teacher, who teaches as part of an integrated team with two to four other educators who are responsible for between 50 and 80 students;
- Community learning guide, who works alongside two to four other educators and 20 to 40 students to create learning experiences connected to the natural environment, the community, or students’ cultural backgrounds;
- Solo learning guide, who teaches five to 15 students independently, often out of their home; and
- Technical guide, who leverages expertise in technical subjects, like architecture or robotics, to design curriculum and work with cohorts of 10 to 20 students, often with another guide.
A lead, empowered, or team teacher can be found in charter or regular public schools, while the community learning guide, solo learning guide, and technical guide typically work in small private schools or microschools.
Microschools, and some of these more intimate teaching roles, have grown in popularity since the pandemic. Other reimagined teaching roles have been around for a while.
For example, teacher-powered schools allow teachers more autonomy in areas ranging from curriculum to the school’s budget to hiring. In those schools, the leaders are often selected by teachers and report to them as well. The Teacher-Powered Schools project, run by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Education Evolving, estimates that there are more than 250 public teacher-powered schools operating in at least 20 states.
And Opportunity Culture, led by the North Carolina-based research group Public Impact, uses a model through which teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness with student learning are named “multi-classroom leaders” and lead a teaching team. Research has found that students in this model perform better in math and, to a lesser extent, reading.
There are about 800 schools in 12 states with an Opportunity Culture staffing model.
What educators in these roles say about their work
Nearly all of teachers who were interviewed for this research said they liked their “unconventional” role, often saying it was rewarding, exciting, or satisfying. Teachers said working in a new model reduced feelings of burnout that they had in their traditional role.
“Teachers weren’t working less, but they were more motivated and connected to the ‘why’ of the work,” Weiner said.
One study participant said that in her first year of teaching, she “was putting everything I have in and getting nothing back.” Since moving into a team teaching position, she said, “Now I love my job, I love to go to school, and I love the support I get from my team.”
Teachers in these unconventional roles generally said they liked having more autonomy in their work, the chance for deeper connections with students and their families, and more opportunities for collaboration with peers.
Team teachers said they enjoyed being able to learn from and with their colleagues. “I was really becoming a better teacher because I was seeing other people teach, learning things that worked, and seeing things that I wanted to apply,” one said. “But also, as I was teaching, they were watching me teach, so they got to ... give me support in ways that I needed.”
Meanwhile, empowered teachers who were given shared leadership responsibilities with administration said the model was more responsive to what was happening on the ground.
“I’m not somebody who is [just] sitting in an office ... so, when we make policies or priorities through the school planning process, I know what it’s going to be like to do that with a class of 30 students,” one said.
There also were some downsides to these unconventional teaching roles. Some educators—especially those in microschools—felt isolated. Team teachers didn’t always receive explicit training, making their success overly dependent on the specific individuals on the team.
And some educators said they felt like they had more responsibilities, but didn’t always have enough administrative or organizational support or guidance which made their jobs feel overwhelming or exhausting at times. That might be because these roles are all relatively new, the report said.
Some of the educators also worried that their school systems wouldn’t support their new roles long-term, especially given budgetary or staffing challenges and leadership changes.
Can these models be brought to scale?
Weiner said the interviews revealed that these new models are promising but are mostly still early on in the implementation phase. Teachers might need new kinds of professional development to effectively take on these roles, he said.
“I think what we saw is that teachers are given more freedom, which they like, but they’re also given less guidance,” he said.
Given the study’s small sample, the results can’t be generalized. And the study didn’t look at how these different teaching models affected student achievement.
Even so, Weiner said he hopes district leaders take inspiration from some of these models and rethink opportunities for their own teaching staff. After all, he said, it’s not theoretical—reimagined teaching roles are already happening across the country.
“Let’s give teachers more reasons to love their work,” he said. “We think teaching can be more sustainable, more joyful, and work better for more students.”