The last few years have taken a toll on our teachers. The COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing cultural divisions, and the Uvalde, Texas, massacre all weigh heavily. Morale is at an all-time low. Now is the time to rethink the teaching profession.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some districts are struggling to find teachers. According to federal data collected in January, 44 percent of public schools reported at least one teaching vacancy, and 61 percent identified the pandemic as a cause. Rural and urban districts are having a particularly tough time, especially finding special education and bilingual teachers. Students of color and those from underserved communities are more likely to have uncertified or inexperienced teachers.
These shortages are playing out at the exact moment the nation most needs excellent educators. Students’ math and reading scores have dropped. They’re suffering from increased anxiety and depression. In one April survey conducted by The New York Times, at least three-quarters of counselors said students are showing signs of anxiety or depression, having trouble regulating emotions, or finding it difficult to solve conflict with friends.
Let’s address this crisis by reenvisioning the traditional school staffing model, which has not changed in generations. We need innovative, differentiated staffing that creatively utilizes educators and plays to their strengths. This means schools must deploy adults to work collaboratively in response to the needs of individual students, rather than asking one teacher to meet the needs of all students in one classroom. This approach can address children’s specific skills gaps, while also diversifying the workforce, retaining the most effective teachers, and extending great teaching.
We support several initiatives through our respective foundations that offer promising models for what this work can look like. The Next Education Workforce at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which is funded by the Overdeck Family Foundation, builds teams of educators with distributed expertise, empowering them by developing better ways to enter, specialize, and advance in the profession.
The initiative rethinks the “one teacher, one classroom” model by reconsidering educators’ strengths and interests and what those educators can offer for a larger group of students and colleagues. This approach extends the reach of excellent teachers and offers mentoring and coaching opportunities for novice ones.
In Mesa, Ariz., Stevenson Elementary School kicked off the first year of implementing this Next Education Workforce model during the 2020–21 school year. Seventy-five 3rd grade students had a team of three certified educators (including one lead teacher), three residents from a teaching college, a specialist for Title I (federal funds geared toward disadvantaged students), two special educators, and three special-subject teachers. This skilled team met informally throughout the school day, and formally during team planning time for a two-hour block each week. Together, they planned lessons, monitored, and worked with each student across four connected rooms, regularly reconfiguring the space to support the purpose and structure of lessons and the needs of students.
The team saw immediate results: Students were more engaged, and educators were more satisfied than the previous year.
The team saw immediate results: Students were more engaged, and educators were more satisfied than the previous year. Based on this initial success, the school opted to expand the model to all grade levels this past school year.
These models don’t always demand a higher school budget, as many of them utilize staff with different experience levels and skills, such as licensed teachers and paraprofessionals, in more creative ways.
Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture initiative, also funded by the Overdeck Family Foundation, has taken a slightly different approach to the work since it launched in the 2013-14 school year. In 55 school systems in 10 states, teachers with strong track records of student growth are appointed as “multiclassroom leaders” who teach while mentoring teams of three to eight educators on how to design instruction, co-teach, coach, and analyze data on student learning.
In this particular team-based model, the teachers selected as multiclassroom leaders receive leadership opportunities and higher pay, while all teachers receive coaching support—working within district and school budgets and without increasing staff count. “I was able to take on instructional leadership without the stress of it being a whole campus and still be able to be coached,” said Sydney Garcia, a multiclassroom leader in Ector County, Texas, during a conversation with Public Impact in April. “I was able to impact more kids.”
Teachers on multiclassroom leader teams in the initiative moved from producing 50th percentile student learning growth to 77th percentile, on average, equating to an extra half year of learning for students each year. And the educators were rewarded for their work. From 2021–22, schools involved with Opportunity Culture’s initiative reallocated $11.9 million in supplemental pay for more than 1,100 participating multiclassroom leaders and teachers. Since the initiative began, these efforts have resulted in nearly $42 million reallocated from school budgets to fund supplements to teachers’ pay.
To identify policies that enable such innovation, a group of five organizations that help schools strategically organize staff created the Coalition to Improve the Teaching Profession last year with support from the Joyce Foundation. One member is Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a nonprofit that is funded by the Overdeck Family Foundation, which partners with district, school, and state leaders to help transform how they use funding and staff to create strategic school systems.
For years, ERS has been collecting data to examine the talent and resources used in schools. Based on this work, it recommends reorganizing teacher time for collaboration and learning—rather than one-off professional-development workshops—and revisiting staffing and funding models to increase flexibility and match students’ and teachers’ needs.
This moment of reckoning calls for bold, outside-the-box solutions to support our nation’s educators and students. We must leverage the untapped human capacity that exists in our school buildings and surrounding communities to position schools for long-term success and empower and retain teachers. We need an alliance of district leaders, funders, and policymakers to support new and innovative staffing solutions and we need to make the policy reforms necessary to help them spread. Only then can we reimagine our long-held notions of the teaching profession.
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