Special Report
Teaching Profession Opinion

Why Schools Need More ‘Hybrid’ Teaching Roles

By Paul Barnwell — February 19, 2015 7 min read

For the first 10 years of my education career, I served as a full-time middle and high school language arts teacher. The work was always challenging, it was usually rewarding, and it kept me on my toes. Over the years, I got involved in site-cased decisionmaking committees and served as a union representative, a PLC facilitator, and other traditional leadership roles.

But it was the “non-official” leadership work—reading and writing professionally, webinars for groups like the Center for Teaching Quality, interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues, building community partnerships for my students, and summer residential graduate work at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English—that really kept me energized as an educator. The extra work, connections, and opportunities I got from these endeavors kept me motivated to remain in the classroom.

Here’s the irony I’ve discovered: Many veteran teachers, like me, have managed to thrive and improve at their crafts in spite of professional responsibilities and time demands, not because of official, formal leadership roles within schools. We have decided to remain grounded in the classroom but have also taken steps to pursue professional learning and expand our roles while doing so.

But now I’m writing from a new perspective. Since August, I’ve officially been a “teacherpreneur” for Jefferson County School District in Louisville, Ky. I’m fortunate to have been given the opportunity, time, and autonomy to employ the same drive that led me to participate in outside leadership opportunities.

Grounded in the Classroom

I teach morning classes at Fern Creek High School, and the school district pays for my release time in the afternoon to work on designing and implementing opportunities for professional learning and engagement in virtual spaces, among other projects. Right now, this means leading a group of 14 teachers from all content and grade levels across the district in designing solutions to instructional challenges. I also collaborate with teachers within my building, our local NEA affiliate, the Jefferson County Teacher’s Association, and other organizations. In all its phases, the work is varied, complex, and enriching.

This experience has jump-started my interest in promoting the growth of hybrid-teacher roles like mine. Despite the challenges of my new position, I’ve found it empowering to remain grounded in classroom realities while working to elevate teacher efficacy and voice. I also think such roles are good for the teaching profession, since they give educators opportunities both to look more closely at the craft of teaching and to have an impact beyond their own classrooms.

There are too many effective classroom teachers who, because they want new challenges and a sense of advancement, leave the most important work there is: working with students. And when effective classroom teachers switch careers or positions, swapping one set of demands for another, public education suffers—the overall quality of the teaching force is diluted due to completely unnecessary attrition.

Why aren’t there more pathways for motivated educators to remain in the classroom but also pursue other roles? Why do we financially reward those who leave the classroom for administrative positions, when we hear over and over again how teachers have the most essential non-familial role in students’ lives? How come other professions are able to differentiate, encouraging employees with unique skill sets and passions to build upon those strengths? Clearly, something is amiss.

Here are several scenarios for school districts and building leaders to consider as they explore the new teaching frontier that is the creation and sustaining of hybrid teaching roles.

Converting Positions

Traditional school staffing, of course, gives little leeway for half-day positions, which is a direct trickle-down from human-resource systems in which a blend of teaching and other roles are rare.

School enrollments are projected, principals are allotted a certain number of teachers, and master schedules are created. It’s a lot easier to fill in a schedule with full-time teachers than a mash-up of hybrid educators, of course. As soon as one teacher no longer teaches half of his or her classes, who picks them up?

Hiring half-time positions is difficult, but that’s not necessarily the only—or even best—approach. Converting existing resource or coaching positions is an easy way to start capitalizing on the potential of hybrid roles.

Building leaders should honestly assess the roles of any full-time instructional coaches or resource positions and consider the impact these positions have, including by surveying teachers on their perspectives. Would the school—and students—be better off if the instructional/resource coach taught half a day?

Let’s not fool ourselves: Teachers want to learn from and with teachers, not folks who have been out of the classroom for years, even decades. Converting existing non-classroom roles into hybrid roles will strengthen district professional learning systems, creating continuity and credibility amongst more educators who are still invested in and experiencing classroom realities.

Sharing the Workload

According to recent studies, principals’ jobs have become too demanding and too complex. When does a principal have time to be a true instructional leader into today’s education environment? By creating more teacher hybrid roles, principals can lean on instructional leaders within their buildings to help design and facilitate professional learning community structures, model best practices, mentor new teachers, and lead technology implementation, among other tasks. Who can provide more instructional support than those within the buildings who work with kids every day? Nobody.

Admittedly, teaching can be complex, too. I’ve struggled with balancing the demands of working with adults and students every day, managing countless more connections and cognitive tasks. Yet it is this challenge that has given me more energy to teach and work with other adults in crafting solutions to other challenges.

‘At-Large’ vs. Localized Roles

Depending on a district’s goals, size, and budget, hybrid roles can take different forms. They can be more localized, such as a literacy lead/coach who teaches a half day at a given location (the “convert” position). Or they can be “at-large” positions like mine, where the educator works on district-level projects. My projects are geared toward collaborating with folks as diverse as elementary school health teachers and educators at the alternative school for teen moms. I consider the position “at-large” due to goals and projects that extend well beyond the walls of Fern Creek High School.

I envision many possibilities for at-large teacherpreneurial roles: A half-time English-language learner teacher could work to develop outreach programs to engage ELL parents across the district. A half-time science teacher could design field experiences for students across the district, recruiting more novice teachers to engage students in real-world science experiences. A half-time social studies teacher could network with city government to create internships and work-study programs. A half-time communications teacher with a penchant for thoughtful social media engagement could coach teams of students to help spread the word regarding all of the positive things happening in our schools. The list could go on and on.

More localized roles could be just as varied. My Jefferson County colleague Sarah Yost, for example, serves in a hybrid role at Westport Middle School as a language arts teacher and literacy lead. If a principal considers converting or creating hybrid roles within his or her building, positions can be tailored to local needs and demands.

I think about some of my colleagues who have chosen to remain in education but no longer teach. They are striving to make an impact in various ways, but I can’t help but think that given the option, many of these educators would have embraced the opportunity to teach and lead. To remain grounded in the day-to-day realities of teaching while taking on new roles and expanding their impact. To push themselves professionally as practitioners and learners while working closely with students.

Teacher experts with big ideas and expertise are out there; it’s up to district leadership to recognize the untapped potential of hybrid roles to improve and enrich teaching and learning for all.

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