The Great Renegotiation is coming for schools.
According to national data, schools are not facing greater teacher vacancies this year than in years past. But if you’re reading this article—if you’re engaged enough in education to be reading EdSurge—you probably don’t believe that data. And for good reason.
Teachers report being more stressed as the pandemic goes on, and much more likely to leave the profession than they were before March 2020. Every school I know is struggling to keep their teachers and even their principals; every leader I know is constantly balancing kids’ urgent needs with the need to not push teachers too far for fear they’ll quit. If the Big Quit hasn’t come for teachers yet, it will. I’d put money (though I’d be happier to lose it!) on a far higher rate of teacher turnover than ever before by the end of this school year.
The problem isn’t just the pandemic, but the mismatch between changing expectations of workers, and what it’s like to work at a school. The NPR podcast Planet Money calls the broader phenomenon “the Great Renegotiation”: a redefinition of our relationship with our workplaces. The problem for schools is that redefining what it means to work at a school is incredibly difficult. But in the years to come, schools won’t have a choice. They’ll need to find ways for school employment to be far more flexible, which will mean profound changes in how they work.
What Teachers Want
The Big Quit is a pithy term for a real phenomenon: the highest number of job resignations ever. More Americans than ever before say that now is a good time to find a new job, and over half of Americans are planning to look for one in the next year.
What will they look for? More flexibility is the number one priority for job seekers. Almost three-quarters of knowledge workers plan to leave their jobs if they don’t get enough flexibility. Flexibility is particularly important for the younger workers schools need to hire for the future. Like their workforce peers, teachers want flexibility, too. A recent survey of teachers in Washington, D.C. found that flexible scheduling is the number one factor (above higher pay!) that would keep them in the classroom.
Compared to workers in offices or remote jobs, teachers have always had a harder time keeping up with the varying needs of adult life: car repairs, doctors’ appointments, meeting a plumber. Just making a personal phone call while at work is something that most college-educated professionals take for granted, but it’s incredibly difficult for teachers. Recent needs for COVID-19 testing, helping family members and emergency child care have emphasized this disparity.
During last year’s widespread remote schooling, teachers found greater flexibility—no commute, no hallway duty—and liked it, even if they didn’t like teaching virtually. After that experience, the relentlessness of the in-person school week is a big reason teachers are finding this year even more stressful. Principals, too, are feeling the strain: twice as many expect to leave the principalship then before the pandemic. Lower-paid employees like bus drivers have already departed.
Getting to Flex
Before we get there, a warning: these ideas are going to seem unlikely or impossible. The school schedule is a core part of the grammar of schooling: the ways that, just like we unconsciously speak grammatically, we conceive of how schools operate. For instance, we just know that students spend their days in groups of about 25: not 5, not 50. Fundamentally changing that grammar is hard to do; it’s even hard to think about.
But what are the alternatives? If a quarter of teachers leave the job at the end of this year, and younger knowledge workers have no interest in entering such an inflexible profession, how do schools continue as they are?
We could significantly increase salaries to retain school staff—if taxpayers and politicians are willing to raise taxes or make significant cuts elsewhere. (Over 80 percent of education budgets go to salaries and benefits; the money isn’t there to increase pay without increasing the budget.) Without a significant change in the economics of education, changing the grammar of schooling is actually the most realistic approach.
So let’s imagine. How could school work if teachers only taught 4 days out of a 5 day school week?
At elementary schools, we’d have to get rid of the 1 teacher/1 class/5 days equation. At secondary schools, we’d have to toss out 5-day-per-week class rotations. Without hiring more teachers, we’d have to abandon the idea that kids spend their entire learning time in groups of 25. Essentially, we’d have to create new options for learning.
One relatively easy option would be for elementary classes to have their normal classes 4 days a week. Rather than a “special” class every day, they might devote one day every week for two 3-hour workshops in art, music, STEAM or phys ed. Secondary schools could have each class meet 4 days per week (on a rotation where every class meets 5 times per month), which would leave each teacher free for an out-of-school day each week. Schools on block schedules could adjust their rotations so that each teacher had two consecutive blocks of “planning” to use as, and where, the teacher prefers.
These adjustments take the current pieces of school and rearrange their schedules. But more creative approaches may be necessary. High school students could do internships or community service one day per week, with light (or remote) supervision by school adults with more flex time elsewhere. Elementary schools could have “one day where younger kids engage with experiential learning with partner organizations,” suggests Scott Goldstein, founder of a teacher advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Think about an arts program that spends a semester’s worth of Tuesdays with a school’s entire second grade, or an environmental group that takes fifth graders on a hike every Friday.
We can get more creative with school employees, too. If a fourth teacher floated among three classes (at any K-12 level), that teacher could take over each class one day a week and spend some time with every class on one other day. That would leave each of the four teachers with a flex day once a week. In this scenario, to keep the same number of teachers on a school’s budget, we’d have to increase class size by about 25 percent. Yes, increasing class size stinks! And so does not retaining or hiring qualified teachers.
Similarly, administrators and office staff can do part of their jobs from home. Let them create schedules to do so one day a week. Changing the all-there-all-week culture of schools can allow even dedicated aides and other support staff a half day a week of personal flex time.
Personal flex time may sound absurd, given our current grammar of schooling. In some years when I taught, I never took a sick day; as a principal, I told teachers I didn’t want them absent unless they literally could not get themselves to school. I was correct, given the way schools currently work, that our students wouldn’t get much out of a day when their teacher was absent. But I also burned out, as did too many of the teachers I supervised.
We need a system where we can treat teachers and other school staff like adult professionals who can, at least one day a week, manage their own lives and time. It can’t come at a cost to students; but if we don’t figure out how to do it, the cost may be the teaching profession as we know it. If we don’t want a Big Quit, we need a Great Renegotiation.