Around late July every year, my husband and I sit down with our calendars and make sincere attempts to plan our year according to the first-year teacher’s roller coaster. Where might we strategically schedule date nights? Or a comforting pasta night or two? What should we do in the week leading up to that inevitable time in October when all things seem to fall apart in school?
My husband and I met as teachers in Atlanta, and while I left the classroom several years ago, he has been a high school administrator for the last six years. We learned quickly that this roller coaster isn’t just for first-year teachers. We are mindful of this cycle and do our best to respond to the inevitable peaks and valleys of the year—finding hope and renewal in early August, crashing into the fall, and coming alive again with the promise of spring.
It’s barely adequate to say that COVID and its variants have laughed heartily in the face of our attempts to conquer the calendar. It’s the hardest time of our lives. January usually begins the emotional upswing, but this year we were greeted by news of omicron and a wave of teacher absences, followed by predictions that “The Great Resignation” will soon hit our schools. Evidence abounds that this is a hard moment, from an announcement out of Texas that nine superintendents in one region are departing, to news from New Mexico that due to a lack of available educators, the governor would be jumping in to serve as a substitute teacher, to reports nationwide of hundreds of schools closing for days.
Those of us who’ve been educators know that some level of staff movement is normal every year, and that it’s natural for up to half of teachers to consider other work or to experience long vacancies to fill critical teaching positions. We have faced national teaching shortages before. In many ways, this turbulence isn’t profoundly new to many schools. It’s part of the cycle. That got me thinking: What are the root and systemic causes that make this moment feel almost predictable? In what ways does the very design of the teacher role encourage crisis and what immediate to long-term solutions can we activate?
As head of learning at Transcend, a nonprofit that works to reimagine school design, I recently convened over 150 members of the Transcend Design Community, which brings together educators, school and systems leaders, academics, innovators and others thinking about education, in a shared space for collaboration and knowledge sharing. We asked: What can schools do in the immediate, mid-range, and long-term to reimagine adult roles and teacher capacity?
I have been floored by the response—such urgency, such depth of creativity, such generative thinking. Educators know what they need, administrators have wildly creative solutions and parents want to play a role.
As my team and I stepped back to make-meaning from all we’ve heard, we realized that there are three kinds of approaches arising:
- Triage: In many places we must stop the bleeding. That means holding onto great educators by understanding what’s immediately important, and working to solve those problems quickly. One of my favorite ideas is flexible Friday scheduling, which can range from rotating Fridays off, to half-days, to virtual Friday tutoring in small groups.
- Tinker: These kinds of solutions are more mid-range, and involve building new solutions, testing them, learning and iterating again. One great example would be to implement a portfolio approach in which teams of teachers oversee students and divide content and pedagogical responsibilities based on expertise. This could mean that a teacher who is strong at direct instruction or one who creates amazing hands-on experiences can specialize, creating a far more flexible profession.
- Transform: These are longer-range solutions that school systems might consider in order to fundamentally redesign the educator role. These solutions aren’t ones that are ready-made overnight. A promising idea some school districts are testing is deepening community connections with nonprofits, museums, community centers and expanding the walls of school to include internship learning so that learning can truly happen anytime, anywhere alleviating the weighty burden on teachers to be the masters of every domain.
This is just a starting point, and it’s clear that the best innovations and ideas are born from those in schools right now. We are working to generate practical solutions to staffing issues that reflect the systemic issues at the heart of the educator role. In the meantime, we’ve developed a sandbox where we are keeping all the ideas we’re hearing from our community and beyond. (Feel free to leave your own comments.)
Let’s not only bemoan this problem, let’s work together to solve it.