Do Things Differently With Less

Six creative solutions leadership teams can use to tackle staff shortages.

National Education Association (NEA) President Becky Pringle announced that the U.S. teacher shortage had reached a “five-alarm crisis” in August, with nearly 300,000 teaching and support positions left unfilled. Facing such dire staff shortages, many assistant principals find themselves doing more classroom work themselves.

But APs can do more than just fill in the gaps to keep their schools educating effectively. The workplace culture APs create can help retain more teachers and alleviate staffing pressures, says The Wallace Foundation’s 2021 research review, “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership.”

To contribute to a positive school culture and attract more staff:

1. Give Teachers More Autonomy

An American Federation of Teachers (AFT) survey found that “more respect and support from administration” was one of teachers’ top suggestions for preventing shortages. Specifically, APs and school leaders should do more to treat teachers and school staff like professionals, respondents said, including scheduling sufficient time to plan instruction and collaborate with colleagues, and more authority to make day-to-day school decisions based on their professional judgment.

Findings from a 2020 report released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) underlines this factor and offers two key recommendations: First, increase teacher autonomy; teachers who reported having a say in school policy and classroom activities are more likely to stay in the profession. Second, nurture learning communities that foster teacher collaboration; a teacher’s estimation of cooperation and support is one of the strongest predicators of teacher retention.

2. Look to the Community for Help

The New Teacher Project (TNTP), founded in 1997 to cultivate more and better educators, suggests tapping qualified families and community members who are interested in substituting or volunteering to cover non-instructional duties such as lunch, recess, arrival, and dismissal. APs might also consider creating part-time, paying roles for community members to cover such duties and other services such as translating documents, preparing lessons, and coordinating events.

3. Recruit Smarter

Loudoun County (Virginia) Public Schools was able to fill nearly 98 percent of its positions by August thanks in part to a new, user-friendly application tracking system for potential hires. The system allows candidates to apply on mobile devices, set up job alerts, and keep in touch with hiring managers, contributed significantly to the district’s recruitment efforts. Loudon County also revised its parental leave policy to provide six weeks’ pay at full salary.

4. Shorten the Work Week

Shortening the school week to four days is a strategy many districts in Europe and the U.S. are trying out. Approximately 660 districts in 24 states operated on a four-day schedule in 2019, according to a Brookings Institution estimate, and while the numbers aren’t yet available, this strategy has advanced since COVID-19 caused school closures in 2020. While the 4-day work week rarely succeeds in cutting costs, anecdotal information says that it seems to help attract and retain more teachers. What’s more, 69 percent of parents and 85 percent of students prefer the shorter week, according to a 2021 survey released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

5. Increase Teacher Pay

Offering higher pay is a solution almost every expert agrees can attract and retain more teachers. Dr. Noris Price, superintendent of Baldwin County School District in Milledgeville, Georgia, told Brookings that her district significantly increased the daily rate of pay for substitute teachers and salaries for paraprofessionals, school nutrition workers, and bus drivers to remain competitive and retain personnel. The district also dedicated funds to award retention and referral bonuses to current employees.

6. Create Out-of-the-Box Incentives

Never underestimate the appeal of little perks that teachers can use to ease the stress on teachers. Districts are experimenting with incentives such as laundry services, health club memberships, meal kit subscriptions, and other conveniences to make staffers’ daily needs more manageable.

After experiencing difficulty filling vacant positions, for example, the Schoharie Central (New York) School District installed 16 chargers for the many teachers and potential new hires who drive electric vehicles. The upfront cost was only $42,000, and initially the district will charge a small fee to use the chargers—one price for the general public, and a discounted price for staff.

Your creativity can contribute to school culture in the post-pandemic education environment. Quiz your teachers on what might make it easier and more rewarding to come to work every day, and put some of those perks in place.

Belinda Lichty Clarke is director of alumni engagement at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.