Staffing to Make the Pandemic Pivots Permanent

Schools are using innovations launched during the pandemic to address staffing shortages and redefine educator roles.

Over the last few years, school leaders have been caught up in a relentless cycle of crisis management. Schools experienced some of the deepest shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and were thrust into the epicenter of the cultural upheaval that followed.

Principals and their leadership teams now face another crisis: unprecedented staffing shortages. While schools have long navigated personnel-related instabilities from year to year, what we at Transcend are hearing from our partners is that this moment feels different—even existential.

The good news is that schools learned to pivot with newfound flexibility during the pandemic. “I think we will be pivoting for a long time. It might be a permanent condition,” one principal told NAESP in the Leaders We Need Now research series. “Of course, there’s always change in schools, but now, [educators], parents, and kids are used to rolling with new approaches quickly. We’re more willing to change on a dime if routines aren’t working, because we’ve done it.”

During the pandemic, school leaders also discovered that some of the solutions they originally envisioned as temporary actually represented new and better ways of working. Among the innovations school leaders identified as having potential for lasting improvement was “using new staffing practices to meet the needs of educators and students.”

That’s important, because today’s staffing crisis can’t be approached with only a short-term, firefighting mindset. It can’t be solved by simply trying to find more teachers to hire. Existing stresses on the educator workforce were untenable before the pandemic, and what lies ahead calls for profound change.

The Teacher’s Role

The role of the teacher was designed under a factory-oriented, 20th century model of learning. The ways in which schools have traditionally defined teacher responsibilities puts too much pressure on educators to be all things in the classroom. And what is asked of teachers doesn’t align with everything that’s been discovered about learning and development in the past two decades.

We’ve reached the limits of what’s possible within the existing approach. The pandemic exposed flaws in the system while driving expanded awareness of the ways in which students learn, and school leaders, educators, and families are eager to put these learnings into practice. It’s time to modernize our model of education, design educator roles to optimize student learning, and prioritize educators’ professional satisfaction, stimulation, and growth.

Schools rose to meet the moment during the pandemic, digging into their creativity, inventing and testing solutions to problems they’d never considered before, and building resilient muscles of innovation. The staffing challenge must be framed as a much longer-term challenge—as a matter of design and not individual failings. This requires a commitment to tackling a root cause of teacher shortages: the very design of the educator role itself. The challenge is how to reorient pandemic-era recovery strategies in ways that reinvent what it means to be a teacher.

Sowing Seeds of Reinvention

At Transcend, we partner with communities on reinvention journeys, share and support learning models and resources, and search for meaning that fuels a better future. In February, on the heels of “great resignation” forecasts, our organization hosted a discussion with the Transcend Design Community, a network of 3,000 leaders, educators, and designers of innovative schools and learning environments. Participants pondered three questions about how this moment might prompt innovation:

  • What immediate and practical ideas can schools implement around adult roles and/or teacher capacity?
  • What are some ideas for the next year that a school might consider about adult roles and/or teacher capacity?
  • What are the biggest, boldest long-term ideas about how schools can reconsider adult roles and/or teacher capacity in the future?

The discussion produced a sandbox full of ideas that demonstrate the kinds of innovations we need in order to help keep our best educators in the classroom and attract new teachers to the profession. Here are a few examples:

  • Extend the reach of high-quality teachers. Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture model aims to expand the impact of excellent teachers across more classrooms and schools. It features a multiclassroom leader (MCL) who manages a grade or subject team in co-planning, coaching, co-teaching, instructional modeling, and data analysis in addition to leading their own classrooms part time. MCLs and team teachers are held accountable for student achievement and growth, and they receive pay increases to account for the added responsibilities and co-planning time. Most classrooms implementing this approach share paraprofessionals or specialized interventionists and leverage small-group instruction as the primary learning modality.
  • Leverage family and community ties to supplement and support teachers. “Dream teams” are both a unique student-led conference and a community that supports a child all year, providing short-term assistance and long-term preparation to successfully navigate college in the future. Three times a year, students convene their personal dream team, consisting of peers, immediate family (parents, siblings), other key influencers in their lives (clergy, mentors, coaches, friends), and a goal coach or facilitator.In meetings, a student shares academic and personal progress from the last quarter with the dream team, sets goals for the coming quarter, and makes a plan to achieve those goals, including details on how the dream team will lend support. The goals that have proven most meaningful are academic and personal goals that align with an area of interest or life skills. These goals then fuel student motivation, reflection, and growth for the coming quarter.
  • Think flexibly about scheduling. Bell and master schedules should reflect staff needs as well as what is best for student learning. Though there are endless ways to structure the school day (block scheduling, flex or on-your-own time, alternating and/or rotating classes), every schedule must be responsive to teachers’ responsibilities outside of work, permit shared planning and collaborative time for educators, and give students a chance to engage deeply with content.

    Schools might consider adjusting the school day when short on staff; shortening, combining, and/or adding flexible learning time; providing flexible learning days; introducing longer learning blocks; and/or offering part- and full-time schedules by leveraging technology and asynchronous learning days.

Schools around the country are making meaningful changes such as these. They are testing new models for teacher collaboration and instructional delivery; changing schedules to better fit students, families, and teachers; investing in staff mental health and elevating teacher voices; and leveraging technology to improve academic interventions and increase students’ ability to self-direct their learning.

In rethinking traditional educator roles, these schools are laying the groundwork and building a culture for the longer-term transformation that our schools, our teachers, and our students need.

Role of Leadership Teams

In the context of staffing shortages, leadership teams have a critical role to play in supporting principals as they shift back from first-responder mode, going from firefighter to “fire chief.” To maximize the collaborative muscle and collective wisdom of teams with deep understanding and perspectives on teacher needs, principals will need new models of distributed leadership.

Attracting and retaining teachers during this time will require principals and leadership teams to continue to reflect on the following four drivers:

  1. Culture and “fit.” Does the school offer a mission that connects teachers to the work? To what extent are the mission and vision of the school aligned to daily practices? To what extent is our adult culture strong and characterized by mutual respect and enthusiastic collaboration?
  2. Role and working conditions. Do teachers have appropriate autonomy over academic practices and culture? Do teachers experience a work-life balance that prioritizes their well-being and offers flexibility?
  3. Compensation, rewards, and recognition. Are salaries and compensations competitive and fair? To what extent are excellence and growth celebrated and rewarded at the school?
  4. Career development. Do training and professional development directly support daily work and personal growth? Do teachers have feedback and evaluation systems that are equitable and clear?

The answers to some of these questions will reside at the district or system level, but there are practices that principals and leadership teams can adopt to strengthen and inform transformative work at the school level. Fortunately, these approaches align with many of the new strategies identified by school leaders that gained traction during the pandemic:

  • Forming teacher-led focus groups or committees. Teachers know best what they need and can help you determine which strategies are most compelling and suitable for your local context. Gather a group of teachers and survey them routinely on their experiences, and rely on their expertise when making design decisions.
  • Having critical conversations with kids and families. Students and parents alike can provide critical perspectives on school decisions and needs. Ensure that a representative group is active in conversations around school progress and changes.
  • Starting small and within your locus of control. Don’t rush. New practices don’t have to be implemented across the entire school or immediately and all at once. Innovation takes time and continuous learning; start with one or two classroom levels or small teams of teachers.
  • Learning from the process. Create a plan to evaluate progress, gather results, and ask for feedback from teachers, students, and families. Consider what works well, and tweak what does not.
  • Sharing your learnings often and with everyone. To continue to build trust and community, communicate with your teachers, staff, students, and families. Create a plan to share implementation progress and findings with your community so that everyone is involved in the transformative process.

School contexts vary, and not every school type, governance, or location is represented in the examples and strategies we’ve shared. We hope, however, that you consider what your learning environment might look like for students and teachers if you pursue a long-term, transformative strategy to redefine teacher roles.

Jenee Henry Wood leads the Organizational Learning and Foundations team at Transcend.

Tess Gann is a partner on the Organizational Learning and Foundations team at Transcend.

Andrea Wistuba is a usable knowledge associate at Transcend.