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January 14, 2022

How We Can Ease the Burden on Educators in Four Steps

It’s time for teacher-centered reform in our public schools.
Leadership
How We Can Ease the Burden on Educators in Four Steps
Credit: SolStock From Canva
Leaders, we have a problem, and it’s not solely because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. This problem existed long before the pandemic began and, if we’re not careful, the pandemic may be the tipping point.
In 2018, an international study on teachers found that only one-third of teachers felt appreciated for their work. The TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey), which spanned 31 countries and surveyed 260,000 teachers, included recommendations for changes in policy and teacher working conditions to help improve the profession. Suffice to say, while many districts have been working on improvements that align with the TALIS recommendations, pandemic stress has thwarted their best efforts and left countless teachers in the United States considering leaving the profession.
Supporting and protecting the teacher workforce should be the primary focus for districts and policymakers. If we don’t make meaningful changes to lessen the strain on the profession and improve working conditions, we stand to lose our biggest asset: teachers.
Moving forward, district leaders need to work toward reducing stress, improving teacher support structures, and building sustainable, attractive working conditions for our teachers. Where change can’t be forced locally, leaders need to call on our state and federal education agencies to solve the systemic issues that are perpetuating teacher stress and causing teacher turnover. 

Step 1: Build sustainable, attractive working conditions for teachers.

For districts across the country, teacher salaries and benefits make up 80 percent of annual expenditures. When the piece of the pie is this large, districts cannot avoid making staffing cuts in strained budget years. For example, the 2007 recession and its impact on education funding led to a reduction of 300,000 public school employees nationwide. Some cuts are transparent, much like this clear reduction in force (RIF), while other cuts can be more elusive changes that impact teacher workload and the workday. For example, say a district with class sizes of 25 allows that number to increase to 28 without the funds to add additional teachers. Many of these types of reductions, like abstaining from increasing staffing and making changes in class size instead, have happened slowly and incrementally, chipping away at teachers’ capacity until the conditions are untenable.
There is a significant difference between planning for 4 classes as opposed to 5, or assessing 100 students as opposed to 130. When we add to teachers’ workload, we decrease time for professional collaboration and we push essential work to beyond school hours. In my tenure as a district leader, there has not been a year when I’ve not had a teacher contacting me after 10:00 p.m. still working to prepare for their students the next day. There has not been a year when I’ve not been on the phone on the weekend supporting a teacher planning for Monday. The reality is that as teachers’ workload increases it spreads out to evenings and weekends and, despite my best efforts to encourage teachers to take their weekends off, we all know that doing so would mean they’re not prepared for their students.
Changing working conditions means building time in the teacher workday so they can complete their professional responsibilities. Teachers should have the time to plan for classes, collaborate with colleagues, and assess student learning during school hours. To reduce stress, leaders should be making room in teachers’ schedules to account for the multitude of professional obligations teachers have on their plates. Reducing teacher schedules to four classes per day to allot in-school time for professional obligations, for example, would help ease the burden at the secondary level. At the elementary level, an equivalent adjustment could be made by increasing unified arts opportunities (such as home economics, physical education, music, etc.).
For many districts, improving working conditions is impossible without increases in funding from our state and federal education agencies. Leaders should be advocating for increased funding for their districts to improve teacher working conditions. Without increases in state and federal funding to supplement district budgets, we will be facing a national teacher shortage that will erode the quality of education we can provide to our students.   

Step 2: Support teachers by supporting professional learning.

If we want a highly effective, trained teacher workforce, we need to fund training. First-year teachers are often partnered with a mentor and receive training within their home districts. These mentorship programs offer teachers a support network and help jumpstart their careers. But it’s only a momentary salve—mentorship programs disappear, leaving teachers to manage their own professional learning for the remainder of their careers. The message from state and federal education agencies has been that professional growth is the teacher’s professional responsibility and, while I agree to an extent, this has translated to not funding teacher professional growth.
Since many districts are unable to offer consistent workshops due to lack of funds, teachers have been pushed into pursuing learning opportunities outside of their district with the promise of partial reimbursement for the cost of enrollment. We cannot expect our teachers to continue to accrue debt to obtain the appropriate training to maintain their licensure in an industry that pays 18.7 percent less than its private sector counterparts.
State and federal education agencies need to do better. This means that programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness require significant reform to disrupt the order of operations associated with teacher professional development. The promise of forgiveness in 10 years or partial reimbursement per course is not enough to maintain the teacher workforce. If we want to keep teachers in the profession, we have to build teacher support structures that value professional growth that doesn’t come at the expense of our teachers.

Step 3: Prioritize instructional support for teachers.

Program leadership in the form of department heads, curriculum supervisors, or curriculum directors is commonplace in many school districts. However, their role is often undervalued. Instructional leaders break down district goals into digestible parts to ensure that their teachers are prepared and ready to engage in new approaches to curriculum and instruction. If we want to support teachers, we must prioritize instructional leadership.
Improving conditions for our teachers means focusing on building instructional support structures to ensure their success. A district’s primary focus is improving the classroom experience for our students which in turn makes our instructional leaders the critical support our teachers need to continue to be successful in their work with our students. Instructional leaders guide and train teachers on instruction and assessment practices, and serve as mentors to teacher professional growth.
But adding or expanding instructional leadership-focused roles is not enough to support teachers. Districts that value teacher agency provide their instructional leaders with a seat at the table when discussing organizational change. When our instructional leaders are a part of those discussions, they are advocating for their teachers and they are ensuring that changes and initiatives on the horizon are tenable. Districts need to build structures that include instructional advocates for teachers.

Step 4: Celebrate and incentivize the teaching profession.

As noted above, teachers make 18.7 percent less than their private sector counterparts, and they do the job anyway, but for how long? We should be celebrating teachers for the invaluable public service they provide to our nation’s youth. This means adopting TALIS recommendations before we lose our teachers.
Here’s what needs to change:
  • Increase funding to districts to support changes to the teacher workday, prioritizing time for professional responsibilities and teacher collaboration.
  • Incentivize entry into the profession through fully funding professional learning.
  • Eliminate the burden of reimbursement or a decade of student loan debt before qualifying for forgiveness.
  • Support districts in restructuring their leadership to prioritize instructional leadership positions, creating a layer of program support that our teachers need to stay current and feel successful.
You fund what you value. Districts must recognize that fully funding education includes fully funding the teaching profession. Teachers are our biggest asset and the direct line to improving student outcomes. We need to start helping teachers help kids, respecting the demands of the profession by implementing meaningful change.

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