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Want to Keep Top Teachers? Consider More Flexible Work Arrangements

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With the start of a new calendar year comes the desire, some might say pressure, to declare a New Year’s resolution. But its very definition, “a promise to do something differently in the new year,” is at odds with the way that school systems typically operate.

It took a global crisis to force immediate, uncomfortable, and immense change in the way schools are run. While remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic were not perfect, they did open educators’ eyes to new ways of teaching. “We realized that there’s far more we can do than we allowed ourselves to do before the pandemic,” said Andi Fourlis, superintendent of Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools.

As ongoing teacher vacancies persist in districts throughout the country, perspectives like Fourlis’—which consider what’s possible first rather than simply reverting to old, pre-pandemic practices—will be paramount for building more flexible strategies to recruit and retain good educators. Education Week spoke with human resources professionals and administrators, who shared how they are trying to think outside the traditional box and make this happen.

Treat employees like professionals

When asked what today’s job candidates in K-12 education are asking for, Brian White offered a response that would’ve been mostly unheard of in pre-pandemic times: “Flexibility around where and when they work,” said White, executive director of human resources and operations for the Auburn-Washburn school district in Topeka, Kan. “That’s what people want.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean teachers and other school employees are requesting totally remote or even hybrid positions, as are many workers in other sectors of the economy. They may be satisfied with subtle but important shifts in how they’re treated, White explained.

“Sometimes, that flexibility comes down to treating people like professionals,” said White. For instance, it could mean giving teachers the option of choosing their work location during designated “professional days”—whether that be at home, a coffee shop, or in their classroom—rather than dictating that they report to the school building.

For some employers, not being able to literally see their employees during the workday can be a difficult adjustment. But if they’ve hired people they trust, treating them like the professionals they expect them to be shouldn’t be a stretch.

Find creative solutions to keep top employees

It’s not uncommon for employers to turn down an employee’s request, such as a more flexible work schedule, simply because it’s never been done before or the existing system isn’t set up to support the change. But if saying “no” means risking the loss of a valued employee, it may be worth trying to find a creative solution.

Melonie Hau, superintendent of Oklahoma’s Duncan Public Schools, explains how a principal in her district did just that.

One of the district’s top special education teachers, who had more than 30 years of experience, had increasing family responsibilities that were going to limit her ability to work the schedule her school was accustomed to. As a result, she was considering retiring.

The school risked losing the teacher’s skills and expertise if it was unwilling to be flexible.
“Rather than lose all of that expertise, we asked if she would be interested in mentoring/coaching our first and second year special education teachers,” Hau said.

Before the school’s principal and the teacher reached an agreement for the teacher to work as an independent contractor rather than an employee, the two parties had to negotiate expectations—from hours worked each week to an hourly pay rate and job responsibilities. But Hau said it was worth the additional time and energy required of the principal to find a creative way to allow this very experienced teacher to continue to have an impact in her building.

Know that expectations will differ for part-time workers

If a school has only one or two part-time teachers among its faculty members, it can be easy to inadvertently overlook their unique work situation. But doing so can lead to dissatisfaction and possibly an earlier-than-desired end to the unique work arrangement.

Melissa Sadorf, superintendent of Arizona’s Stanfield Elementary School District, elaborates: “We’ve had to be flexible. We know we have this part-time teacher, and we need to make sure we’re being responsive to her needs,” she said. “The expectations need to be different.”

For instance, Sadorf said the school cannot expect the part-time teacher to be at a faculty meeting on a Friday afternoon if she’s not scheduled to work that day.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture

When the special education teacher that the Duncan Public Schools transitioned from a full-time employee to an independent contractor first shared her desired hourly pay rate, it was met with resistance. Then, said Hau, the school and district leadership considered the long-term value she could bring as a mentor—especially given the number of inexperienced and/or emergency-certified teachers that the more experienced teacher could potentially be mentoring. If she could help the school build the new teachers’ confidence and subsequently retain them, it could ultimately save the district money.

“If you think about her skill set, she really did deserve it,” Hau said.

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