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Author’s Note: The ideas shared in this blog were collected through an informal literature scan requested by a regional group of superintendents who were struggling to find ways to improve the experiences of teachers, communicate respect and understanding, and increase the rates at which they choose to stay in teaching. The list was used to generate discussion, compare ideas and practices, and produce additional ideas to address this important set of challenges.

Teachers are departing the profession at an alarming rate. Distressingly high numbers of teachers indicate that they are considering leaving the profession—and may do so soon. Even those who plan to stay are reporting high levels of frustration and fatigue.

Obviously, there are forces and factors at play that are beyond the control and influence of teachers, principals, and even superintendents. Unacceptably low levels of funding for compensation, aggressive political agendas, and an overall lack of value placed on the work of teachers have led to higher levels of stress and lower levels of satisfaction.

Nevertheless, there are several ways in which we can make the work of teachers more sustainable, communicate more authentic appreciation, and convey greater respect. Here are ten ideas worth considering. Most of the ideas will work best if considered and planned jointly involving teachers and administrators. Some of the options might fit better in some contexts and circumstances than in others. Some will require funding, while others require no cost. Some might be implemented as they are presented, while others will need customization. The key is to explore what can be done and what will matter, and then act.

A good place to start might be to increase the flexibility for teachers’ use of time. Historically, teaching has presented a highly structured, minimally flexible, and predictable schedule and calendar. However, the pandemic, in addition to technology and other tools, has opened the possibility to offer greater flexibility than an ironclad 8:00-3:30 schedule. Offering flexible schedules that may include later starts, earlier starts, evening classes, and other options might better meet the needs of some teachers and students. Flex schedules and shorter school terms, with options not to teach every term, might add variety and better accommodate the needs of teachers with other demands and responsibilities beyond their teaching, while not disrupting learning continuity.

Another area worthy of attention is how we demonstrate appreciation and respect. Rather than one-size-fits-all recognition and the same tokens offered to everyone, we can take the time to tailor our appreciation to the needs and preferences of individuals. For some, this shift may mean that we offer our appreciation in a personal and private setting. For others, appreciation may be more meaningful if provided in terms of technology and other tool upgrades and learning opportunities. The key is to offer recognition that is meaningful to each specific individual.

We might also think about low-cost, customizable benefits to offer. For example, might teachers be given access to childcare support? Maybe a relationship with a local house-cleaning service could result in discounted services for employees? Or might there be a way to offer selected concierge-type services for unexpected needs and emergencies that teachers can tap into for assistance to reduce stress and save time? Car mechanics on call, appliance repair services, or personal technology repair might be examples.

What if we established a practice or policy to reduce outside-of-school-hours expectations for communication and other responsibilities? For the most part, evening emails, texts, and other reach-outs could wait until morning without significant harm or disaster. Of course, for this expectation to work, several common habits and widely held assumptions about the work of teachers may need to be adjusted. Here, technology may be part of the cause as well as part of the solution. Think about artificial intelligence and how it might increase productivity and reduce time demands.

Yet another area worthy of consideration is finding ways to reduce the number of simultaneous initiatives underway. Where possible, existing initiatives might be integrated to reduce redundancy in training and practice shifts. The scope of initiatives might be narrowed to reduce the investment of human capital while increasing the focus on outcomes. Any efforts that reduce the experience of initiative fatigue will likely be welcomed.    

Another high potential focus is to find ways to increase the voice of teachers in planning and decision-making in areas of interest and impact on their work. As examples, the composition of teams might be a blend of assignments and volunteers. Teachers might be surveyed and provided other opportunities to provide input on the design of schedules and use of space. Of course, a careful balance needs to be struck so that teachers are not taking on additional burdens in areas that are not relevant to—and have a negative impact on—their time and work.

We can make it a priority to ensure the presence of a transparent, effective, and consistent approach to prevent, minimize, and manage student misbehavior. There is broad consensus that student behavior in the aftermath of the pandemic has changed and is often more challenging. An effective and sustainable approach to preventing problems, minimizing disruption, and maintaining an environment of safety, inclusiveness, and belonging can make a huge difference.  

Still, there exists another important opportunity to enhance the experience and improve the effectiveness of teachers’ involvement in professional learning that is meaningful, timely, and useful. Here we can maximize the professional learning choices, options, and opportunities available. The days of one-size-fits-all as an effective professional learning strategy have passed, if they ever existed at all. The challenge is to strike an appropriate balance between meeting individual professional interests and needs and addressing organization priorities and expectations.

Where possible, we might reduce the number and length of non-teaching related tasks and non-professional responsibilities assigned to teachers. Traditionally, teachers have managed everything from meeting buses in the morning, to playground duty, to study hall supervision, and after-school detention. While teachers are often effective at performing these tasks, the tasks do ultimately cost teachers time that could be spent designing learning experiences, collaborating with colleagues, and conferencing with students. Where practical, non-certified staff and, in some cases, trained volunteers might assume some of these tasks.

Finally, and maybe most obviously, we need to do what we can to manage the number of meetings teachers must attend. We can then focus attention on those meetings where teachers add the greatest value and where information and action cannot be handled via other means. Information sharing does not necessarily require a physical meeting. Even some discussions and decisions can be managed via technology. Without question, some meetings are a must. But even cancelling and eliminating a few meetings here and there can make a significant difference. 

Trying to implement all or most of these ideas at once may be a recipe for failure. However, selecting a few areas, initiating a dialogue, listening, and making even a few well-considered changes can be an important start. Conversation and collaboration will be the keys to improving the experience and satisfaction of teachers.

Thought for the Week

Finding ways to engage students, increase learning efficiency, and extending recall of what students learn can be a constant quest. Fortunately, designing activities and employing strategies that release the flow of dopamine in our students’ brains can help us to meet this challenge, especially now.

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