January 24, 2023

School Leaders Can’t Wait for Tomorrow’s Policy Solutions to Solve Today’s Staffing Challenges

By Nick Allen | Shirley Appleman | Anson Jackson | Katie Vivalo Rouse

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Schools across the country are struggling to fill open teaching positions. It’s a challenge that’s not new. The U.S. has long faced critical shortages of math teachers, special education professionals, bilingual educators, and teachers of color — shortfalls that are often more pronounced in rural and low-income communities. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, wreaking havoc on our education system and elevating staff shortages to crisis levels in many school communities.   

Solving persistent staff shortages in schools requires long-term investments, systemic changes, and significant shifts in federal- and state-level policy. But school leaders don’t have the luxury of time. Principals and district leaders need solutions they can implement right now, not just in the long term.

In Creativity From Necessity: A Practical Toolkit for Leaders to Address Teacher Shortages, Bellwether scanned the country for ideas and resources that leaders can use to address staffing challenges in their schools. We interviewed more than 40 leaders, including principals of individual schools, chief talent officers overseeing hundreds of schools, researchers who specialize in staffing shortages, and a wide range of other experts in the field. The objective was to capture a range of experience and perspectives, including leaders from a mix urban and rural areas, large and small districts, and traditional and charter school communities.  

Despite their diverse backgrounds and school contexts, all the leaders we spoke with underscored the importance of foundational best practices in recruiting, hiring, and retaining educator talent: communicating the organization’s value proposition throughout the selection process, anchoring development in mission-aligned competencies and clear performance indicators, and differentiating retention strategies. 

But even implementing these basics consistently isn’t enough to address staffing shortages in every school, especially in a difficult hiring climate. So what else can school leaders do to address staffing shortages? Our toolkit highlights three promising strategies and includes practical tools to help school leaders start implementing them in their school community today

Strategy 1: Protect Teacher Time

Educators want to impact their students’ lives. To enable teachers to invest their time in ways they are passionate about and that translate to student outcomes, leaders have a responsibility to create systems that allow teachers to focus on instruction, maximize collaboration, minimize disruptions, and eliminate low-impact tasks. Here’s how:  

  • Provide dedicated planning time. The leaders Bellwether spoke to are doing everything they can to protect time for teachers to collaborate, internalize lesson plans, and have conversations around student data. The toolkit includes this tool from Education Resource Strategies that outlines six strategies for school leaders to build sufficient collaborative planning time into the master schedule.
  • Reimagine the master school schedule. During the pandemic, many teachers appreciated the autonomy remote working provided. To provide flexibility, planning time, and professional development (PD), many schools are reimagining their school schedule and instructional models. In this case study of Village Tech, the Texas-based independent charter school shows how it transitioned to a 4-Day Instructional Model to give teachers added flexibility.  
  • Reduce administrative burdens. To ensure teachers are able to focus on high-impact instructional roles and responsibilities, many leaders are using ESSER funds and grants to hire additional staff to take on administrative, non-instructional, operational responsibilities. As a first step, leaders can facilitate a structured conversation with teachers to better understand the tasks that are contributing to workload imbalance and make decisions about what to modify or eliminate.

Strategy 2: Meet Teacher Needs

Job satisfaction rates for teachers are at an all-time low, with alarming numbers of educators thinking about leaving the profession sooner than planned. Now, more than ever, leaders must elevate teacher voice within their school community and provide holistic supports based on what educators say they need. Three related trends and tools from the field include the need to: 

  • Elevate teacher voice. School leaders are actively finding ways to gather authentic input and feedback from teachers so that they can better meet their needs. This template from the Learning Accelerator is designed to help school leaders conduct empathy interviews to more deeply understand the perspectives and lived experiences of teachers. 
  • Prioritize teacher development. Many school leaders Bellwether spoke to are prioritizing teacher development by investing in training, PD opportunities, and pathways to advancement within the classroom. This Mentoring & Induction Toolkit from the American Institutes for Research defines the critical features of a comprehensive mentoring program for school leaders who want to double down on mentorship.  
  • Provide holistic supports. In the wake of the pandemic, school leaders are increasingly investing in supports for teachers that go beyond traditional employment benefits to promote holistic well-being. Check out this case study of Brooklyn Prospect, a New York-based charter network that took an innovative approach to investing in the health and well-being of its staff members throughout the pandemic.

Strategy 3: Fill Staffing Gaps   

The tightening U.S. labor market is forcing leaders to think outside the box to recruit and hire staff. Many leaders are trying new strategies to fill critical vacancies and are supplementing investments in new talent pipelines with a back-to-basics approach to recruitment. Specifically, leaders are investing in: 

  • “Grow Your Own” programs. From big districts to single-site schools, leaders are recruiting and preparing members of their local school community (e.g., parents, alumni, paraprofessionals) to enter the teaching profession. Hear directly from leaders who have launched Grow Your Own programs, or check out this toolkit from New America for a comprehensive collection of user-friendly research, policy, and practice resources for Grow Your Own initiatives.   
  • International and virtual teachers. To fill hard-to-staff roles (e.g., STEM, bilingual, and special education), more leaders are turning to international and virtual instructors. Whether staffing in-person or virtual classes, leaders need to know how to recruit and effectively support these teachers. This case study profiles the efforts of YES Prep, a Texas-based charter network, to recruit, hire, and support teachers from abroad who come to the U.S. through the J-1 visa program. 
  • High-dosage tutoring. High-dosage tutoring models can mitigate staffing challenges and accelerate student learning by enabling schools to attract a cadre of adults to regularly support students in individual or group settings. This resource from the National Student Support Accelerator gives educators tips and tools to launch a tutoring program and/or improve an existing one.

To learn more about any of these strategies or how to put them to work in your school community, download Creativity From Necessity or contact the experts on Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team. 

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