The intense amount of work teachers are doing to support students through the pandemic is not sustainable. So, in the face of persistent staff shortages and curriculum controversies, principals across the country are giving teachers the space to refocus on their “roots”—which is serving their students.
“We as a country have to get behind teachers and stop bickering about stuff that kids don’t care about,” says Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Kids just want to have a shot at the future, have a great time with their friends and pursue their interests.”
Almost all large and urban districts have experienced shortages, some of which have been caused by sickouts and walkouts over health and safety concerns, according to research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. About half the 100 large districts the Center has been tracking throughout the pandemic are dealing with shortages across multiple departments and positions.
In another survey of district leaders, more than 85% said it is now harder to hire classroom teachers than it has been previous years, with more than three-quarters reporting that they have received fewer applications, according to TNTP, a nonprofit that works to provide under-resourced districts with high-quality teachers. Leaders said the increased stress of teaching and rising private sector wages are to blame, the survey found. More than seven in 10 also reported more teacher resignations and an increase in day-to-day teacher absences.
Many principals are responding by giving teachers more time and autonomy to design lessons with their colleagues, says Nozoe, whose organization has launched a series of networks where principals can share their ideas for supporting their educators. For instance, many principals have also been encouraging teachers to take care of themselves by exercising and by giving teachers more time to spend with family. “Give them a break when you can,” he says. “Let them take time off so they can recharge their batteries.”
Getting teachers to try new skills
One simple response is to simply sit down and talk with teachers as often as possible, says John Gies, principal of Shelby High School, part of Shelby City Schools in Ohio. “And you don’t have to talk about school stuff,” he points out. “Talk about their families and what else is going on.”
Gies has also been working to make school feel as normal as possible by allowing teachers to focus on instruction. He and his team have reduced professional development so as not to overload teachers. The middle of the school year was taxing, and he witnessed both experienced and novice teachers questioning their careers. “If you put in too many new things at a time when stress levels are high, you’re not going to get the implementation you want,” he says. “You have to prioritize the most important things you want teachers to do.”
The shift online gave teachers at Waldport Middle/High School in Oregon’s rural Lincoln County School District new opportunities to watch recordings of themselves in the classroom—and then reflect on their practices with input from their colleagues, Principal Amy Skirvin says. Administrators guided teachers by prioritizing strategies such as academic vocabulary and behavior management.
“Because of watching each other, teachers are talking, they have an open environment and they are trying new skills,” Skirvin says. “It comes down to collaboration and trust and there being an open door where people have someone they can rely on to lead them to be the best that they can be.”
It’s not just COVID
The TNTP survey cautions education leaders not to attribute staffing challenges entirely to the strain of COVID. A majority of the leaders polled by the organization said the salaries they are able to pay teachers “don’t work in the current economy,” particularly considering teachers’ workloads. One leader surveyed warned it could years of salary increases, and investments in building culture and support staff to reverse education’s version of “The Great Resignation.”
Several leaders are also calling state legislators to provide more flexibility in the teaching profession, such as by allowing districts to continue experimenting with hybrid and virtual learning in an effort to give teachers more family and free time.