The pandemic has been an accelerator of many preexisting trends. In no place is that more true than with our challenge of teacher capacity. Teacher fatigue, shortened tenures, compounded student needs and other factors are increasingly taxing the capacity of our K-12 teaching force and our schools. It is tempting to view teacher shortages as a short-term pipeline and retention challenge, but as one teachers college leader recently shared, it is instead symptomatic of a long-term systems challenge.
A recent survey shows that teachers increasingly “feel overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated … [and want] to spend more time on activities directly related to teaching (planning, instruction) and less time on more ancillary tasks (administrative work … hall duty, mentoring and counseling).”
While the idea of school redesign may feel cliché given the repeated calls over many years, post-pandemic realities may have finally made it necessary. I would argue this is an opportunity to put teachers in the best position to succeed by optimizing their individual strengths and passions and thus their collective impact on students. System redesign can also help address the underlying teacher pipeline challenge by increasing the professionalism, impact and appeal of teaching.
What does this system design look like? We can consider these five elements:
- Differentiate teacher roles.
- Scaffold teacher supports.
- Restructure the use of teachers and time.
- Shift certain tasks to tools and partners.
- Personalize professional learning.
In total, these five steps provide the outline of teaching and learning redesign to help address our challenges around teacher capacity now and into the future. This list is not comprehensive, as it excludes important options such as diversifying and incentivizing the teacher pipeline and improving compensation.
While this list may seem overwhelming at first, there are opportunities to identify and pilot individual practices that can grow and evolve over time. Let’s take a closer look at each of the five.
Differentiate Teacher Roles Through Team Teaching and Collaboration
Teachers are asked to be all things to all students, each with unique needs—to deliver and differentiate instruction, provide nonacademic supports, manage the classroom and extensive administrative tasks, and operate a curriculum and assessment system. No wonder teachers are burnt out.
A collaborative approach mitigates this overwhelming portfolio. It recognizes the strengths of each teacher to maximize the effectiveness of the group. Some teachers may be best at engaging students through direct instruction and others at sharing meaningful feedback, or some at teaching literacy or numeracy while others excel at counseling or mentoring.
ASU Teachers College’s Next Education Workforce initiative supports the intentional distribution of teacher expertise across a team. In a recent Education Week interview, Dean Carole Basile described the model: “Imagine an elementary team that starts with four professional teachers, all at different levels of experience and with different expertise, each responsible for about 25 students. They share a common roster of 100 students and take on different responsibilities and roles based on their strengths. Throughout the year, the team can bring on others to their roster to fill in gaps in expertise.”
The approach can also minimize duplication of effort. For example, rather than each teacher developing their own lesson plans, content and quizzes, they can divide that work and share. Similarly, one teacher could pursue extensive research and training in a given area and then bring those findings back to the group for joint application in their shared curriculum and instruction. By diversifying, distributing and aggregating expertise, roles and tasks, a team model can save teachers time and increase their impact and satisfaction.
Scaffold Teacher Supports and Independence Based on Their Needs and Interests
Just as teacher skills and strengths vary, so too does the network of tools and assistance they will need and want. For example, a teacher’s interest and ability to develop or customize instructional resources will vary based on their experience and comfort. Empowering veteran teachers to apply their knowledge to creating lessons can be both rewarding to them and beneficial in the passion, creativity and relevancy that can follow.
Conversely, less experienced teachers may need those out-of-the-box lessons along with timely professional development where they can be peer coached, reflect and apply lessons learned to their teaching. A strong digital curriculum with learner activities, assessments for and of learning, and embedded lesson plans can provide a foundation that less experienced teachers or even substitutes or paraprofessionals can implement to ensure class time is maximized.
Restructure the Use of Our Most Precious Resources: Teachers and Time
The shortcomings of our industrial-era standard bell schedule remain as real today as ever. Yet our toolbox has never been more stocked to make time, not learning, the variable to ensure all students succeed. How do we reimagine time?
Personalized and mastery-based models can foster intervention, acceleration and enrichment pathways that center curriculum and instruction on each student’s unique needs. Block and flex scheduling, effective independent study, team teaching, and online learning can enable differentiation to address unique student interests, pace and scaffolded supports.
The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond encourages flexible scheduling, per her comments captured by Education Week: “With the addition of remote learning technology, schools have more tools now than ever to provide more flexible schedules to teachers, which could mean more time for one-on-one meetings, planning periods and home visits. More flexibility also means more time for teachers to be able to listen to their students and have a better sense of their needs. It will ultimately improve morale for those in the profession.”
Partnerships can extend the school and teacher capacity through tutoring, experiential learning and wellness supports that teachers can help broker but don’t need to always deliver. Such broader learning communities should include parents and guardians as well, enhancing shared responsibility. These extensions can focus and elevate teachers as the primary instructional instrument while providing complementary and necessary student readiness and nonacademic supports often best addressed outside of the classroom.
Shift Certain Instructional, Student Support and Administrative Tasks to Tools and Partners
Teachers have increasingly less time and capacity relative to the variety of student needs and administrative requirements. Adjusting teacher tasks and tools can help them repurpose their limited time for their most value-added role of connecting with students to support their academic development and social and emotional maturity.
For example, teachers devote considerable class time to direct instruction. Introducing a new concept is, of course, fundamental to the learning process, but teachers can also do so through a flipped model. By recording lessons or providing learning resources for students to complete independently such as for homework, teachers can then use precious class time for further explanation, practice and intervention. These uses of time can make the biggest difference in higher-value student learning progressions of reflection, application and collaboration.
As another example, technology can help automate many instructional and administrative workflows such as reminding, nudging or supporting students in their learning and task completion. Rather than teachers needing to manually identify incomplete assignments or pinpoint remediation needs or enrichment opportunities, preconfigured workflows in a learning management system can help notify and engage students so teachers can devote more time to focusing on directly building student trust, dialogue and understanding.
Other partnerships are important to grow capacity (i.e., per #1, grow the teaching team). Schools and teachers cannot and should not be all things. Instead, they can shift, in some cases, from direct delivery to concierge/connector/broker to third-party governmental and nongovernmental service providers. As framed in a blog post from Getting Smart, “community partnerships and school-adjacent experiences are powerful ways to rebundle learning.” Diversification through partnerships is important to school resilience, helping institutions adjust to changing circumstances and needs.
Personalize Professional Learning to Be More Teacher – (and Student) – Centric and Relevant
Teachers increasingly seek professional learning that is relevant, on demand and essentially embedded in their regular schedules, whether through team planning time or access to online modules. Personalizing professional learning to each teacher’s needs requires a shift in culture that invites teachers to shape and pursue their continuing education and balances districtwide compliance or initiative training with individual needs.
Redesigning also shifts the mindset, time and resources to balance one-time, one-size workshops with online courses and ongoing professional learning communities. Expert teachers can help develop and deliver this support. Schools can uncover and curate third-party resources and opportunities while encouraging teachers (with time and flexible funding) to pursue the learning that best meets their unique needs.
Taking the Next Steps to Lift Teacher Capacity
Collectively, these steps may seem like too big of a lift. The most important thing is to not let the full scope of the issue stop you from taking the first steps. Identify the greatest opportunities from these options and take small steps to discuss, plan, pilot and continuously evolve individual practice changes that, over time, can evolve into larger, districtwide reforms.
We have a unique need and opportunity to rethink our models to better support and position our teachers to increase student success. Our collective pandemic experience clarified that relationships and teachers are most important to student learning, that time and place can be flexible, and that there are alternatives to our standardized instructional schedules. The pre-pandemic status quo is no longer viable in many communities short of teaching capacity.
We can lift our teacher capacity if we lift our teachers. Now is the time to reimagine schools to put teachers in the best position for their success and that of their students.