“Currently I am working in a classroom as part of the district's emergency utilization of personnel to substitute teach.” —Director of Talent Acquisition
We’ve been seeing variations of this email auto-reply “away message” all too frequently this Winter and Spring from central office staff, including those in human resources and human capital. Amidst unprecedented staffing challenges, school systems are pursuing an all-hands-on-deck approach to meeting the needs of students. This well-intentioned approach to supporting schools is actually a continuance of a long running effort, heightened by the pandemic, to respond to urgent staffing needs by repurposing administrative staff to the classroom—from substitute teaching to handing out electronics.
An educator’s willingness to do whatever it takes is profoundly inspiring. But two years into a state of unending “emergency,” the individual and systemic toll of “doing whatever it takes” is undeniable. Educators – the people that drive kids to school and serve them meals, teachers and principals, those who work to support and staff schools, and everyone in between – are burned out. And the systemic toll of disrupting the vital work of school system administrators is increasingly evident. When a person who is responsible for supporting teachers is deployed to substitute teach, teacher support suffers. When a person who is responsible for building the pipeline of bus drivers or teachers, or school leaders is redeployed to schools to plug holes, it becomes harder to build those vital pipelines and staff future vacancies. Clearly, sometimes this redeployment of resources may be necessary. But, too often, it feels like this grouping of staff and their core functions, are treated as not essential. The practice of deprioritizing the strategic pipeline work is not limited to putting central office staff in classrooms; it happens on a regular basis when resources are diverted away from work with longer-term outcomes to immediate pressing needs. Unfortunately, this only increases the need for emergency fixes in the future and undermines the future foundation of the work.
For Superintendents, School Board Members and other School System Leaders, now is the time to make the difficult decision to refocus, invest in, and protect the type of work that doesn’t necessarily have immediate payoffs. This is vitally important when school systems are staring down teacher and other labor shortages. The work of hiring teachers, for instance, doesn’t begin once there’s an opening. It starts by engaging future teachers while they are undergraduate and graduate students thinking about or in the early stages of pursuing their licensure. A single employee redeployed into a classroom will struggle to meet the needs of a classroom of students today and is prevented from doing the work of building a pipeline of teachers that can ably meet the needs of classrooms and schools tomorrow and the day after.
Here are five recommendations for leadership:
Conduct regular, comprehensive pipeline audits that allow for the identification of both short-term and long-term high-impact work
Prioritize long-term pipeline work in the strategic planning process
Establish data collection systems that create visibility into the health of the pipeline and tactical changes needed to respond to evolving contexts
Support staff tasked with the pipeline work and clearly communicate the value of those choices, even when that involves making hard choices about how to deploy resources
Examine the use of outsourcing models you have currently under contract or are considering and evaluate their sustainability both from a budget perspective but also think about the degree to which partner business models can weather changing labor market conditions
Superintendents must create and protect the space that their staff needs to do pipeline work even if it means making uncomfortable choices about how and when to alleviate the stresses that schools are experiencing. School Board Members and other critical stakeholders must support leadership through the inevitable stresses that accompany trying to balance short and long-term priorities. A failure to make these hard choices only ensures that our schools experience a perpetual state of emergency and dysfunction.