Teachers Want to Quit Because They’re Unhappy and Unfulfilled. Here’s One Fix

Team teaching can create a more sustainable, gratifying profession

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It’s not news anymore that schooling during the pandemic took a serious toll on teachers,with the latest figures from a RAND Corporation survey suggesting that about a third of educators have an intention to leave their jobs by the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

But even before the pandemic, 30% of college graduates who become teachers typically leave the profession within six years. That ranks as the fifth-highest turnover by occupation, behind secretaries, childcare workers, paralegals and correctional officers — and higher than policing and nursing.

Creating a more sustainable and gratifying teaching profession is critical.

To deliver on this goal, in my new book, From Reopen to Reinvent, I argue that the traditional one-to-many teacher-to-student model must change. The teaching profession needs to be rethought to create a web of support for children — not just single, isolated strands. And it needs to be rethought so that teachers can work more with each other, advance in their areas of expertise, and shed the tasks that bring them less joy and fulfillment.

Understanding what motivates employees

A key problem in today’s teaching model is that it ignores a significant body of research on how to motivate employees.

In 1968, psychologist Frederick Herzberg published what’s known as the “Two-Factor Theory,” an influential body of research showing that it’s possible to both love and hate your job at the same time. This is because two sets of factors affect how people feel about their work.

The first set, called “hygiene factors,” affects whether employees are dissatisfied with their jobs.

The second set, called “motivators,” determine the extent to which employees love their jobs.

To help eliminate one’s dissatisfaction, Herzberg found that it was important to address hygiene factors, such as an employer’s policies and administration, an employee’s relationships with their supervisor and peers, the working conditions, salary and so forth.

Making someone satisfied and excited about a job, however, requires motivation. Doing that means recognizing employees for their achievements, offering intrinsically rewarding work, and granting employees greater responsibility and the ability to advance and grow in their profession.

The traditional teacher job today lacks many of these motivators.

Teachers often work in isolation from other adults, which means there is little or no opportunity for recognition for their efforts. There is also no real career track for teachers in traditional schools and districts.

Opportunities for increased responsibility and career advancement are slim. Aside from becoming the head of a department, the only other way for most teachers to move up in this line of work is to stop teaching so they can be promoted into administrative roles.

Team-Based Co-Teaching

Making teaching a team activity is one way to create more of these opportunities for motivators.

That doesn’t mean assigning teachers to teams but still having them remain in their separate classrooms, only gathering to meet during collective planning periods or off-hours. Schools have done that for decades.

What’s instead needed is co-teaching, in which groups of teachers actively work together as they support large groups of students.

Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is at the forefront of this thinking. The College is working with 30 schools to create new co-teaching models as part of its Next Education Workforce Initiative.

For Mary Lou Fulton Dean Carole Basile, creating a more motivating, sustainable profession is a design challenge.

“Let’s think about a group of kids and how we actually could build the right kinds of adults and the right kind of expertise around those kids,” she said.

For example, if an elementary school has100 students in one grade, the school should also know how many of those students have special needs and how many are second language learners, and then assess the different social-emotional learning supports they may need.

From there, Basile said, a school should start thinking about the roles and skill sets of teachers and what they must specialize in such that a school can create a team with distributed expertise, so that every student has a dedicated team of live resources to meet their needs. That, in turn, allows for more flexible entry, specialization and advancement pathways for teachers, which aligns with Herzberg’s motivation research.

What that starts to look like on the ground differs from school to school, Basile said, but it results in more professionalization for educators that is cost-neutral.

“We said to schools and to districts, you’ve got X amount of dollars,” Basile said. “You’ve got a grade level of kids. Today, you have four professional teachers. One has been a teacher for 12 years. They’re terrific in teaching math and reading. … They don’t particularly like teaching science. You have another one who just came in a couple years ago, who was an engineer who came in as an alternative pathway. You have another one that was hired because you needed somebody and they’ve got a degree. But… they really don’t have teaching experience. And you’ve got somebody somewhere in the middle…

“Then let’s look at the [paraprofessionals] that we have. … They’ve been under-prepared, so can we upskill them in some ways around literacy, around special ed, so that they come in now in sort of technician roles. Then you think about who in the community do you need? So there are people who have, maybe they’re educated, maybe they’re undereducated, but they have skills in teaching literacy, and culture…. But we upskill them in some ways, and we bring them into the team. Now you’ve got a team of people around 100 kids that are all now working together in this dynamic way. They’re grouping, they’re regrouping. They’re thinking about what kids need.”

Allowing educators to specialize in this variety of ways allows them to master the areas of teaching where they have passion, be that tutoring, facilitating projects, using data, math, reading or something else. They can also spend less time on those areas in which they are less excited or less talented.

The Next Education Workforce Initiative is also working with the American Association of School Administrators and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education to act on this vision.

Rethinking Schooling

Although having larger learning environments of more students and teachers has echoes of the failed open classroom movement, there are key differences today.

In the 1970s, there was an assumption that any learning activity could occur anywhere. In other words, you wouldn’t need to design specific spaces for specific modalities of learning. In trying to be all things to all modalities, however, the spaces were suboptimal for any activity.

On top of that, in the absence of any technological advances, the dominant model of instruction was still a teacher talking to their class, which produces noise that could disturb a neighboring lesson or silent learning activity. The use of technology today changes this dynamic, however, because it can eliminate whole-class instruction.

From Summit Public Schools to the implementation of Teach to One in Elizabeth Public Schools in New Jersey, as well as Montessori schools, which for decades have had at least two educators working together with multi-age students in a classroom, more schools are rethinking the job of teachers to create a team environment that is more motivating and sustainable.

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