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The rise of unconventional teaching roles: How do educators in these roles feel about them?

A teacher provides feedback on a student’s work.

Many are talking about ways to rethink the role of teaching these days, whether by reorganizing teachers into teams, leveraging community educators, or allowing teachers to teach in unconventional school models like micro-schools. In the past, the motivation to experiment with new staffing models was sometimes in response to teacher labor shortages, teacher burnout, or the stark reality that one teacher alone simply cannot meet the diversity and complexity of student needs on her own. Now, we add to all those factors a persistent declining public school enrollment and loss of federal pandemic-recovery funds putting significant downward pressures on school budgets. At the same time, many states and communities are creating openings for unconventional teaching roles to emerge through ESAs and other school paradigms that allow for greater reimagining of teaching roles.

A new CRPE report helps shed light on why these types of solutions hold promise, but also offers important cautions for those promoting and implementing them. CRPE’s Steven Weiner interviewed teachers who are working in unconventional roles, from tiny micro-schools to teachers working in teams or taking on mentorship and leadership roles in traditional district-run schools. The vast majority of teachers interviewed really loved the increased autonomy and stronger connections to peers, community, and to students and families. More than two-thirds of those interviewed said they had additional autonomy over their daily schedules, their curriculum, and how students were assessed. 

In December 2023, CRPE hosted a webinar featuring educators with unconventional roles like the ones described in the report.

One webinar panelist, teacher Sarah Keel, is part of an interdisciplinary approach at a traditional public high school with two other teachers. Together, the three teachers – who collectively teach English, Spanish and history – integrate their curricula and flexibly adapt their three-hour block of teaching time to the needs of their students on a given day.

Many spoke of having renewed energy for the profession and greater ability to connect with and serve students and families with personalized learning. For example, Carissa Solomon was a traditional classroom teacher for a decade who transitioned to a micro-school setting. She spoke on our webinar of how excited she was to build authentic relationships with her students because she only saw 25 per day rather than the 125 students she taught previously.

Team and mentor teaching had additional benefits, teachers reported, making it easier for teachers to feel they could leave for a doctor’s appointment or stay home with a sick child without having to rely on a substitute teacher to ensure students stayed on track with their coursework. Teachers of all experience levels also reported how valuable it was to watch other teachers in their team and learn from them.

These benefits, however, also brought challenges, something advocates for strategic or innovative staffing models must keep in mind going forward. The teachers who gained the most autonomy in their roles often felt isolated or unprepared to handle all of that autonomy. This was especially true of teachers in something akin to one room schoolhouses, even when such programs were supported by a national microschool support provider. One teacher said running her own microschool felt like “being on a lonely island” and another said that she “missed having coworkers.” Unlike teachers who experienced the relief of having a team of colleagues to step in for them in an emergency, these solo operators sometimes had to close the school if their own child was sick. Access to high quality curriculum and professional development was also limited.

Even high functioning teams in more traditional schools sometimes had trouble sustaining the “magic” that made their collaboration work. Teachers who were empowered with decision making or curricular authority often reported it was a lot more work with little guidance. And in the end, many were unsure how long they would stay in these roles more than five to seven years.

All of this led report author Steven Weiner to call for more opportunities to give teachers more satisfying professional opportunities, such as team and specialized teaching roles. However, he says, they should be paired with more highly structured support infrastructure to allow teachers to thrive and sustain themselves in such roles. And finally, the report notes that any new staffing initiatives must honestly examine and report on whether these staffing changes result in better student experiences and learning.

Even with the challenges that come with unconventional teaching roles, Arizona teacher Beth Garcia was clear on our webinar that schools and teachers should not back away from implementing new teaching models because the outcomes might be uncertain.  “I would just say, to trust the process. It is okay that you are doing something different and to trust that different is okay, and that you have the ability to impact students’ lives.”

There has never been a more important time for our education leaders to be bold in engaging teachers in an authentic reimagining of their roles in ways that can be more rewarding for teachers and bring about better outcomes for students. This report and accompanying webinar provide valuable insights for those ready to take the plunge.

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