How should we staff our school for the 2021-2022 school year? Every academic leader should be focused on this question right now. We can’t assume that the staffing needed next year is what we needed during this wild school year, nor can we assume that staffing should return to a pre-COVID world. We also can’t assume a “normal” year in terms of teacher retention or retirements. So how might we think about effective staffing for next school year?
As we dive into this question, it is important to remember that faculty and staff expenses are the primary expenses at independent schools -- at day schools 70-80% of expenses are staff related, at boarding schools, it is 50-60%. Thus, staffing at our schools is the most important factor in schools’ ability both to meet their missions and to thrive and survive financially. With this in mind, let’s dive into the two sides of consideration for staffing the 2021-2022 school year.
What staff do we need to meet our mission and thrive financially?
The school that thrives in the post-pandemics world will not simply “return to normal,” but instead be a school that has learned key lessons from the COVID-pandemic and from addressing the pandemic of systemic racism. Schools transformed overnight in March and continued evolving rapidly throughout the summer. Sacred cows suddenly weren’t so sacred. That’s a good thing.
Throughout the pandemics, we have been advising schools to have an archivist -- someone responsible for documenting what has changed. As you plan for staffing the 2021-2022 school year, review the list of what has changed and consider what changes should stay going forward. For example, did you change your schedule and in the process realize that time and space could be used differently? Might your keep a “start time” change in the future to improve student wellness? Did you find that a mix of synchronous and asynchronous work allowed more time for project-based learning?
In addition to a review of what has changed and should remain, academic leaders also need to take an inventory of competencies and skills that are needed moving forward, both for your faculty as a whole and for individual faculty members. For example, almost certainly faculty job descriptions should include increased expectations for everything from diversity, inclusion, and equity practices, to course design, to assessment practices, to expectations for being on campus (or not?), and to technological acumen. These competencies are no longer “nice to have,” but now “need to have.”
At the same time, enrollment will be a moving target for schools throughout the winter, spring, and summer. Some schools will see marked increases going into next school year; some schools will see marked declines. Academic leaders will need to be in constant contact with admissions offices, and build their faculty corps for flexibility -- faculty members with an ability to teach a range of classes will be more valuable than faculty members with specific niche skills.
Will faculty stay?
This is a real question given this past year. Faculty and staff members are exhausted. In many schools, the trust relationship between faculty and administration has frayed. And, the stock market remains high, giving enough comfort to allow teachers close to retirement age to feel secure enough to retire sooner rather than later. As academic leaders, you need to know who is not planning on returning now, not later in the spring. And yet, many faculty members will want to wait to make decisions about returning until later in the spring, once it becomes more clear what the 2021-2022 school year may look like. Academic leaders will want to reach out to faculty members directly and consider setting deadlines for decisions. Leadership teams will also need to be in constant communication with each other so that, for example, information gained by a department head is relayed to the dean of faculty. Finally, another reason academic leaders need to know faculty retention decisions early is that the hiring process itself will likely be very different, without an ability to have finalists on campus.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)