What Schools Want and What Schools Need: Mind the Gap | Greg Martin | 8 Min Read

February 22, 2023

The world couldn’t be more different in early 2023 than anyone could have planned for. As such, many of the “strategic plans” hatched in 2018 or 2019 are now fairly out of touch. Much has been written as of late on “What teachers want” or “What teachers need”, but little has been said about the needs and wants of schools as we approach hiring season 2023. The overall labor market remains firmly on the side of job seekers, with more jobs posted than people searching according to the most recent number from the Department of Labor. As well, the flexibility being seen on the side of employers with regard to work arrangements, hours, pay, and sign-on bonuses demonstrates that workers and job seekers are clearly in the driver’s seat when it comes to bargaining power.

Given the financial model independent schools operate on coupled with the “fixed” mode of work completion, schools have less ability to adapt and address the demands of workers than private industries do. While some schools have taken to offering bonuses (Independent School Job Boards) and increasing starting salaries, overall, independent schools simply can’t compete when it comes to remote work, flexible hours, or significant increases in salaries as expected by the jobseekers of today. To be fair, the job market is likely due for a correction, but much of the toothpaste is already out of the tube. It is imperative that schools begin rectifying areas that are out of sync with the greater job market and overall economy if they are to thrive in the coming years.

What Schools Want

I often refer to this endeavor as finding a unicorn, but it is logical when seen from the perspective of a school. Parents are paying tuition for their children to enroll and expect a certain level of service for those tuition dollars. Yes, the tuition discount rate is a thing, but both the perception and reality are that parents are paying customers. As such, schools must recruit, hire, train, and retain faculty that add to the programs and fill staffing needs in a given year. If an AP Calculus class is part of the curriculum then there must be a teacher qualified to teach at that level. To add to the challenge, that AP Calculus teacher might also be expected to coach, advise a club, or lead an activity. And, this person must be good with young people and understand both pedagogy and adolescent development. 

At boarding schools the list of “wants” becomes more complex since most coaches come from within the faculty, dorms must be staffed, and housing stock often impacts hiring flexibility with regard to families or genders. Schools want teachers who will fit the organization’s culture, meet the criteria of “jobs to be done”, and fall within salary, coaching, gender, or housing ranges that the school might be restricted by. As well, schools want teachers who plan to stay longer than a couple of years since faculty attrition is 1) seen as a bad sign, 2) often goes hand-in-hand with student attrition, and 3) is financially costly to schools in multiple ways. Schools want educators who are academically qualified, bring life to extracurricular activities, mesh with the culture of the school, and connect with students in meaningful and authentic ways. Schools want people who are “givers” and see teaching as a noble calling that encourages bringing your full self to the job. This level of care is what differentiates independent schools from the public realm and justifies the tuition being charged. And to be clear this type of education and this type of educator provide clear benefits to students and families, creating a warm and supportive learning community where students, teachers, and families come to know and value each other as people.

An area of challenge pertaining to what schools want is a disconnect with the “now”, as in many cases schools want an employee that no longer exists, no longer sees work the same as a generation ago, no longer wants to fully give themselves to their job, no longer has some of the diverse sets of talents (two-sport college athlete) seen in the past, no longer has the desire to live in a small dorm apartment, and/or can no longer afford to live in an area in proximity to the school on the salary offered. This can be seen most acutely in the “triple threat” world of boarding schools. It is possible to find educators who check the needed boxes, but as I have written before, the process for that must be updated, professionalized, and proactive, and school leaders must come to grips with the realities change has presented. Yearning for the way it “was” or using phrases like “when I was a new teacher we…..” is not going to change anything and keeps schools from actually addressing staffing challenges.

Schools want to be seen as college preparatory, yet ask any school person what college is for and the conundrum becomes clear. The purpose of college is changing and with that the post-secondary education world. “College Prep” means little when defining the purpose and meaning of college is not possible and many new post-secondary pathways are gaining traction. Preparing students for a changing model of education in ways grounded in the 20th century is not a value proposition. Schools want to continue the linear path that has existed by continuing to operate as if the status quo of 1992 still exists.

What Schools Need

To start, independent schools need to better understand the changes occurring in higher education and the workplace. The notion of each and every independent school being “elite” is unfounded. While the elite colleges in the United States are well known, according to research (Gaztambide-Fernandez 2009; Martin, 2016) there are 28 “elite” boarding schools in the U.S. Much like in higher education, most students will never attend one of these “elite” schools but instead, lesser-known schools that provide a wonderful education and experience for students. Porsche and Mercedes are premium brands and great automobiles, but most people will never drive them and have come to realize that Honda and Toyota are wonderful products. Too many school leaders and too many schools are siloed and not paying attention to key indicators and trends in the marketplace a level up. 

As well, schools need to actively seek and utilize economic and employment data to determine if what they are teaching is matching what emerging needs are. From the recent flurry of articles regarding ChatGPT to the latest Department of Education proposals on student loans to the recent move by the NCAA to end SAT scores in determining player eligibility, independent schools need to do a better job of learning what is going on outside of their own industry. This starts with having an organizational culture that fully expects stakeholders (especially administrators and board members) to embrace research. Schools should have a director of institutional research position within the faculty to specifically act as an investigator of change. All of the needed information is readily accessible to anyone with the desire and time to pay attention. However, having this information in hand is only part of the solution. Schools need to make the choice to act, and sadly many of those that have the ability to act do not because it isn’t urgent while many of those that must act cannot due to fiscal or enrollment pressures.

Study consumer habits. Does the sticker price of your school align with net tuition revenue? Or, is the sticker price simply a number because other schools use the same number? Generation Y (Millenial) parents have a different view regarding what they perceive as value. They do not have the financial resources of generations past and they are looking for value. Resetting tuition will not be perceived as a negative by the rising parental cohort. In fact, keeping published tuitions high could actually dissuade parents from exploring independent schools as an option. Micro-schools, specialized charter schools, and homeschooling are areas that have seen massive increases in the past few years as a result of both Covid and the reality that these venues offer excellent value for their cost. If this trend scales, some independent schools will be unable to compete.

Schools need to better educate parents regarding post-secondary options and then create and cultivate programs that allow students to pursue a broader range of options after graduation. While going directly to college is the perfect fit for some students, others would benefit from a gap year, an apprenticeship/internship in a skilled trade, or even going directly into work.  This a tough sell for schools since the “college prep” notion would need to change and the role of post-secondary placement be expanded. In addition, parental fears and expectations would need to be managed. Many current families continue to adhere to the “college or nothing” mentality and tend to imprint their own experiences on their children even though little remains as it was twenty or more years ago when today’s cohort of parents was applying to college. Again, data is a great tool, but only if schools are willing to utilize it when having conversations with families. 

Wants and needs can compete with each other, causing confusion and discord around spending, marketing, and program. Schools must strive to measure wants and needs in ways that put students’ futures at the forefront of the decision-making process but via a data-informed approach from the perspective of the balcony not the dance floor as Heifitz and Lynsky suggest. By getting up on the balcony, independent school leaders can see how the dance floor functions and what is needed. By remaining on the dance floor the view is restricted to what you see immediately in front of you without a clear line of sight to the bigger picture. Independent schools have value but need to shift their value proposition away from what used to be and towards what will be. This means what a school wants and what a school needs must be defined and managed with an eye focused on needs and not wants. Needs are based on reality and data. Sometimes these needs are uncomfortable and revealing yet addressing them is the only path forward. Focusing purely on wants is a self-centered and regressive exercise that often fails to address critical issues in meaningful ways. Focusing on needs forces a school to be honest with regard to everything from growth to staffing to program. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need…………..

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Greg Martin for Intrepid Ed News.

Greg Martin

Greg grew up in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, and attended the Peddie School, playing football and lacrosse. Greg graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, with a BA in Political Science. He then earned his MA in European History from Western Connecticut State University and his Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy from Drexel University. Greg continues to research, write, and present on staffing models in American boarding schools. His work has been featured in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine. Greg is a regular presenter at the annual The Association of Boarding Schools Conference. Greg has also been a guest on the Enrollment Management Association's podcast several times and has contributed to The Trustees Letter on two occasions. Greg serves on the advisory board for the Independent School MA program at Mount Holyoke College. Greg currently serves as the Humanities Chair at Vermont Academy.

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