By Dr. Greg Martin
As the independent school market tightens due to increasing costs and decreasing applicant pools in some regions, both day and boarding schools must approach admission outreach and faculty staffing as parallel challenges or two sides of the same coin. On the one side, schools must work to market the specific expertise of their faculty as a reason for parents to commit to funding an independent school education. On the flip side, schools must attract, train, and retain faculty that are multitalented and will support the numerous programs offered in independent schools. As an additional challenge, schools looking to retain this talented faculty must work to compensate them well and provide a healthy work culture.
Despite these mounting and changing pressures for educators, faculty staffing models have remained fairly static over the last 20 years. As part of a 2016 NAIS study I carried out regarding the sustainability of the “triple-threat” model in boarding schools (the expectation that staff will teach, coach/lead an activity, and perform residential duties), I found that all the schools I studied utilized faculty in multiple roles, which forms the basis for deep and meaningful relationships between the school and the student population. Given the importance of these relationships in attracting students and building dedicated alumni, one could argue that this model has even greater importance in today’s more competitive market.
Based on data from that 2016 study, I found that 82% of participating boarding schools continue to use the triple-threat model, even though 80% identify this model as being under pressure. The pressures noted include parental expectations for experts in academics (71%) and athletics (62%), hyperspecialization in athletics (61%), and changes in the way faculty members view work/life balance (87%).
These data show that parents are expecting more academic expertise and specialization from teachers, yet teachers are increasingly unable to deliver in a model that expects them to contribute on multiple fronts, even in day schools. This duality is in many ways antithetical. On one hand, parents are demanding more from schools with regard to the quality and level of service students are receiving for a premium price. On the other, the willingness and ability of faculty members to deliver on these parental expectations has become untenable as a result of parental pressures for specialists in all areas of school life.
Parents expect that their children’s athletic programs will be coached by individuals with impressive athletic and coaching backgrounds. Likewise, teachers with undergraduate degrees are no longer teaching senior level or AP courses, as professionals with advanced degrees become more and more ubiquitous in independent schools. And as demands for and issues with student life and pastoral care become increasingly complex in day and boarding schools, schools are pressed to hire and/or train staff in this area in ways that were not present two decades ago. This adds additional responsibilities for faculty who are already feeling overburdened.
Shifts in the way employees view work-life balance put further stress on staffing models in general, but that stress is magnified in independent schools where so much is expected of faculty. Millennials especially are less inclined to give themselves over to a lifestyle that requires they relinquish their work-life balance, especially in boarding schools. Even older faculty members have voiced a desire for more family time and more freedom to engage in pursuits outside of their job. Further, millennials want immediate input and to have their opinions heard, yet the traditional hierarchy and faculty culture do not support this changing view. This disconnect can lead to quicker turnover among millennial faculty.
It is well understood that the educators who lead and support independent school classrooms, fields, labs, dorms, stages, and programs are the basis for the student experience. Further, it is this human component and the multiple points of contact between students and faculty members in independent schools that create the relationships and memories from which an active alumni base is cultivated. Simply put, alumni give due to the experiences and relationships formed at schools, not because of a specific building or program.
For admission officers, the strength of the relationships and experiences students have as a result of great faculty should be marketed aggressively as part of what differentiates independent schools from other types of schools. Framing faculty as more of a centerpiece in the admissions process simply makes good sense.
Yet, the conundrum is the future ability of schools to market an experience that derives from a staffing model that is under pressure from both internal and external forces. Schools eventually will need to meet the demands from families for content experts across all school domains—academics, sports, etc. This will be easier to accomplish for larger, more competitive, and more highly endowed schools that can lean on their reputation, location, facilities, and current faculty to attract educators and coaches. Therefore, schools will need to determine how best to market teachers and the impact they have on student experiences to families in a manner that is consistent with the needs and mission of the organization. Yet, in all cases, school success in both student recruitment and retention will depend on the quality of the faculty.
Dr. Greg Martin is history department chair at The Perkiomen School (PA)