Three Boxes of Challenges

I generally focus this blog on faculty culture, staffing, job duties, etc, but feel the need to write a broader piece regarding what I view as the main challenges facing boarding schools in the next five to seven years. As a policy guy and overall data geek, I will start there; with the numbers.

Most boarding schools have a blind spot when it comes to the greater goings on of economics and demographics. As such, schools are not prepared for when these areas converge on them. The current economic state appears to be good, but as Thomas Picketty states, it is a “mirage economy.” In this sense, GDP growth, low unemployment, and a soaring stock market are all papering over some significant structural issues that will surface at some point in the near future. Debt, both personal and national, is unsustainable. $22T plus national debt. $1.5T in student loan debt. 42% of American homes are worth less than the mortgage. All of this will be amplified when the stock market adjusts downwards and the true health of companies is revealed. In turn, boarding schools will feel the ripple effect as parents tighten their belts, students shift away from the “college for all” model due to an unwillingness to take on massive debt for a degree of dubious value, and the supply of international students become smaller and more diluted due to boarding options in Canada, the UK, and China that offer similar programs at a savings of money or distance. Schools that borrowed heavily to fund building projects could be faced with reduced revenue as the result of a shrinking student body. Schools that are heavily dependent on tuition for operating revenue (80% or more) will feel this most acutely.

Coexisting with this financial box is the shrinking supply of school-aged children. An issue in each and every aging post-post-industrial society, birthrates are declining sharply as economies shift, religion wanes, and couples put off having children, have fewer children, or decide against having children at all. The current birthrate in the United States is 1.76 and is now at a 30 year low. As it stands, we now have more deaths than births. As schools work hard to increase the number of full-pay domestic boarding students, this number should be at the forefront of everyone’s admissions plan. Analyst “project” a rebound in births by 2026, but this is based on assumptions and trends, not a surefire event by any means. Additionally, this decade of decline is something not all schools will have the ability to adjust for, or even weather. If a certain school relies on 90% of its operating budget from tuition, how long can they maintain their current structure if they lose 10% of their student population? Will this shift lead to schools downsizing? If yes, what will schools look like if they are leaner and more efficient? Athletics? Size of faculty? Redundant buildings and programs?

The final box has to do with the rising generation of workers. I have written about this before, but it is worth mentioning here. As Baby Boomers retire in increasing numbers through 2025, schools will be hiring workers that have very different views, needs, beliefs, values, and skills from the Boomer generation. Hyper-specialization in subjects and athletics will put pressure on the triple-threat model. High student debt loads will impact whether or not talented candidates can afford to teach. Attitudes whereby Gen Y and Z see work as a means to an end and not something that defines them as people will make it harder to find the kind of dedication schools value dearly. As well, a more transient view of employment means turnover at schools could be high, impacting culture and continuity.

So, what are the potential solutions to the potential boxes of challenges? Flexibility is key, as schools will need to adapt to new realities that may or may not be aligned with the way schools have operated in the past. If the definition of “higher education” becomes broader, what then does college prep mean? Can schools expand offerings to offer micro-credentials and dual-enrollment? Can schools fill the gaps in workforce training, sending graduates directly into the job force and bypassing college completely? Schools will need to explore scenarios where they are smaller or, at least, more efficient, thus reducing the revenue needed to operate. For schools with high debt loads, this may prove impossible. Schools will need to adapt to downwards trends within the market given how it will impact endowments, retirement funds, and the pool of families who derive their wealth from a robust bull market. Schools should review their staffing models and workload assignments with an eye towards aligning workplace culture with the beliefs and values of Gen Y and Z workers. This may mean modifying expectations for what defines FT employees working in a one size fits all model such as the Rule of 7 (Teach 4, Coach 2, Res Life 1). Boarding schools should be paying close attention to what is occurring to small liberal arts colleges, as they are seeing the changes up-close and, at times, finding themselves unable to adapt. (Green Mountain College, etc) Finally, schools need to be honest with themselves. Are they viable in their current iterations? Can they “rebrand” and evolve past the 9-12 college prep model? Should they “right size” to address admissions shortfalls? Schools have options and not everything is doom and gloom. Boarding schools offer an unparalleled transformational educational experience and should wear that badge proudly. However, they also need to move beyond “trying harder” or trying to do “the wrong things righter” as they approach programs, admissions, staffing, and funding. Innovation will be paramount to the success of boarding schools save a select few. Emerging technology and educational theories can be the drivers of both change and sustainability in boarding schools and this should be exciting. So, it is time to unpack the three boxes and get to work.

Am I getting old?

A catchy title that very much has a place in the conversation about the triple threat. My first year teaching was 1996, so, you do the math. I am not a “young” faculty member anymore. Nor am I a new parent or parent of young children. I have raised a family, completed multiple graduate degrees, coached more teams and sports than I can even account for, lived in dorms, houses, and off campus, and taught everything from Life Science to AP European history. In short, I am a dinosaur. In this sense, I am finding myself at a point where being a triple threat educator is unique. More of the young faculty are specilized in their subjects, have less playing/coaching experience, and are not boarding school grads, thus finding the 24/7 life at a boarding school extremly intense. The model has changed signifcantly since 1996 and in many ways, for the better. “In my day” you coached what you were told to coach regardless of your expertise. You taught the classes assigned to you with little more than a “here is the textbook and key to your room".” You lived in a dorm with students, yet had little in the way of “training” let alone a dedicated residential life curriculum. Somehow, it seemed to work, or least memories make it appear that way. I know the professional development I participated in during my first few years was minimal, if at all, since I can’t recall anything more than being given a summer reading book on education. Feedback and mentoring was informal and unreliable. Evaluations came in the form of a once a year drop in from the head of school. In short, I am farily horrified at how my early years as an educator went.

Of late, my focus has been on how the triple threat model has evolved and what needs to be done to give students the best education given the limitations all schools face in some form or another. How has the triple threat been updated? Are schools being more strategic with their use of faculty? Are schools formalizing the evaluation process? How are schools addressing the changes in the workforce that are becoming more pressing? In short, schools have evolved along with education theory, research, and policy. Many schools are “progressive” with regard to curriculum be it Project Based Learning and Student Driven Inquiry. Schools have moved past Advanced Placement and created unique educational programs relating to entrepreneurialism, AI, addititve manufacturing, specific institutes, and real-life application via apprenticeships. However, the model for boarding school teachers remains relatively unchanged since I started in 1996. The “Rule of Seven” still dominates teaching contracts, where we teach four sections, coach two seasons, and serve one night per week in a residential capacity. If we are pushing students away from the industrial model of education, why do we continue to utilize faculty in a manner inconsistent with what we are putting in place for the young people we work with?

Recent studies on generational attitudes about work and staffing from Deloitte (link below) point out a significant disconnect between how boarding schools frame the “job” and what Generation Y and Z workers are looking for. Couple this with the increased rate of retirement among educators born prior to 1965 and schools are facing a significant challenge to the way they attract, hire, and retain teachers. Can boarding schools adapt the triple threat model to meet the expectations and demands of younger workers? The short answer is, they must. The more challanging issues rest in how this will be done. What are younger workers looking for and how does that line up with the triple threat model? To be blunt, the data suggest that it doesn’t. Generation Y and Z workers have very different views from the Boomer and Genration X cohorts in everything from how they define compensation, to their desire for a diverse workplace, to their need for constant meaningful feedback, to their geographic preferences for living and desire for flexibity that defines work/life balance. Added to these not so subtle issues is the reality that these younger workers grew up under very different circumstances from the people hiring them, thus holding different beliefs about the nature of a job and the relationship between employer and employee. School must actively seek out ways to align with the emerging workforce if they are to hire the best candidates with which to meet the mission of their respective school. Otherwise, schools will face dwindling hiring pools and high faculty attrition rates that will signficantly impact school culture and the ability to deliver a premium priced education. It is time for the tough conversations!

It's That Time of Year....Again!

As contract season fast approaches, now is a great time for both schools and job seekers to focus in on exactly what they are looking for. As I have written in previous blogs and publications, hiring has become more complex due to a variety of factors that impact both job seekers and employers. With a low national unemployments rate, increase in the number of people involed in the “gig” economy, and significant changes in corporate policies that are attractive to Gen Y and Gen Z workers, boarding schools are in an interesteing postion. So too are potential teachers. In this sense, boarding schools must highlight the “lifestyle” found at boarding schools if they are to attract and hire the best employees. Salaries at most schools are not going to be able to compete with the for-profit sector nor are boarding schools going to be able to offer the flexibility being found in the corporate world with regard to hours, remote working, etc. However, this is not all bad. What is the best part about working at a boarding school? Lifestyle! Interacting with young people! Community! As a school, highlighting these dimensions will be key to finding the right people for your program.

From the viewpoint of the jobseeker, now is a good time to look for schools that have a culture and community that fit what you are looking for. Does the school offer new faculty support? Is there room for growth? Does the school leadership have a philosophy that aligns with your values? Does the school offer tuition remission, graduate study support, summer travel/enrichment, childcare? Is the school a forward thinking organization or traditional in its function and mindset? Would you feel comfortable there? What is the makeup of the faculty at the school with regard to gender, age, and diversity? Is this an issue for you?

Given the data that suggests younger workers remain at jobs less than three years, how are schools approaching potential rapid turnover? Are they okay with it or are they working hard to hold onto talented employees? If so, what does this look like for your school? Stipends are attractive, but only go so far. Staffing modifcations work, but take a time investment on the part of schools to get the pieces right. Little items really pay off, such as allowing new faculty a voice or opportunity for leadership. As well, a single reduction in any one area can mean the difference between losing a potential hire or talented faculty member or keeping them on for several years.

Hiring and job searches are both complex and stressful, however, when candidates and schools forus on “fit” and “feel”, matches can be found that reward both sides of the table. Job seekers need to be realistic AND clear regarding what they are looking for. Schools, on the other hand, need to come to understand that hiring has changed and needs to be more individual when pertianing to candidates. Both parties need to be honest and clear. Both parties need to be realistic about the current climate surrounding hiring and jobs. If this occurs, schools will be able to hire faculty that add to the organization and teachers will be able to find a community in which to work, live, and thrive.

NAIS Article

Curriculum has been overhauled to align with the needs of today’s students. Admission challenges have become more complex because of rising costs and declining numbers of school-age children, specifically from families able to pay full tuition. And technology has transformed the entire educational landscape. Shifting societal forces—economic, technological, political, and demographic—have changed the independent school landscape for some time, but one aspect of schools seems to be stuck in the past: the hiring process.
Hiring in many independent schools continues much as it did 20 years ago. A position opens; the school posts a job description on its website or in the NAIS Career Center. A search agency might do the vetting; résumés are collected and reviewed. There are initial interviews, and then finalists visit campus. If a position is offered, it is generally close in line with the one being filled, taking on the subject areas and responsibilities the departing faculty member oversaw. The new contract might include concrete points but is often vague with phrases such as “at the discretion of the head of school” or “and any other responsibilities that may arise.” The new hire comes to campus a week or two before the start of faculty meetings and has an “orientation.” Does this archaic progression of hiring sound familiar?
Applying institutional decades-old hiring philosophies and practices will not meet the emerging realities of 2018. If schools are to deliver the best education for their students, one in line with their missions, hiring practices must be viewed as institutionally important. They must also take into consideration the new generation of employees—particularly in the millennial and Generation Z cohorts. Understanding how younger workers see the world and their careers is critical for schools that want to recruit, hire, and keep top candidates.

Facing Today’s Realities

Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1997, and Gen Z, which comes after them, will replace a large percentage of the workforce as retirement among boomers continues to accelerate. Millennials will make up the largest cohort of workers, an estimated 73 million by 2019, and thus surpassing the boomer generation. According to a recent Deloitte Millennial Survey, there are several key mindsets to know about this age group.
They want and need flexibility. The rise of the “Gig Economy” increases the fluidity of careers, and the ability to “design your own job” in a time and place that fits the employee. Younger workers stay fewer than three years in any one job, according to the survey, and four-day work weeks and work-from-home options have become mainstream. But independent schools as structured, particularly at boarding schools, have been slow to support this flexibility because of rigid systems, differing views regarding employment, and the concrete reality. As part of a session I led at the 2017 TABS Conference, attendees were surveyed about their use of and views about the triple-threat model (teacher, coach, dorm parent) at their respective schools. Ninety-two percent of respondents agreed that changing views regarding work-life balance is making hiring more difficult.
They have multiple degrees and massive student loans. With low unemployment rates, highly qualified teaching candidates have job options both in and out of education. As many independent schools face enrollment challenges, there’s greater pressure on schools to hire educators with advanced degrees and competencies that align with a luxury product. Parents now expect experts, with degrees from the top 50 universities, specialized certifications, high-level sport or artistic accomplishments, and cutting-edge understanding of pedagogy.
As a result, schools may be hiring educators who expect more from their employer and employment. These generations are the most educated yet and have the most college loan debt. And at independent schools, compensation, which is very important to these groups, has not grown in line with cost of living increases or with the salaries outside of education. According to NAIS data, the median salary for all independent school teachers stands at about $60,000 per year, with starting salaries averaging $40,000 per year. While these numbers are higher than the national mean and median, most independent school teachers are expected to hold advanced degrees, separating them from the nearly 60 percent of the American population that doesn’t hold college degrees, according to the Lumina Foundation, and from 80 percent of the population that doesn’t hold advanced degrees. Independent school educators exceed the national averages for educational attainment by a large margin, yet they do not see salary increases that mirror those standards.
They want workplace culture and diversity. Also important to members of these age cohorts is a workplace that values their input and makes them feel connected to their school’s mission and values. Diversity, another key driver for these age groups, has always been a challenge in independent school leadership and is becoming more pressing. With more diversity among these groups, they want a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

The New Best Practices

Challenges abound in hiring at independent schools, and yet the hiring practices of schools are not generally aligned with the demands and expectations of younger employees. What are schools doing to connect hiring and staffing with today’s challenges?
Heads of school who are willing to engage younger workers while continuing to meet the demands and missions of individual schools will drive most of the change. They must be flexible and innovative in staffing practices to maximize the skills and talents of younger generations in a way that does not stress an organization or alienate older workers.
Some schools are engaging in faculty culture or faculty equity studies to redefine what positions look like and how employees are compensated. These schools are identifying trends that are aligned with the rising generational cohorts, resulting in shuffling schedules, modified salary scales, the sun-setting of programs to make room for new ideas, and rotated leadership positions that give new employees more say within the school.
Others are actively modifying staffing practices to meet the demands of employees and to reduce faculty attrition. Some schools offer free daycare, while others allow opt-out options for residential or coaching duties in return for increased duties elsewhere or a salary reduction. Some are even offering home down-payment assistance, fully funding graduate work, and allowing for sabbaticals after five years.
Meanwhile, other schools are pushing back, taking the view that millennials and Gen Z workers need to change; it’s a tactic doomed to fail as it has in the corporate arena, with Sears being the most recent example of an aversion to change. By continuing to hire through the lens of what worked 20 years ago, schools will find it harder to hire and retain younger workers. Pedagogy has changed significantly in recent years, admission continues to evolve to meet market demands, and fundraising continues to look toward innovative ways of engaging donors, so why would hiring not follow the same path of change?

Onboarding New Faculty-A Balancing Act

In the boarding school world, August is a month of duality. In one sense, summer is still present and thinking of it ending brings about a myriad of emotions. On the other hand, August is a time of excitement for what the new school year will bring. Each August new faculty make their way to boarding schools throughout the nation. There is the ever-present anxiety for teacher and schools combined with the excitement that a new school may be "it" or that a new faculty member may be the answer to a need the school sees as paramount. In both cases, hopes are high and initial days and weeks on campus can either reinforce the good feelings that exist between the school and a new hire or be a stressful mix unfulfilled expectations and awkward beginnings. 

How new faculty are onboarded should be fairly straightforward: Housing assignments are clear and the maintenance staff has residences in move-in condition. Schedules are ready and class rosters printed. Classrooms are assigned and have been cleared and cleaned prior to the new teachers arriving. Keys and IDs are on hand along with all of the forms needed by the school. Coaching assignments are complete and new faculty are given a clear inventory of gear. The music room/theater/studio are all ready for the new teacher's arrival.

In a likewise perfect scenario, new faculty members would have spent time over the summer organizing the content of their new classes, getting paperwork filed (background checks, fingerprints, etc.), researching their new school's location for banks, restaurants, and dentists, and reaching out to other members of their departments to begin collaborating.

Unfortunetly, neither of these sides of the coin roll out as easy as the above. From the school's standpoint, summer is a time to reenergize and most faculty and administration take some time away from campus. A skeleton crew is left to man the ship and much of the work needed for the next year is put off until August. Maintenance is working hard to meet the competing demands placed on them in fixing longstanding deferred projects, keeping the grounds maintained, renovating different areas, and doing the general work in the dorms that can't be done while students are present. Schedules are left in a semi-completed state, as new students will enroll throughout the summer and requests for course changes make finalizing a schedule a lesson in futility. Coaching and dorm assignments may be known, but as the housing carousel turns and last minute needs at the thirds B soccer level arise, some new faculty are left waiting for answers.

While some of this is avoidable, some simply is not. How then, do schools effectively onboard new faculty in a manner that gets them ready for their new job in a way that reduces axiety and stress but is also a reasonable effort for the school? Some schools invite new faculty members to campus in June to get aquainted with the community and fill out paperwork. Other schools have a clear point person to work with new faculty throughout the summer and organize all of the items needed for new faculty upon their arrival.

Move-in dates are one area schools can look to reduce the negative impacts of transitioning new faculty to campus. With most departing faculty expected to vacate campus housing by late June, some schools have taken the step to allow new faculty to move to campus as early as the second week in July. For many schools, this is not feasible for a variety of reasons including summer camps and maintenance work. However, expecting new faculty to move to a new location, unpack their lives, learn a new community, prep for the upcoming year, and be rested, ready and excited for the fall is unreasonable if they are showing up just a few days before meetings begin.

What does your school's mentor program look like for new faculty? Are they paired early in the summer so as to facilitate as much conversation as possible before the start of the year? Is the onboarding process (paperwork, due dates, backgrounds, pictures of housing assignments, lists of doctors etc.) made available in June? Do mentors have training and a clear purpose to their role?

Faculty are the engine that make schools go and are the single most important factor in the student experience. Identifying candidates and hiring them is only the start of the process that brings new hires into your school community and the lives of the students in your care. Having a plan in place to welcome, train, nurture, mentor, and retain new hires is simply sound practice, and one that should be atop lists with regard to admissions, development, and student retention.