A Realistic Approach to Staffing: Why It Should be Viewed Like Enrollment | Greg Martin | 9 Min Read

Do you remember how you got your first teaching job in an independent school? What did that process look like? Was it via a search agency? Referral from a colleague? NAIS Job Board? LinkedIn? If you are on the hiring team at your school, what does that process feel like to you? Has it changed since you started in that role? As with enrollment, many of the systems and structures that have come to dominate the profession were found to be outmoded in the first years of the 21st century, with the 2008 financial crisis only speeding up the demise of the old and rise of the new. Admissions shifted to “enrollment”, the office grew, email and social media became standard, the admissions season became year-round, and now, thanks to Covid-19, Zoom tours and video interviews are just another tool for the office to utilize. All of this begs the question, with so much change in nearly every area of school life, why haven’t staffing practices changed as well? 

Staffing, from identifying talent to the hiring process to onboarding to the deployment of personnel, remains locked in the last century even though conditions have changed and nearly every other industry is viewing staffing very differently than it did in 1996. According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Baby Boomer cohort will reach full retirement by 2029, leaving a large hole in the labor market and increased pressure on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, with those programs projected to be underfunded by the 2030s. 

As well, the rising generations of workers, Currently Gen Y and Gen Z, hold radically different viewpoints on the very definition of what a “job” is and how they define their own careers. Average time spent at a job has dropped to just 18 months, with today’s college students likely to have multiple careers not just multiple jobs. As well, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z have high student debt loads averaging over $32k for undergraduate degrees alone. A substantial wealth gap exists between the Baby Boomer Generation and Generation Y, with Gen Y workers having substantially less net worth than preceding generations (Pew Research, 2021).

A reactive approach to hiring coupled with a “plug and play” method to duties are grounded in a different time period where conditions allowed this type of system to be successful, even if only marginally. With faculty attrition rates extraordinarily high, especially in boarding schools, waiting to start hiring means a frantic response to replacing faculty that usually falls to a single person as one component of a bigger job. Assistant Heads, Deans of Faculty, and Heads of School, often end up trying to balance the multiple demands of their jobs with increased pressure to meet staffing needs. 

The traditional April-May interview and hire system was not designed with high turnover rates in mind. Expecting one person to create position statements, post open positions, vet candidates, interview, host, and hire new faculty while doing the “other” parts of their job exacerbates the pressures on staffing. From “ghosting” candidates to sending thank you notes to candidates who didn’t visit (yes, this occurs), this staffing methodology creates stress, misses opportunities, and often leaves people feeling uncared for, unwanted, and frustrated by their experience. 

A solution is to professionalize hiring systems in a way that looks like enrollment management. The two groups that define schools most are the teachers and the students. Minus either and you don’t have a school. Year-round, targeted, and strategic hiring practices would allow schools to cultivate talent pools with regard to future teachers. Allowing one person to focus on this as a primary job responsibility would be in line with what we see in enrollment or in the private sector. Talent acquisition, outreach, onboarding, professional development, and the strategic cultivation of a “professional” system would allow schools to access candidates outside of normal pipelines, cultivate a pool of contacts that could fill potential openings even if a year or two out, optimize onboarding via customizable and adaptable programs, and address retention issues head-on. 

In this scenario, the traditional role of the Dean of Faculty would need to be refined, refocused, and supported by Human Resources. It might mean a reduction in other duties or responsibilities or more partnering with HR than was done in the past. Possibly, an Assistant Head could assume this role but only if workload rebalances takes place and priority is placed on this new job description. Before you respond with “we can’t afford that”, ask yourself how much it costs to replace an outgoing faculty member. I put this to attendees at the TABS conference in November 2021 and the number generated by Heads at boarding schools sat somewhere between $12k and $20k when taking into account summer pay after a faculty member departs, continued health insurance premiums and FICA contributions, “finders fees”, travel and hosting for candidates, moving allowences, onboarding materials and man-hours, and the hours put into creating job postings, vetting candidates, and carrying out preliminary interviews. All of these costs occur prior to the new hire performing work and after the departing faculty member has left, thus producing no measurable output.

Rethinking recruiting and hiring would be designed to reduce turnover among faculty (effectively reducing the costs described above), create a greater sense of buy-in, and improve faculty morale. In turn, this would translate to better job performance and a more positive experience for students, thus reducing student attrition and helping with enrollment management. While using search agencies or job boards might make sense, this reaches only candidates looking for jobs in independent schools. Creating a diverse faculty necessitates broadening the pool from which candidates are drawn. LinkedIn allows for keyword searches that can be tailored to a school’s particular needs whether or not a job is available or if the result of a search is looking for new employment. This is a great way to network, target certain talents, and move outside of traditional sourcing models.

Hiring candidates is only the first step in professionalizing staffing methods. Once hired, onboarding, training, mentoring, professional development, and coaching must be put in place for faculty at all stages of their careers. Waiting until two weeks before the academic year begins to welcome, train, and potentially move new hires to campus creates stress that inhibits new faculty from starting off the year energized and equipped to deliver the school’s program. Starting the onboarding process immediately after a contract is signed allows new faculty to become immersed in the culture of the school prior to the start of the year. 

Creating a meaningful two-year mentorship program for all new hires gives the needed support in year one and a bridge to professional development and growth in year two. Reducing the workload for new teachers is imperative if they are expected to deliver programmatically, become part of the community, and grow professionally. Pairing new teachers in courses will allow for immediate feedback and growth under a mentor. This is especially key when viewed through the lens of Gen Y and Gen Z workers who identify these as significant reasons why they stay or leave jobs.

Questions of workload equity are ever-present in independent schools. Defining FT/FTE varies, as schools have different needs from different employees at different points. Additionally, as educators move through the phases of their careers, individual and family changes force a redefining and adjustment of roles. Younger single educators have very different views on work-life balance than those with young children or those reaching the end of their careers. How then do schools leverage the strengths of the generational cohorts present in their faculty to maximize programmatic impact in a way that also addresses the needs of individuals? “Special deals” in independent schools, especially boarding, tend to divide faculty and are perceived as a negative within the community. However, reframing the model of staffing deployment used by schools away from a “one size fits all” approach and towards an adaptive model allows for schools to address both the needs of the organization and the needs of faculty members. 

Some schools have attempted a “points” system in order to quantify equity, yet I have not seen much success in this model. Other schools use the “rule of seven” or some variation where everyone essentially has the same job. Given the changes in the workforce overall, taking a more individualized approach to the jobs to be done offers levels of flexibility and adaptability that will benefit both schools and faculty. This presents a paradigm shift in both methodology and culture, with heads of schools needing to engage in the work of facilitating the conversation that will allow for change. It means being realistic in the sense that equality and equity in terms of job description are not the same things. It may mean some faculty teach more/fewer classes than others or have more/fewer advisees or coach more/less or have duties that better fit the needs of the organization and the individual. It complicates the staffing matrix but allows for both employer and employee to leverage their positions in a way that can be mutually beneficial. This all starts with an honest staffing inventory and conversations regarding the role of the faculty member in an individual school. Challenging work, yet a clear necessity given the changes being seen in schools and the labor market.

As schools encounter and work to adapt to the changes being seen in both society and the labor market, professionalizing hiring, growing and refining onboarding and professional development, and redefining the very definition of workload and job descriptions is an urgent shift. Data-informed decision making coupled with realistic expectations regarding generational change will allow schools to meet the needs of students moving forward while cultivating a workplace that makes the most of faculty talent while promoting a positive culture and sense of balance that will see faculty attrition decrease, student experience improve, market value be better defined, and change be managed in a way that is least disruptive. This all begins with honest conversations. Asking questions such as “why are we hiring, what are the goals in a new hire, how can we decrease faculty attrition, what causes faculty attrition at our school, and how much do we value the hiring/onboarding process” generate conversations that can be uncomfortable, but useful. Has the school’s faculty culture been in need of attention for years but not given the priority it deserves? Are faculty departing for a particular reason? Can the school adjust systems and structures to better meet the needs of today’s faculty, not yesterday’s conditions? What would the system look like if the office of enrollment handled hiring? It is time to treat staffing more like enrollment management.

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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