Updated: Apr 10
Here's a question that's been running through my mind lately: can independent schools accommodate alternative kinds of work schedules: flexible, remote, hybrid, job-sharing?
It's a question that has arisen frequently in several searches I'm assisting right now, searches for which many candidates come from parallel industries. They're accountants and fundraisers, but they work for nationwide nonprofits, or large universities, or local nonprofits that aren't schools. Most are in positions that had some onsite/remote flexibility before the pandemic and much more after.
I'll admit that my gut reaction was a hard no. Perhaps the greatest discovery that we made during the pandemic is that our physical separation threatened the sense of community that is such an essential part of how we educate children at independent schools. Especially at small-medium size independent schools, even those employees whose roles are distant from the classroom experience are invited into it, to coach, serve as an advisor, sponsor a club. If you're the new Director of Annual Giving at such a school, there's an almost 100% chance that you'll be interviewed by first graders within the first few months of school. Likewise, your best opportunity to meet most of your donors and to witness the stories of outstanding teaching and student engagement that you'll use to motivate those donors is to be present in person at the front door, at the chorus concert, in classrooms.
All of this is even truer for those who work directly with students, regardless of school size. The desire for more teacher-coaches that I hear from most high school athletic departments is a case in point. Contending with programs coached largely by part-time employees otherwise unaffiliated with the school, Athletic Directors must train coaches to understand and carry out the mission and ethos of the school, and they spend many hours dealing with the fallout when that inevitably doesn't happen. And even when ADs are successful with orienting outside coaches, those coaches have little firsthand opportunity to see and influence how their athletes function in the other 8 hours of their school day. I'm convinced that schools can accommodate only a small number of part time faculty, and that other kinds of flexible scheduling are only reasonable for extraordinary and ideally temporary circumstances. Our students are with us 8 or more continuous hours a day, and as hard as we might try to create clever schedules that make for theoretically clean baton passes, the organic nature of school life will inevitably mock these efforts. We owe our students school days filled with connectivity, programmatic coherence, and cultural consistency. In short, whereas hybrid or flexible schedules might be attractive to some teachers, they are a net loss for students, and for the community of the school.
Opportunities for flexible work schedules feel more possible with some non-student facing positions: business, human resources, health office (great opportunity for job sharing), athletic director (especially to make room for the late hours they keep year round), perhaps some development positions at very large schools where a major gifts officer might spend much of her time off campus visiting donors. Unthinkable for day school admissions officers and facilities directors. And even in those cases where the nature of the employee's work might lend itself to flexible scheduling, it would often be out of sync with the institution's central enterprise and its fascinating combination of rigid scheduling and ongoing improvisation. I think of the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where Hamlet's out of the loop friends try to make sense of the little portions of Shakespeare's scenes that troop across the stage. Lots of laughs, but in the end, their cluelessness proves to be fatal.