What if we could give more time to educators, many of whom are overworked and in danger of burnout? The Kingdom East School District (KESD) did it, and other districts could too.
Recognizing that educator wellness is the foundation for student wellbeing and learning, KESD added ten early release days to their calendar. Teachers use the time as they see fit: to pursue professional learning, tick some items off the to-do list, reconnect with colleagues, or just take a breath. And the district leveraged existing community partnerships to provide educational options for students so that families aren’t left in the lurch.
The plan came together surprisingly quickly and has gone smoothly so far. Teachers are giving it rave reviews. Let’s take a look at KESD’s approach to understand why and how they did it. And then let’s make it happen everywhere.
Educators need time
During the pandemic, our schools have remained operational due to an extraordinary amount of day-to-day effort by educators. Illness and quarantine has led to short staffed buildings. The overall workload has increased significantly with extra duties, such as the need for more supervision during lunches and recesses to keep students separated and socially distanced. Fewer people and more work means that everybody is doing more. And this is in a context of high levels of stress and trauma as a baseline during a global pandemic.
Teaching was already one of the most stressful professions. The last couple of years have caused widespread burnout and left many teachers questioning whether teaching is a viable long-term career. Laura Thomas drew upon the work of Kim John Payne to try to understand why so many educators are at their breaking point:
High social complexity (lack of clarity around the social expectations, cultural norms, and how to navigate the expected social realities of a situation) + low form predictability (confusion about what is going to happen moment to moment, day to day, week to week) = stress reactive behaviors (fight-flight-flock-freeze-appease or signs that the amygdala, the lizard brain, has taken control and the prefrontal cortex—the part that learns and plans and creates—isn’t fully engaged).Laura Thomas in EduTopia
Thomas suggested that educators acknowledge current challenges, try to make things as predictable as they can, extend grace to each other and themselves, and slow down to the greatest extent possible.
There’s one thing that can help educators slow down and take some of the pressure off: more time.
Carving out time in the calendar
KESD district and school administrators came up with the idea of finding more time for teachers because they were worried about them. Curriculum Director Theresa Pollner recalled that they were hearing cries for help that were significantly different than the last couple years of pandemic schooling.
People were telling us, this is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m not just going to shake it. We need something from the outside to help us.Theresa Pollner, KESD Curriculum Director
The administrative team and instructional coaches brainstormed possibilities. The existing time set aside for professional learning still felt important, since most of it was devoted to collaborative work time that most educators greatly valued. It would be difficult to convert full days because the state had already signaled that waivers would be unavailable for offering fewer school days to students.
The Superintendent tasked Theresa with preparing a request for the School Board. She knew that she would need to make a solid argument.
A rationale that rests on learning and wellbeing
The proposal to the School Board highlighted the district’s priorities related to academic learning as well as social and emotional health. The text included links to several articles about teacher burnout and wellness for context. The proposal was first shared with a sub committee of the board, the Academic Excellence Committee. This committee was instrumental in supporting and advocating for it to the full board.
Theresa explained that while principals and other leaders were doing all they could to create supportive environments, there were few things as concretely supportive as more time. If educators were going to build relationships with students and do the hard work of creating an environment full of care and rich learning opportunities, they needed to be cared for and grounded themselves.
The rationale aligned with Alex Shevrin Venet’s thinking about trauma-informed practices during the pandemic, which emphasizes a systems-level approach, including attention to working conditions for adults.
[Venet] refers to trivial moves towards teacher wellbeing as “cutesy wellness” practices because they don’t actually address the sustainable changes teachers need in order to experience long-term positive mental health. Venet champions time, money, autonomy and support as ways school leaders can show up for their teachers.Nimah Gobir, in MindShift
The School Board unanimously supported the proposal. They granted ten additional early release days even though they were only asked for eight days. Clearly the rationale was persuasive.
Optional programming for students
KESD had strong community connections in place through their experiential summer learning program and the Kingdom East Afterschool Program (KEAP). In order to ensure the burden of the additional early release days didn’t fall on families, KESD extended the KEAP program to provide programming during the times that students would typically be in school.
Each family received a packet inviting their students to participate in KEAP. For grades 5-8 students, this meant offsite activities such as free skiing and other outdoor recreation.
The leveraging of community partnerships to free up time for teachers is not a new idea in KESD. Theresa Pollner reflected:
We’ve talked for several years about the need to change the structure. We have been working on strengthening our experiential learning program so that teachers can get more time for planning during the day. That was the seed of a vision that we brought into this year. Students outside doing experiential learning, teachers observing it to see how students respond, or inside meeting and planning. I envision us building that stronger in the future. It is so important to help make teaching more manageable within the school day to provide relevant and meaningful learning opportunities for students and collaboration and planning time for teachers during the work day. This isn’t a COVID problem. It has illuminated how we need to help teachers by doing this, and now we have the Board’s attention.Theresa Pollner, KESD Curriculum Director
Courtney Murray, KEAP Coordinator, noted that while the program has successfully supported the early release days, staffing has been challenging. “A lot of KEAP staff have other jobs or are already instructional assistants in the schools.” But she is happy with the widespread student participation and their enjoyment of the offerings.
The district framed the additional early release days to date as self-directed “WIN” days. Educators have the autonomy to pursue “What I Need” – individual tasks, collaborative work, or even participating in the ski program. The district has provided resources that teachers can tap into, including office hours with instructional coaches and compilations of links for professional learning and planning.
Teachers took full advantage of the time. On a recent exit ticket, when asked “how did you use the time today?” with the option to check all that applied, the responses indicated that:
- 67% engaged in independent instructional planning
- 57% engaged in collaborative instructional planning
- 56% caught up on stuff
- 55% met with colleagues about logistics
- 11% did some winter sports or other self care
Open responses included a wide range of responses, from “prepping for remote learning next week” to “taking time to breathe, laugh, and Marie Kondo my classroom.” It is a very basic and winning formula: give professionals time and they will use it well, in the ways it is most needed.
And boy howdy, educators appreciated the extra time. Here are a few representative teacher comments:
- I was nervous at first about having the extra time, but now I REALLY enjoy it. I am making the most of it and using it productively. It makes me feel good to accomplish things on my huge “to do” list that never seems to go away or get smaller! Thanks, it’s what I need.
- It is helping with my stress level and mental health! Thank you!!!
- I certainly have felt that the district leaders are keeping our well being and the students well being in the forefront of decision making.
- It’s great to have time to do work so I can spend my weekends with self care and family time.
- I really appreciated that I could set my own schedule and prioritize what I needed to work on the most.
On that exit ticket mentioned earlier, 97.4% of respondents picked “agree” or “strongly agree” for whether the time was helpful.
When asked for feedback about what support they need in the future, over half of the responses essentially said “more time like this.” It’s clear that WIN time is a win.
All educators deserve more time
KESD Curriculum Director Theresa Pollner said “this is absolutely doable in other places.” She credited a good relationship with the School Board as being helpful. At a recent Board meeting she reported, “I can say at this early stage that it is working for the intended purpose, which was to give people a lifeline. So that they know hey, we care, we want to support, we don’t have all the answers but we are taking a stab at doing something that might make a bit of difference and genuinely help out here in ways asked for by the teachers themselves..”
If she was to do it again, Theresa would want to think more carefully about impacts on all staff. In the current model, for example, instructional assistants are required to work with students during the early release days. She also noted that some teachers are worried about lost instructional time, and so she’d want to support them in reframing how these days are beneficial to students.
But she’s also excited to see how things evolve. During the last early release day, Kristen Huntington, an art teacher at the Concord School, sent an email to colleagues.
I am hoping to spend around 20-30 minutes of my WIN time tomorrow in the gym getting a little exercise, and I wanted to extend the invitation (thank you, Sam, for saying it is okay!). I was thinking of just running for a bit, but all forms of movement are encouraged: walking, dancing, basketball, maybe stationary biking?! We could blast music and warm the place up on a freezing cold day!! 🙂KESD teacher in an email to colleagues
The response was enthusiastic. Colleagues gathered to move, sweat, laugh, and be human together. Everybody needs and deserves more of that, but especially educators.