Rethinking Elementary Staffing to Create Flexible Options for All Students

Devin Vodicka

As we near the halfway mark of the school year, conversations with school leaders continue to be focused on emerging options for schooling.  While many started the year in full-virtual mode, plans continue to be developed to shift to hybrid with an intention to get back to full-in-person at some point in the future.  At this stage very few educators would say that we have hit our stride and it is clear that shifting into different modes on a rolling basis is stretching the limits of our current systems and structures.  While we see some innovative models, such as the approach in Indianapolis that includes collaboration with childcare providers, staffing remains one of the main constraints in many communities.  As a result, we have been exploring options to address this question: how might we rethink staffing to create flexible options for all students? 

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This post will focus on staffing at the elementary level.  In some ways, the conventional approach to elementary teacher staffing is relatively simple and straightforward.  In California, for example, transitional kindergarten through third grade classes are capped at 25 students per teacher and 4th-5th grade classes are typically in the range of 32 students per teacher.  Regardless of the specific ratios, anytime we look to create flexible models we end up with more options when we have a reduced ratio of students to teachers.  Unfortunately, at the moment it is extremely unlikely that schools will have the opportunity to add full-time teaching positions.  In addition to the fact that we are in an economic crisis where financial resources are limited, attracting and retaining qualified teachers is a significant challenge.  Therefore we are compelled to work within existing staffing formulas and must reframe how to reorganize the teachers that we already have. 

In addition, while I have advocated for a shift away from “seat time” requirements, we continue to operate within systems where time is the fundamental driver for our funding and there are formal (ie collective bargaining agreements) and informal (ie family and community expectations based on past practices) influences that make it very difficult for us to expand beyond what is typically a six-hour instructional day at elementary schools.  For the purposes of this post, we will therefore use a fairly typical staffing formula and presume that we are also constrained by a six-hour “school” day.  

Within these constraints, there is mounting pressure for school systems to provide a flexible array of options and I have argued that we must organize at least five modes of schooling: full-distance, pods, microschools, hybrid, and full-in-person.  Given existing staffing, a typical six-hour-day, and the need for multiple modes of schools, we must therefore be intentional about how to adjust and reorganize the roles and responsibilities of teachers.  

Teaching and Learning Framework

When we reflect on staffing, it is critical to begin with the end in mind.  What are we trying to achieve?  What is our vision and mission?  What are our shared values?  What are the goals?  Orienting around outcomes inevitably leads to a reminder that we want our students to master foundational knowledge and develop the habits and skills for lifelong learning and success.  I have referred to these whole-child outcomes using an Impact Framework that includes agency, collaboration, and problem-solving.  Every community may have their own language to reflect their local priorities and these outcomes should be reviewed as a first step in the process of reimagining staffing roles and responsibilities.  

After reflecting on the desired outcomes, it is helpful to remember that there are different types of learning experiences.  Learning that leads to a right or wrong answer often follows a linear progression like climbing a ladder.  These experiences lend themselves to self-paced, asynchronous experiences and adaptive software tools tend to be quite helpful to build knowledge.  More complex learning that orients around open-ended challenges are more like untangling a knot – there may be multiple pathways and possible solutions.  These types of learning experiences are best suited for collaborative, synchronous experiences.  In a distance learning world, video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Google Hangouts can be helpful for these types of interactions.  With that said, asynchronous, individualized learning tends to be better suited for distance learning while synchronous, collaborative learning is best done in-person where practicable. 

Examples: Independent reading, watching an instructional video, listening to a podcast.
With rare exceptions, avoid this area.  Lectures, movies, etc. can be shifted to individual async and group time should be as interactive as possible.
Exceptions include common experiences (such as attending an opera performance) that are part of a broader learning arc
Examples: Creating a podcast, writing an essay, etc. 
Examples: Socratic seminars, group projects, science labs, artistic practices and performances

How to reimagine staffing roles to fit with framing and teaching/learning framework

After reviewing learning goals and considering how to segment synchronous and asynchronous experiences, it is helpful to consider the desired mix of these two elements, especially during periods of time when full-distance-learning is required due to health and safety constraints.  For young learners, screen time advisory guidelines should also be referenced to determine the proportion of time that will be allocated to each type of experience.  In my experience, elementary school-aged students should not be spending more than half of their time (roughly three hours per school day) engaged in synchronous experiences during distance learning.  For the purposes of this exploration, we’ll use a 50%/50% split to model various staffing scenarios.  

We must shift our thinking from “self-contained” classrooms to teams of teachers and to villages of students.  Using Dunbar’s Number as a cap on the number of students, we should not exceed 150 students in any village.  The optimal team size for teachers is 5-7 to promote group productivity and cohesion.  

Segment distance learning teachers from in-person and where practicable do not cross these streams. Asking a teacher to do both, especially simultaneously, leads to suboptimal experiences for all.  In addition, the wide variation of at-home learning contexts makes it extremely difficult to ensure continuity of learning experiences that rotate from in-person to distance modes. 

Scenario Assumptions:

For the purposes of this scenario, we are using a standard staffing formula of 30 students per teacher.  Using the village model, we’re going to aggregate the students into a group of 150 which yields 5 teachers.  We will divide the 150 students into 10 groups of 15 to provide modularity and flexibility in our scheduling and assignment of staff roles.  Ideally, teachers are assigned roles as async facilitators or sync leaders.  You will see that increasing the student-teacher ratios for async blocks will be essential to provide optionality for smaller groups of targeted learning experiences.  Please also note that one (or more) of these sync blocks can be designated for a home base or advisory model to promote connectedness and continuity.  

These assumptions can be adjusted for your local context but these samples begin with an approach that creates villages of students and teams of teachers.  In these samples, students split their day evenly between synchronous and asynchronous blocks.  

Distance Learning: Teacher View (Sample) 

Hybrid Options

Here is the kicker – by framing the “blocks” as days instead of hours, this approach can also be modified by day to accommodate hybrid, microschool, and pod options; creating the potential for smaller in-person groups.  In this model Groups 1-3 and 6-8 are full virtual; Groups 4-5 are in person 2 days per week; and Groups 9-10 are in person 3 days per week. All of the sync time consists of smaller groups and the in-person is the smallest group size.  

Hybrid Model: Teacher View (Sample)

Effective Async Practices

These models only make sense when we recall that in async learning the students are working individually, potentially on different topics, oriented to different learning experiences, using different schedules, and at different paces.  For the teacher(s) assigned to serve as async facilitators, best practices include monitoring the student goals and outcomes, conducting individual check-ins, and adjusting playlists and plans accordingly.  Async time can also provide opportunities to connect and communicate with families.  Given that the learning goals of async time should be focused on ladder-type experiences, there are a number of helpful adaptive learning programs that help students to master foundational knowledge such as early literacy and mathematics concepts. At this moment in time, we must also remember that students can learn without being on a device and async time should be used for screen-free activities such as independent reading, independent writing, physical exercise, and other productive activities. 


Thinking creatively about existing staffing is required.  These examples are designed to be illustrative and to inspire further contextualization and adaptation.  If we are asking our students and families to adapt and to be flexible, we must do the same.  Connecting our desired learning outcomes with sync/async options and modularizing teams of teachers is the best way that I can imagine expanding our options at this time.  

What do you think?  What other options would you suggest?  

Share your ideas using #LCLeadership

Special thanks to Katie Martin and Catina Hancock for input and feedback on these models.  Be sure to visit Katie’s website and listen to Catina’s podcast.  Also check out Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in Learning Communities. 

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