As workplaces, boarding schools have always been unique environments. In addition to time in class, students and faculty share meals, athletic and artistic interests, and the tacit understanding that meaningful connections with adults carry a great deal of weight in formative years. Yet in an age of increasing specialization and parental expectation, the once- sacrosanct “triple threat” model — in which adults play the three central roles of teacher, coach, and dorm parent — is under pressure to change.
Part of my recent dissertation study at Drexel University explored the use and sustainability of the triple-threat teacher model found at elite American boarding schools. The sample pool for this mixed-method study was based on the 2006 work of Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez who, in The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School, identified five metrics (location, founding date, admissions selectivity, college matriculation, and endowment) that qualify a school as “elite.” With a list in hand, I sent the heads of these schools a survey containing 23 questions. I also invited them to participate in interviews.
Clearly evident in both the quantitative and qualitative phases of the study was that the triple threat continues to be employed widely, with 82 percent of respondents using it all or most of the time. Yet 92 percent also agree that the model is under pressure. In particular, parental pressure for schools to hire experts in academics (master’s degrees and higher) and athletics (college-level playing experience or above) were identified as obstacles to the sustainability of the triple-threat model.
Given the tuition level at boarding schools and expectations for a premium “product,” parental demands for highly qualified teachers and professional-level coaches has impacted hiring at elite schools by shrinking the pool of qualified candidates. Shifts in teachers’ views regarding work/life balance also present a challenge to hiring for the triple threat, as both millennials and veteran educators appear less willing to give as much time to their jobs as triple-threat teachers gave two decades ago. Eighty-five percent of respondents identified these changes as a challenge to hiring. Interestingly, parental pressure for a focused residential-life curriculum was far less important, with only 31 percent of respondents indicating that parental pressure in this area presented a challenge to hiring triple-threat educators.
Yet even with these pressures, respondents continue to see the triple-threat model as sustainable, with 75 percent indicating that it is viable in the years to come.
While 28 schools have been identified as “elite,” more than 100 additional boarding schools exist in the United States that do not meet the criteria for inclusion in the original study. As an offshoot of my original study, I launched a second study, supported by NAIS, in March of 2016 to give a broader view of the triple-threat model by including all schools with 51 percent boarding or more. Twenty-three schools responded to this second survey, with only one appearing from the first sample pool. As with schools in the original study, the triple-threat model was being widely employed (81 percent) and viewed as under pressure (68 percent).
Consistent with the data from the original study, the pressure on the model comes from parental expectation for expert teachers (71 percent) and coaches (62 percent). It also reveals the teachers’ increasing wish for a better work/life balance (86 percent). Unlike the original study, parental desire for a focused residential-life program was identified as a pressure on the triple-threat model, with 62 percent of respondents indicating this to be true. This difference could be attributed to the fact that the majority of schools in the second study have endowments of less than $20 million and therefore cannot afford to hire extra residential-life staff. As well, a robust residential-life program might better serve students at schools in the second sample pool.
Also consistent with the original study, albeit at a lower rate, is the view that the triple-threat model is sustainable, with 52 percent of respondents indicating so.
Of significance to boarding schools is the impact of recent changes in the salary threshold of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The increase in the salary floor from $24,000 to nearly $47,000 for employees exempt from minimum wage and overtime regulations could force schools to embrace the triple-threat model even in the face of pressure. In other words, schools could comply with FLSA by using teachers in residential capacities since these teachers would be exempt from overtime pay, thus saving schools money that might otherwise be spent on possible overtime for houseparents or on hiring additional dorm staff. In the original 2015 study, 67 percent of respondents were unaware of the then-proposed changes to the FLSA. In the 2016 study, 60 percent agree or strongly agree that proposed FLSA changes could reinforce the use of the triple-threat model. Possible explanations for the differences between the responses could be the nature of the sample pool (large endowment vs. smaller endowment) or the timing of the survey with regard to knowledge of the proposed changes being greater in April of 2016 than in December of 2015.
Each independent school, while identifying many similar pressures on the triple-threat model, appears to be addressing these pressures based on the school’s particular needs, capacities, and mission statement. This outcome is logical given the unique nature of each school.
Of note, heads of school in both studies identify the need to be more aware of changes in views regarding work/life balance as paramount to the continued success of the triple-threat model. As well, the need for a larger-scale dialogue among school leaders regarding the pressures and ways in which these pressures can be attended to would be beneficial.
Day schools using similar multi-role faculty members would benefit from being part of this conversation, too.
With pressures identified, schools can best adjust staffing practices and programs to meet the needs of students, parents, and fiscal realities in a manner that remains true to their missions. In addition, the faculty culture at schools can be positively reinforced and cultivated based on new understandings of both current and future conditions.
As schools grapple with the pressures on the triple-threat model and changes in the way employees view the very nature of work, new patterns are emerging.
All but the wealthiest schools, or schools where the model is deeply tied to mission, continue to see the model as a necessity from both a philosophical and financial standpoint. But some heads of school are becoming more creative and flexible with their use of the model. Some schools are hiring adjunct coaches or instructors, as their budgets allow and program needs call for. Others are lessening duties in one area in favor of increased engagement in others. Several schools are focusing on greater compensation for employees who take on roles as head dorm parents or head coaches, while others are reducing academic responsibilities for head coaches or dorm parents.
Many heads indicate that the model has always been a challenging one given its all-encompassing nature. But at the very least, this research indicates that the pressures have increased today. The bottom line is that school leaders need to recognize that the need for flexibility and balance are paramount. As one head put it, the goal is to foster a “more humane version of the triple-threat.”