Workplace Trends: What Independent Schools Need to Know

Spring 2024

By Debra P. Wilson

This article appeared as "Ripple Effect" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

Recently, I was talking with a colleague about our experiences as working parents. We both had children in the early 2000s and both found ourselves among the few leaders in our organizations with kids. She and I reflected on the choices we’d made around having children and working the way we did, and how these choices impacted our time for other “life” activities like spending time with friends and family, volunteering, and so forth. We also talked about the workplace changes we’d seen over time, including changes to better meet the needs of working parents. To us, these shifts have felt perceptible, even if slow. (After all, the United States is one of only six countries in the world—and the only wealthy one—without national paid leave.) One of the most important shifts we have noticed is that employees seem more inclined today, especially post-pandemic, to ask for what they need. 

But beyond these shared experiences and ruminations, what does research tell us about shifts in workplace culture generally and how they are playing out in independent schools? 

Trickle-Down Trends

In the September 2023 “NAIS Snapshot on Hiring,” a third (35%) of school leaders said that hiring at their schools hadn’t gotten any worse than the previous year. While this one stat suggests some leveling off from the peak of the pandemic hiring crisis, consider that another 34% of the respondents said it had gotten somewhat worse and 21%, somewhat better. Digging deeper into the data reveals regional differences: Almost half of the schools in the Southeast thought hiring was more challenging than in the previous year; Midwest schools saw more challenges too, especially in hiring for positions like bus drivers, nurses, and librarians; and schools in the West were the most likely to be fully staffed. This mixed-bag picture shows that workforce challenges, like all things independent school, are unique to each school, region, and market. In my own conversations with school leaders, hiring and retention has been the most common topic of conversation—and the story at each school is indeed very different. 

Our schools’ ability to shift the workplace model to sustain a healthy workforce may be the most transformational, challenging, and crucial hurdle we will face as an industry in the first half of the 21st century. But given the unique context of each school, where should we focus our energies as a community? To find ourselves on the right side of the shifting workplace landscape, I think there are four key issues we should address together.


Given that school workplaces are traditionally built on a place-based model, a firm calendar, and a routine daily schedule, flexibility might feel unachievable. But a degree of flexibility is now an expectation for today’s workforce. A June 2023 MIT Sloan School of Management analysis suggests that as much as 50% of the workforce is currently teleworking at least part time. According to Deloitte’s “2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey,” work-life balance is the top consideration when individuals from these generational cohorts choose an employer—and to achieve that balance, they want flexibility in where and when they work. Closer to home, the 2021 “NAIS Teacher Satisfaction Survey” found that just 14% of teachers were highly satisfied with the flexibility of their work schedule and only 12% with their ability to accomplish planning and administrative work remotely. 

Some independent schools are actively experimenting with different types of flexibility to promote work-life balance and attract and keep faculty and staff. At Hillel Academy (FL), students are on campus five days a week, but on one of those days, the students’ work is focused on Judaic studies and other topics outside the daily schedule. Teachers, then, are guaranteed one consistent nonteaching day for lesson planning, grading, parent-teacher conferences, and one-on-one student help—and they have flexibility on where they do all of this. It’s also a day they might schedule medical appointments or complete tasks they otherwise would have undertaken after hours. 

Other NAIS schools are exploring similar models, recognizing that flexibility in K–12 teaching is rare and therefore a competitive advantage. Many schools are also offering flexibility for individuals in administrative roles, for example, allowing teleworking a few days a week or full time during breaks.


In a November 2023 “NAIS Snapshot on Teacher Retention,” 30% of teachers who said they may not renew their contract said that their top reason was “feeling stressed or burned out.” More than 90% of teachers reported working more than 40 hours a week—and almost a quarter more than 60 hours. In the larger educational space, University of Chicago research on the teacher pipeline found that intense workloads were a top reason why parents were encouraging their children not to pursue a career in teaching.

So how do we address workload as an industry? Again, it may require rethinking long-held traditions and expectations. A thoughtful article in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School makes the case that the triple-threat model—where teachers teach, coach, and advise—misses the mark in today’s education landscape. It proposes we shift our focus to a “triad of engagement,” which centers educators’ work on creating relational connections with students to create an environment where teachers (and therefore students) thrive.

Reconsidering our use of—and views on—technology is another way we could address faculty and staff workload. While there understandably has been hesitancy to encourage teachers in particular to use AI, as it becomes a better understood element of the educational technology landscape, schools are beginning to explore how it might relieve teachers and staff from routine tasks, buying them time for the more relational part of their work. But we must make sure that we don’t then fill that “found time” with additional duties or expectations, especially if the objective is to lighten workload or mental load.


While workload feels like a challenge to conquer in recruitment and retention efforts, fulfillment feels more like an opportunity to harness. A July 2022 McKinsey Quarterly article on the “Great Attrition” reports that 31% of survey respondents who had recently quit their job did so due to a lack of meaningful work. To me, independent schools’ biggest selling point is the promise of such meaningful work, and the research bears that out; in the 2021 “NAIS Teacher Satisfaction Survey,” more than 85% of teachers (across school sizes) felt satisfied with their ability to have an impact on students. So let’s demonstrate that meaningful work in our recruitment efforts, and let’s center its importance in the everyday experience of our faculty and staff—for the sake of retention but also recruitment. 

Another key to ensuring fulfillment and professional satisfaction lies in providing growth opportunities and support. Scholarly research over time points to leadership opportunities, supportive environments, and professional learning communities having a very direct and clear impact on employee retention in schools. This is an area where we have room to grow as an industry. In NAIS’s teacher satisfaction survey, less than half of the respondents felt support from school leaders, and satisfaction among new teachers was even lower. How schools unpack and act on this need for support will vary based on individual school needs and culture. But we can learn from each other about what works well in efforts like teacher onboarding, mentorship between new and experienced teachers, departmental communication and feedback, and concrete paths for leadership development. 


Culture encompasses shared values, goals, and attitudes; it’s reflected in how people make decisions and interact with each other—and the degree to which people feel they belong. That last element is crucial. The degree to which everyone in our schools (not just students) feels seen, heard, understood, and welcome has a direct impact on employee engagement and effectiveness.

“The Value of Belonging at Work: New Frontiers for Inclusion in 2021 and Beyond,” a report from BetterUp, concludes that workplace belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in employee sick days. But more intangibly, how the adults in our communities experience their day-to-day work life in our institutions reflects what is truly important to
our schools. 

Indeed, our workplace cultures should reflect the school’s mission, vision, and values. They should also address the evolving expectations of today’s workforce. Gen Z, which will soon make up 30% of the workforce, expects the culture of an organization to reflect and embrace diversity of all kinds—from race to religion, from sexual identity to neurodiversity, and beyond. Deloitte’s Gen Z and millennial survey describes how these generational cohorts seek out workplaces that authentically reflect their values and “continue to drive progress on the issues that matter to them most.” 

Of course a discussion of hiring and retention is incomplete without talking about compensation. According to NAIS’s recent “Hot Issues Survey,” attracting and keeping the best faculty and staff without raising tuition is among schools’ biggest conundrums. Teachers’ salaries across school types are not cutting it; according to the Economic Policy Institute, their salaries are about 24% less than salaries of other college grads. The recent 2022–2023 NAIS Trendbook reports that the purchasing power of independent school teachers’ salaries in 2022–2023 was lower than in the previous four years when adjusting for inflation. 

So what can we do on that front, together? At NAIS we’ll continue to gather research insights and usable data—for example, through DASL’s Compensation Explorer—to help schools be strategic in their recruitment, hiring, and retention efforts. We’ll also provide schools with opportunities to exchange ideas and think together about compensation strategies as well as culture issues, so we can create thriving workplaces that meet employees’ fundamental needs and their desire for meaningful work. 

Head Space

Keep up with what’s top of mind for Debra Wilson in Head Space, her monthly newsletter packed with insights, articles, resources, and links from NAIS and around the web. NAIS members can read past issues here.
Debra P. Wilson

Debra P. Wilson is president of NAIS. Previously, she was president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools and general counsel for NAIS.