The Gigging Teacher

Disruption is coming to the K-12 education industry, or maybe it is more accurate to say that it is already here. While sturm und drang in the public school world gets most of the attention, independent school people like me have to face the reality that our once sustainable advantages are eroding. My thinking here is transparently influenced by Rita Gunther McGrath and her book The End of Sustainable Advantage, which is an eye-opening (and angst-inducing) read if you come to it from a career within the independent school world. Today’s NYTimes piece about index pricing strategies for independent school tuition is just the latest indication that the old way of doing business may be coming to an end.

Authors such as McGrath and Reid Hoffman (the founder of LinkedIn, etc.) argue that the future of work will look like a series of gigs, not a long-term relationship with one employer. The responsibility for one’s career trajectory will fall on the employee, not the employer. It is up to the employee to seek new skills, professional development, new opportunities, etc. This is the reality for workers in many industries today, such as high tech workers in Silicon Valley, but it doesn’t resemble what is currently the norm in K-12 schools at all. Will it soon? Will schools be competing for a select group of “superstars” who will jump from employer to employer in a series of horizontal moves as McGrath suggests? Our industry is currently structured in such a way that the path from where we are now to an arrangement like the one McGrath describes seems unthinkable.

The problem for me is that I am completely convinced about what McGrath has to say about transient advantage, innovation, and strategy at the industry/institutional level, so I cannot simply ignore what she has to say about the implications on careers. I can’t simultaneously believe that the next decade will bring massive shifts in the K-12 landscape, but classroom teachers with traditional job descriptions will skate by untouched by what’s going on. The implications are troubling, though. If every classroom teacher is simultaneously trying to attend to her teaching duties responsibly (more than a full-time job as it is!) and also trying to build her brand, innovate, tend to her career, network, add new skills, and be on the lookout for the next opportunity, then the K-12 world will start to look like reality TV. It will be a ruthless pack of self-promoting, wannabe-celebrities competing for Twitter followers and blog page views when the true business at hand is educating kids.

McGrath sees work as organized around “jobs to be done” rather than product offerings. Instead of a school saying, “We need a full-time teacher to teach four sections in our English department,” they might say in the future, “We need a skillful teacher to deliver 150 hours of grammar instruction to 40 tenth graders between the dates of October 3rd and December 19th.” That instructor might very well do that job from her home hundreds of miles away from the school/students, or maybe the “school” will be a virtual one in the first place, and the students will be scattered geographically. In this model everyone is a freelancer, every job is just a gig, and teams are assembled and then disbanded in rapid succession. Perhaps “schools,” whatever they might be in ten or twenty years, will have a very small roster of permanent, superstar teachers who are lavishly compensated and who serve to promote the school’s brand. These superstars will be the face of the institution and serve to attract families. Thinking about it a little more, isn’t that trend already emerging at the university level? Articles about the move towards more and more adjunct faculty and away from tenured professors have been all over the media in the last few years.

I’d love to write a paragraph here about whether or not this is good for education, the academy, the soul, etc. But what’s the point of writing that paragraph when the change is inevitable? The shift from physical dollars to digital pennies has ravaged the print media industry, sent the movie rental business into bankruptcy (Blockbuster?), maimed the real estate agent and travel agent professions, and now K-12 education is in the crosshairs. Strangely, I feel energized by the change that I know is coming, despite what it may mean for my future cash flow. My industry is vulnerable because it has been lazy about strategy, and laziness deserves what it gets.

As for me, I think I’m going to enjoy gigging. Maybe the best professional development for me over the next few years won’t be adding tech skills or taking management coursework, but rather building a resume as a tutor.

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