The workplace experience of teachers (why it doesn’t have to be like that!) with Jake Bryant, Partner at McKinsey

“It’s absolutely possible to shift the workplace experience of teachers and the culture of teaching, and we’ve seen places do it well.”
– Jake Bryant
A typical teacher in an elementary school will log on to 100 different applications per week. There has been massive shifts and massive challenges experienced by both teachers and students through the pandemic. On the one hand, students have more needs than they’ve ever had before, and on the other, there’s been an overwhelming deluge of potential technology enablers coming onto the market. On this episode of On Work and Revolution Podcast, Debbie speaks with Jake Bryant, a partner in McKinsey’s Education Practice, whose focus is on improving learning and life outcomes. Jake shares what’s on the horizon for the education sector and the one thing that can make an impact in the life of students and teachers.

Debbie & Jake discuss:

✓ What is the actual state of the workplace for teachers in K12 like in this post-COVID era
✓ With every school looking at 600 products at any given time, what is the one factor that helps new solutions ‘stick’
✓ Where there are opportunities to automate up to 30% of the administrative time of a teacher’s day and why that’s critical

About our guest, Jake Bryant: 

Jake is a partner in McKinsey’s Education Practice, where his client service and research focus on improving learning and life outcomes. Over the course of his career, he has worked with over 350 education organizations in 40 countries and 30 US states, including many leading public and private universities, school districts, technology companies, not-for-profit organizations, philanthropists, and investors. Prior to returning to McKinsey in 2013, Jake served as a program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He began his career as a middle school teacher, first in Japan and later in Los Angeles. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

Helpful Links:

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Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:05

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work right now, and how we can make work life suck less. For people who know me, they know that I am usually aiming for a slightly higher bar like I’m aiming for amazing work life. But there are some days when suck less could be just fine. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman. And today we have Jake Bryant as our guest. So, Jake is a partner at McKinsey and Company which is arguably one of the world’s most prestigious management consulting firms. He is a leader in their education practice. And he helps organizations from pre K to K12, higher ed and adult learning with some of their most pressing challenges and opportunities. There are actually some impressive numbers I found in your bio, Jack. He’s worked with more than 350 education organizations in 40 countries, and 30 US states in private government and non-profit sectors. So that’s quite a lot. Prior to McKinsey, Jake worked with the Gates Foundation as a Program Officer, but even earlier than that, and here is the really, truly impressive bit, guys, he started his career as a middle school teacher. Bless you, Jake. I have teenagers. That must have been quite the experience. And today we’re going to talk to Jake about a topic that sits in the cross section between his world and mine, the workplace experience of teachers in post-COVID America. His take on where we are and what the future holds. So welcome, Jake.


Jake Bryant  01:47

Thanks, Debbie. Thanks so much for having me.


Debbie Goodman  01:49

In our earlier conversation, we spoke about quite a lot of things. Actually, I was saying that, after our conversation, or pre-call, I was feeling just very much more optimistic about the whole sector at large. We spoke about a lot of different important issues in the sector as a whole. And then you got really excited about this one, which also is really exciting to me: the workplace experience of teachers. And you said, it doesn’t have to be like this. And so what is ‘this’? What is the actual state of the workplace for teachers in K12, like in this post-COVID era?


Jake Bryant  02:30

It’s still pretty tough right now. Teachers are coming out of the last two years, which none of them signed up for, to be teaching via Zoom, or teaching via Teams or whatever they were subjected to in remote schooling. They’re legitimately concerned about their own health, and kind of putting it on the line, in order to be with students before they’re vaccinated. And then just a lot that’s asked of them, generally. And it’s not that the teaching profession was so rosy and easy, even before COVID. So I think it’s, you know, it’s been a tough couple of years for most teachers, and you’re building on a kind of existing challenge, where they’re asked to take on this heroic, difficult job, with very little peer community to one another, without a lot of recognition in society. And with any number of other challenges, you know, student need, just kind of growing. So I’d say on the whole, it’s, it’s pretty tough, for the typical teacher in the typical school. But there’s also a lot of reason to be hopeful, I think, two things that give me a lot of hope. Firstly, when it works, and when you can kind of muddle through the sucky stuff, as you said, in your intro. It’s really one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, and you have teachers who will tell you that themselves. And then secondly, there’s a lot of schools amidst you know, a broad challenge. A lot of schools, a lot of school systems, where they’re getting it right, and teaching is creative and rewarding and celebrated and kind of connected and energizing. So, you know, amidst a bit of a dull or gloomy, overcast on the whole, there’s these bright spots that are, to me, very exciting. And, you know, when you get it right, then it can really be the best job that one could imagine.


Debbie Goodman  04:44

The best job that one can imagine. I get that as the optimistic lens being the parent of teenagers, myself, as I alluded to. I sort of see the, you know, we don’t often consider the perspective that teachers go to their workplace being the school. And they work quite, they work in isolation, they don’t have a lot of time to connect with their peers, they have limited access to their own communities, both in schools, their co-teachers, and then outside of that, because the demands of their actual job, the hours that they need to spend is, you know, intense. Coupled with that, the challenge of trying to make up for lost learning during COVID, which I know is a really big deal right now. And then on top of that, there’s this constant pressure to look at all this myriad of products and offerings to automate and create opportunities for technology to supposedly ease their lives but often not, and the pressure of trying to automate, but also possibly the fear of what is this automation going to mean for us? Where is AI in the whole spectrum of things? And what you have is, it sounds like a pretty pressurized space for teachers.


Jake Bryant  06:08

I do think, yes, the basic challenge to teaching, among several challenges, is twofold. One that students have a lot of need, and students have more need now than they’ve ever had before, whether academically that they’ve fallen behind, or emotionally that, you know, rates of anxiety and depression, particularly among teenagers are at all-time highs. So the burden on a teacher has increased. And then the second part of the challenge is that, you know, on average, they kind of have to go it alone. They might be there in a school with 20, 50, 100 other teachers, but the time in the day to actually interact with them, and build professional community is, is quite modest. And the typical school, on top of that, hasn’t done a great job of building that culture of coaching, observation through mutuality, that allows professionals to thrive and grow and perform to their fullest and also have friendships with co-workers that you are sustaining through those difficult times. So there’s absolutely a lot to do with a bunch of new student need on top of long-standing student need, and then this isolation. I am hopeful about the role that technology could play here, I don’t want to overestimate it. I think with no technology, there’s still plenty that a school leader in a set of teachers can do to build culture and community and kind of professional support amongst each other. So it’s possible without technology. But I think there is a lot in technology that gives me hope. On technology, I have no expectation that any teacher job will be automated. I don’t think robots are going to be teaching our three-year-olds. I don’t think we’re going to, you know, vastly reduce the teaching force in favor of large classes that are largely kind of tech enabled, and the teacher is kind of just in the background. We have actually projected even in the most developed economies that the teacher workforce will grow above population growth over the next 5 to 10 years. But what I am hopeful for, is that we can automate the parts of the teacher’s job that give her the least joy, and that are most wrote, the kind of administration of assessment, even the delivery of lessons in that kind of ‘sage on a stage’ type of format, where it’s just sort of informational channeling – the feedback that you give to a student on her work. If we can start to automate the, call it drudgery, of teaching and there is quite a bit of that, and allow the teacher to focus on that which is kind of truly essential and truly human only, for example, motivating a student who’s discouraged or building on the initial grammatical feedback that the bot has provided on that paper, to give that more motivating or higher-level feedback, the delivery of, you know, a next lesson that builds on the first that came via video and addresses exactly what that student knows and doesn’t know. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to automate parts of the teacher’s role. We’ve estimated up to even 30% of the time that she spends in the day. And I don’t expect teachers to just, you know, take that 30% and kind of walk off to a luxurious afternoon lunch. More, I’d expect them to use that to do the things that are truly human and truly exciting. And when we talk to teachers, those are the things that they’re most excited about and want to do more of, but feel like they’re stuck in this administrivia, they’ll call it, that keeps them from really doing the job that they love.


Debbie Goodman  10:26

I read one of your reports, that was published in 2020, which now feels I’m sure there’ve been further developments because there’s been so much enablement through tech since then. But you said 20% to 40% of current teacher hours are spent on activities that could be automated, and that only 49% of teacher time was actually spent in direct interaction with students. So in the last two years, where there’s been this acceleration with tech in the schools, in all forms, in all parts of the education sector, has that shifted already? Or are we still lagging behind because procurement processes are so arduous and because districts take so long to make decisions and schools themselves? You know, it takes ages to, you know, onboard new technology, like, where’s the progress?


Jake Bryant  11:16

I think we have made some progress. I think the progress of the last two years with regards to this is, firstly, the sort of last set of teachers who weren’t quite comfortable with technology as a kind of core to their workflow are now more or less, either migrated or retired. So now, you know, in a typical system, pretty much every teacher is doing a portion of her work and workflow on a platform. And in particular, we’re seeing the durability of platforms for the whole classroom, to submit their work, a bit of that automation of grading and feedback, that’s become much more penetrated in the pandemic than it was previously. So I haven’t re-surveyed the teachers that we re-surveyed in 2019/2020. But I think I’d stand to guess that there’s been some progress in kind of moving some of that administrivia, if not to an automated solution, at least to a digitally enabled one, that makes it a bit faster, a bit more predictable, and frees up a bit of their time. At the same time, there have been other challenges, you know, teachers have been kind of the enforcers of mask mandates, or the frontline to kind of pandemic response. So we’ve certainly put other things on teachers plates that haven’t made the job feel easier. But in a year or two, I hope when we’re more fully out of the pandemic, it’ll feel like to the typical teacher, I’ve gained a bit of productivity, and it’s allowed me to use some of this time for the things that really make this job impactful and help students that most.


Debbie Goodman  13:08

Yeah, I mean, I’d say certainly, anecdotally, teachers have really risen to the occasion. I mean, in the first few weeks of Zoom school, you know, few of them, you know, they were really struggling. And now everybody’s so you know, not everybody, but most teachers are so fluent, the kids are all online, the technology capability and enablement has accelerated pretty much across the board. Granted, I am speaking from my very sort of fortunate window in California. So it’s let’s, you know, this is not the case throughout the country or globally, for that matter. But certainly, it’s the accelerant in terms of upskilling for teachers themselves. Nevertheless, there’s also in response to that, okay, great. Our teachers are tech-enabled, our schools are willing to look at the technology, there’s also been this flood of edtech products servicing the K12 sector. And we as an executive search firm, Jack Hammer, we support that industry in the US as one of our niche areas. And we have seen how many organizations, the amount of venture funding that’s gone in to back the sector, the number of companies that have grown and we’ve seen that because we’ve been helping them hire. And the system seems a little overwhelmed. I was hearing some numbers like every school is looking at like 600 products at any given time. How do you think the infrastructure the whole system copes with that right now? Because it is that sort of overwhelm of this abundance of potential enablers from the tech sector, can that not also be hindering actual decision-making?


Jake Bryant  14:54

I think you’re spot on. I think the typical teacher, the typical school district is a bit oversaturated now. Not so much that, you know, the portions of their day that are technology-enabled are going to slide back to analog. But more just the number of solutions, the extent to which those solutions do or don’t connect to each other. It’s just a bit overwhelming. We’ve seen some data that the typical teacher in an elementary school will log on to 100 different applications a week. And we haven’t made it easy for them. Like that could be fine and good if you had a phonics application and arithmetic application and, you know, a drawing application for students that you’re facilitating. And it was easy, and they were connected and interoperable. But they’re not. This product experience in many of these situations, is kind of disconnected, a little confusing, a little bit hard to use. So I think there is a real onus and opportunity for entrepreneurs who can help things kind of come together more readily. A solution, like Clever is a great start, just to have a single sign-on and be able to access multiple. But to make it easier for teachers. And in fact, that’s one of the things that we’ve seen about what differentiates the ed tech solutions that stick around versus ‘flash in the pan’ with some venture funding, and then districts get frustrated and don’t renew their contracts, is really that teacher user experience, usability, that training around it, the ones that are able to do that well and enjoy kind of teacher validation and loyalty tend to do well. And if your solution is tough for teachers, then you tend not to do well by districts over the medium term.


Debbie Goodman  16:50

Okay, so we’ve got quite a number of listeners in the ed-tech sector. You heard it here from Jake Bryant from McKinsey. So listen up, if you’re able to make the lives of teachers easier, you’re in with a shout, with sustainability. Jake, and standing back then to stepping in your shoes, McKinsey’s just got access to so much data that you create, because you’re actually out there in your different niche sectors, serving and researching. If you had to look at the education sector as a whole, which I’m sure you do, what’s shaking up? What’s on the horizon? What can we feel excited about, or cautious and nervous about?


Jake Bryant  17:32

To kind of tie it back to some of what we said, I am really excited about those solutions that really make the teachers job easier, when teaching will never be an easy job. It’s an emotional, and taxing job and is likely to stay that way. But those solutions that allow the teacher, you know, 10 more minutes to really connect relationally with a student and motivate him or her to intervene where somebody is struggling, and they haven’t gotten it, and 10 minutes less to grade a paper that you know, could be 80%, graded by a bot. You know, that’s really exciting to me. I’m also really excited and this is more a nascent category. But to our earlier point, I actually think some aspects of the pandemic, and coming out of it, and the technology adoption could allow teachers to operate in less isolation. Teachers have become much more comfortable with having their classrooms recorded. You’ve seen in some schools, in the Zoom era, some real kind of peer community, to share practices, what’s working, what’s not. I’m hopeful that that translates back to face to face situations and teachers either on video or, you know, observing each other remotely coaching, building community, not in a gotcha or even really, that evaluative type of way, but more to help each other get better, and technology to enable that. So those two things are are pretty exciting to me. On the flip, what am I worried about? Or what would I be worried about as an entrepreneur? I’d definitely be worried if I had a product that even if I loved it and had worked hard on it, was hard for a teacher to use, of the you know, 70 or 80 of the solutions that she’s trying to piece into her classroom, and then doubly if it’s not showing a real direct impact to student learning. I’d feel nervous about my contract renewal at the end of the school year or at the end of the stimulus.


Debbie Goodman  19:42

I straddle this interesting world of the work we do in Africa and in the work we do in the US and you know, emerging markets, you know, have the opportunity to really leapfrog old legacy ways of everything. Just wondering if you have a point of view on the potential opportunities for countries, markets in Africa where access to education has been, access to quality education has been so limited, although we do know that some of the barriers are the basics like bandwidth and data, which is very expensive and not always available. But what are the opportunities you see there?


Jake Bryant  20:18

There’s a lot of opportunity relative to this overall conversation. I think there’s an opportunity to cultivate a teaching profession that’s attractive and vibrant, that draws, if not the best and the brightest in every country, hopefully, some of them and then others who are kind of passionate to be there and to show up for kids. I think there’s absolutely opportunity in those cases, to offer a kind of best in class curriculum, more consistently, more readily to more schools. And last, you’ve seen a lot of innovation in school models, particularly in Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, come to mind. And then also in India, in other South Asian countries, where you have vastly lower cost structures than we have in the first world, you know. High quality schooling with a well thought through curriculum delivered by a teacher that’s passionate to be there and supported by this undergirding layer of assessment and analytics. So yeah, a lot of promising models, even though they’re not yet at the scale of whole countries as they need to be.


Debbie Goodman  21:35

I’ve watched the flow of money really, in terms of where the VC funding is going, where the private equity funding is going. And it’s starting to trickle onto the continent in fits and starts. I think, obviously, the barriers are the the logistics and the infrastructure, which is still very poor and, in some cases, very expensive. So trying to figure out how things work economically, even when the demand is there is obviously the challenge. But I am super excited by the products that I’m seeing and imagining how those could be applied into emerging economies really delivering access to high quality education. So just to take it back, again, the workplace experience of teachers post COVID, we know all of the challenges. I think there’s been a new appreciation for all those of us who had to do a little bit of homeschooling for that, what not feels like a brief period, but could have felt interminable during that several months to a year or so. And I’m also really hopeful that the teachers will be able to cultivate the kind of community that we expect of people who go into any other workplace. Granted, they’re frontline workers in some respects, but they’re also at a physical one place and should be offered the opportunity to feel community, to learn from one another, to have access to mentorship, to be able to grow in there and have the professional and personal development in their own careers. So from what I’m hearing from you, you said that it’s almost not maybe almost didn’t put a timeline on it. But you said it’s possible. Right?


Jake Bryant  23:11

Wholeheartedly, yeah. And, it’s possible on a reasonably near-term basis. These are moves that school system leaders can make. Now, in the best case, they’ve taken, you know, 4 or 5 years to kind of filter out the whole of a profession, maybe 10 years to sort of fully embed, but it’s absolutely possible to really shift the workplace experience of teachers, the culture of teaching, and we’ve seen places do it. So sort of that quote, where, you know, the future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed. But that’s much more hopeful than the future not being here and this just being aspirational and far away.


Debbie Goodman  23:59

Okay, I am going to take that very positive note and say thank you, Jake, for your time and your insights and everything that you’ve brought to us here. It’s been wonderful to chat to you. Thank you so much. And thank you listeners for listening this far and have a lovely day. 


edtech, teachers, automation, technology, edtech sector, McKinsey management consulting, teaching, workplace, 


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