Teacher shortage: are self-employed teachers the solution?

The number of independent teachers working in elementary and secondary schools has nearly doubled over the past 5 years. It appears to be a great solution to the teacher shortage that has plagued schools for years. Schools and unions, however, are wary about this development. The high costs and lower engagement of self-employed professionals (zzp’ers) , they argue, jeopardise the quality of education.

Over the next 2 years, primary and secondary schools are set to receive over €5 billion from the government. These funds come from the National Education Programme (NPO) and are intended to catch up on time lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools would like to use the money to hire more permanent teachers, but they are impossible to find (in Dutch). Instead, they are hiring independent contractors (zzp’ers). o

Independent contractors in the classroom 

There are currently more than 2400 self-employed teachers in the KVK Business Register. Teachers can choose to become independent contractors. Casey Visser (29) and Marjanne van Diermen (26) are both self-employed teachers, praising the greater flexibility, higher pay, and lower workload. 

High workload 

Casey Visser has been a self-employed teacher since October 2019. She does not plan to return to salaried employment. “Even while I was still a student, I noticed that teaching workloads are extremely high. 10-hour workdays were the rule, not the exception. As if a full day of teaching 30-student classes is not exhausting enough, you also have to attend meetings, information evenings, and parent-teacher conferences. I quickly realised that the traditional form of teaching was not for me.” Visser believes salaried teachers have been exploited for years. The pay, she argues, does not justify the workload. “Every year, the salaried teachers I know come round to the idea of self-employment a little more. Some teachers are even considering becoming a zzp’er too.” 

Many requests 

Visser says she has no trouble finding work. She gets so many requests that she just cannot accept them all. “I hardly have to do any acquisition. The requests from schools just keep flooding in.” 

Marjanne van Diermen (26) recognises the high demand for independent teachers. She is a zzp’er and signed up on Flexleerkracht.nl, a website that brings together the supply and demand sides of the teacher market, in July 2021. “20 minutes within signing up, I got 6 phone calls from principals asking me if I could start right after the summer break. I now have a contract with a school up to the autumn break. 

School leaders and unions 

Although principals regularly use self-employed workers (in Dutch) to plug holes left by staff shortages, they also see drawbacks. Maarten Jacobs, school principal with the Rivierenland Foundation for Public Primary Education, and Ron Voorwinden, spokesman for the General Teachers’ Union (Algemene onderwijsbond, AOb), are concerned by the rising number of zzp teachers. 

Making ends meet 

Struggling with the teacher shortage at his school, principal Maarten Jacobs was forced to make a difficult decision: scale down to a 4-day school week or approach a commercial agency and hire self-employed workers. He chose the latter. “Countless agencies have sprung up to fill the gap in the market”, Jacobs explains. “They post flex teachers at schools. Schools pay 20 to 50% more than they would for a salaried teacher. All the while, budgets in primary education are already as tight as can be due to a string of cutbacks over the past 2 decades. Every year, we are forced to make ends meet with a small budget.” 

Visser contests that self-employed teachers are more expensive than their salaried counterparts and argues that schools do not need to partner with commercial agencies. “Schools can also reach out to self-employed teachers themselves or use Flexleerkracht. Some schools have been saving millions of euros this way for years.” 

Less security 

The General Teachers’ Union is also far from positive about the rising number of self-employed teachers. “Independent teachers may appear to earn more”, says AOb press officer Rob Voorwinden, “but this comes at the cost of less job security, a good collective labour agreement, and a pension plan.” 

Preventing false self-employment is very important for both the independent teachers and for the school. False self-employment is subject to fines.

Pros and cons 

Opinions on self-employed teachers differ widely. While self-employed teachers themselves only see the benefits, schools and unions are concerned about the effects on education and employed staff. 

Personal development 

After years of salaried employment, Van Diermen consciously chose to switch to independent contracting. She is passionate about personal development. As an independent contractor, she had the opportunity to continue to develop her own business as a child and youth coach. “I love the challenge and independence I get. By working at different schools, I learn a lot more about diverse educational views and different types of students.” 

New faces 

Van Diermen also sees drawbacks, such as less job security and a constant stream of new faces. She also struggles building a relationship of trust with students in a short period of time. Principal Jacobs also acknowledges this problem. He argues that students are not well served by a host of new teachers. Nonsense, Visser retorts. “By the time they go to secondary school, children are taught by 8 different teachers every day. If anything, they get to learn more.” 

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Overworked teachers 

According to Jacobs, the additional costs for self-employed teachers can lead to tense situations (in Dutch) in schools. After all, hiring expensive independent contractors means you can hire fewer teachers overall. Moreover, independent teachers may choose not to do all the work that regular teachers do. These tasks then have to be picked up by the salaried team, resulting, Jacobs argues, in even more overworked teachers. 

Visser’s response is vehement: “Teachers were overworked even before the self-employed teachers came into the picture. We are not the reason for rampant burn-outs among employed staff - years of mismanagement is. Things do not get much more expensive than paying an overworked teacher while they recover at home. Schools should be glad that self-employed teachers even exist. Independent contracting is the only way we can continue to be healthy, active teachers. And that is what is best for students.” 

Quality loss 

In addition to the increase in zzp’ers, AOb also sees a rise in commercial agencies responding to the teacher shortage. “Many teachers are approached by secondment agencies promising heaps of gold”, Voorwinden explains. “In the end, there is only one real winner: the secondment agency itself.” School principle Jacobs shares this view: “In the past, you could deal with teachers directly, but now you have to deal with a middleman. Schools are forced to pad the profits of commercial agencies at the expense high-quality education.”