Every morning, I get inundated with google alerts around the teacher shortage. In desperation to solve this issue, schools try everything they can, including pleading for parents to volunteer in classrooms. Meanwhile, states are trying to help, sometimes by taking actions that have been frantic, extravagant, or misguided. Tennessee offered free apprenticeships to would-be teachers. New Mexico recruited National Guard members. There is a clear problem here, but with the clock ticking and students falling further and further behind, districts and states have been forced into panic mode and are trying anything they can to put a bandaid over the issue.
This problem is not temporary, and we cannot be looking for a quick fix until Summer to then start all over again in Fall. This issue has been building for years, and the pandemic has brought it to its breaking point. As far back as the 2014-15 school year, enrollments in traditional education programs decreased by 32.5%-41.2%. A 2021 teacher survey by RAND Corporation shows that one in four teachers were considering leaving their job by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. We will need more students going into education to attempt to move forward and keep our children in capable hands to learn the life lessons and skills that qualified, expert teachers provide. To encourage students to go into education and to keep current educators teaching will require treating them with the respect they deserve and providing them with options. Because ultimately, if we don’t, our children will continue to suffer.
Where do we go from here?
The inequity in education caused by the teacher shortage is why I started Proximity Learning in 2008. I saw firsthand how students in rural and urban districts lacked the teachers they needed. I recall visiting one school in the Mississippi Delta where they had not had a Science teacher in the district for years, so they stopped building science labs. As a result, these students did not have the opportunity to conduct science experiments or learn kinesthetically. Unfortunately, this problem has only worsened in rural and urban districts in recent years. Almost a quarter (21.8%) of schools surveyed by the AAEE cited their undesirable location and demographics as a reason for their difficulty hiring teachers.
At Proximity Learning, we see these issues from the teacher, student, and district perspectives. We know we cannot completely solve the teacher shortage issue, but we are working daily to provide a solution. By livestreaming teachers into classrooms or student homes, we do two things: eliminate the geographic barrier to finding educators in a given location and provide teachers the flexibility and working conditions that they need and deserve.
Students spending 2/3 of their school days learning from a substitute in at least one subject is not acceptable. The shortage is more detrimental in underserved districts, where teacher absences tend to run higher than the national average of 11 days per year. And this could have serious consequences for students: one study shows that 10 additional teacher absences per year lead to 1.2% and .6% of a standard deviation decrease in math and English test scores, respectively.
Perhaps most alarming is the trend of schools lowering certification requirements for people willing to teach. The AAEE survey found that, on average, 16% of the teachers hired in the past year did not have traditional preparation or were emergency hires. Urban schools had the highest percentage of teachers with non-traditional preparation hired in the past year (18% compared to 13% in rural schools and 8% in suburban schools). It is a chronic inequity: urban students have access to fewer experienced instructors in classrooms, and their education suffers. Virtual teaching allows schools to draw from a national pool of qualified candidates rather than being limited to the area around them. Schools could even choose teachers with expertise outside the schools’ usual curriculums, giving students expanded access to elective courses.
For virtual teachers, they can provide instruction from anywhere in the United States. Moreover, they can move between schools and districts freely. One virtual substitute can handle a class in a rural school in Montana at 10:00 a.m., another class in Newark, New Jersey at 1:00 p.m., and yet another class in Texas at 3:00 p.m. This flexibility can go a long way toward relieving the teacher supply crunch schools have been battling.
Equity For 1 Million Students
The future of Proximity Learning is educating one million students. That’s where we want to go. We want to have tens of thousands of teachers able to take advantage of the gig economy, work from home, feel safe and focus on why they became teachers, which was to teach. Ultimately, we want to reach one million students by giving them access to expert educators regardless of location, race, or economic status, changing communities around the country.
All students deserve an equitable education because they are worthy of whatever future they envision. Rather than resorting to outlandish solutions, which may only deepen the inequity and inequality that has plagued schools, school officials should accelerate their switch to a virtual teacher model in cases when they cannot find qualified, in-person educators. The talented virtual teachers standing by across the country can solve the teacher shortage and allow equity for all students, either for in-person or virtual classrooms.
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