This fall, in partnership with AASPA and ESS, Proximity Learning hosted a luncheon and expert panel to discuss how to fill teacher vacancies. Dr. April Willis led the panel as they described the innovative solutions they have utilized to place certified teachers into their classrooms. Experts include Dr. Michael Robinson of Proximity Learning, Dr. Diane Hicks-Watkins of Jackson-Madison County School System, Jessica Duren of Portsmouth Public Schools, Dr. Donna Eagle of Prince William County Public Schools, Brian Ingram of Shelby County Schools, and Daphne Donaldson of Charter Schools USA.
How has the teacher shortage affected your school district?
Brian Ingram: As a large urban school district, Memphis Shelby County Schools have definitely felt the pains of the teacher shortage. We started our summer with over 800 vacancies that needed to be filled by August. Working with Dr. Robinson at Proximity Learning truly has helped us because it led us to be able to start our school year [at] above 98% of our buildings being staffed appropriately.
Dr. Donna Eagle: Also being employed by a large urban school district in Northern Virginia, we’ve definitely felt the brunt of the teacher shortage. Turnover-wise, we probably did lose about 900 teachers or so, but we also added an additional 100 certified staff in our budget. We had a really healthy budget year, so we created lots of new opportunities for teacher leaders in our buildings. Therefore, we created even more classroom vacancies for ourselves, plus we added 87 more administrative roles.
We definitely have felt the brunt of the teacher shortage. We hired over one thousand certified teachers this year in our hiring season. We’re not at 98%, we’re at about 97% fully staffed in terms of our certified vacancies. But in past years, we’ve been much closer to 100%, so we’ve definitely felt it as well.
What subjects do you have the greatest need for in your districts? What recruiting methods have you employed and how successful have you been in your efforts?
Dr. Diane Hicks-Watkins: In Jackson-Madison County, like everyone else, had a severe shortage in SPED (special education), secondary math, and world language. We have used all aspects of recruiting. We have a lot of partnerships with our local universities and colleges. We also hosted our own career fair as a district. However, when you go to those career fairs and you speak with your partner colleges, you find out that they just do not have that many candidates that are entering world language, SPED, or high school math.
Proximity Learning really has been our saving grace in those areas, especially with our special education population and how we are utilizing Proximity to work with our SPED students. I was just talking to Mr. Ingram and he said well we haven’t thought about it in the special ed arena, but it has really been a lifesaver to offer those services to our SPED population.
“Proximity Learning really has been our saving grace.”
Dr. Donna Eagle: We primarily use Proximity for special education and to staff our virtual academy. Post-pandemic, we did maintain a virtual academy for K-8. A lot of the school divisions in Virginia have used Virtual Virginia as part of their strategy for offering virtual education for students, but we found with our K-8 students that we wanted them to access our curriculum.
Proximity Learning has 100% staffed that virtual academy for us in the past two years with really great success. I didn’t want to have to add those certified teaching vacancies as additional vacancies that we were going to have to fill. They’ve been very successful staffing that at 100%, but we’ve also used them for special education services for students in those academies. Many of those students do have IEPs that need to be serviced. Proximity has provided all the educational services for students in the academy.
Did you use a hybrid teaching model during the height of Covid? Did that hybrid model work for your district?
Jessica Duren: We did use a hybrid teaching model during Covid. It worked for many of our students, but we did also have some that were not successful using the virtual model. For those students who were successful, we found that most were at the secondary level, so that is the area where we have chosen to use Proximity as well.
Daphne Donaldson: We did use the hybrid method. When the shutdown occurred March 13, 2020, everything shut down across the district and we were trying to figure out what to do. What we found out was - because we were already using Proximity Learning, the Proximity teachers were still teaching those kids because those kids still had their devices. That group of our students were still getting instruction while the rest of our district was trying to figure out: “How are we going to continue instruction?” [and] “How are we going to become a one-to-one district when we weren’t one before?”
Those kids never lost any instruction. Whereas, our other students lost instruction because we had whole schools trying to figure out how to ramp up and provide that. Of course there were inherent challenges with that for the other schools and the other students that were receiving instruction.
When we came back and started doing hybrid, of course there were challenges because you have to have teachers trained on how to now become virtual teachers on certain days. That was the challenge: “How do I flip my instructional model to be virtual as well as being face-to-face on certain days and design that instruction where my students don’t lose anything?“
I’m doing this with students who are digital natives. These kids know how to use the technology very well, and you had teachers who were veterans who did not know how to do it. Those were some of the challenges that we had.
We were really excited to know that our students who were primarily at the high school level were still getting instruction with Proximity when everyone else was scrambling. That was mind blowing for us. They continued and expended that relationship because they realized the positive impact.
“We were really excited to know that our students who were primarily at the high school level were still getting instruction with Proximity when everyone else was scrambling. That was mind blowing for us.”
Do you have a virtual school in your district? How are you recruiting your students?
Dr. Diane Hicks-Watkins: Covid allowed for us to continue virtual learning and to develop a virtual academy for Jackson-Madison County School System students. We have a blended or hybrid method of instruction. We have some teachers that are on-site employees of Jackson-Madison County School System who delivered virtual instruction as well as Proximity Learning teachers because a virtual school is hard to staff as well. We use Proximity in those hard-to-staff areas like world language, SPED, and vocational classes.
A lot of times, it’s not hard to recruit a virtual teacher because everyone thinks that they want to be at the virtual academy. You don’t have students sitting there right in front of you, so everyone wants to teach for the virtual academy until they start teaching at the virtual academy. It’s not so hard to recruit them, however, it’s hard to retain them. Sometimes, it’s just not a good fit. When there’s not a good fit, we place those teachers in brick-and-mortar - and it works out for the district and teacher.
We have approximately thirteen thousand students in our district and right now, our virtual academy has about four hundred students, Kindergarten through 12th grade. I was very surprised that our student population really stayed stable. I was thinking the fear of Covid is pretty much gone now, so we will have a lot of kids choosing to go back to brick-and-mortar but that population has stayed stable.
It’s really beneficial for those families that need the flexibility of a virtual academy and be able to travel. We have a lot of families that take international trips back home for 2-3 months at a time, so it’s very beneficial for that group. It’s easy to recruit for the virtual academy but not necessarily easy to retain, so we utilize those teachers in brick-and-mortar if it’s not a good fit after coaching and support.
What challenges do you see concerning employing virtual teachers within your organization?
Jessica Duren: There are challenges sometimes when you are employing a virtual teacher. One very big one is [that] classroom management and being able to develop those relationships with students so that the virtual teacher is able to be successful. We have found that you have to be very strategic about who you choose to have in the classroom as a facilitator to support that virtual teacher who is offsite.
While that person will not be teaching the content, they will be there in the classroom with the students and they will be responsible for making sure that the students stay on task, assisting them with technology issues, working with the teacher on grading, and being a conduit with the school division. It’s important that you find a person who may not be a content or subject matter expert - but someone who has those soft skills to come in and facilitate that class successfully. That’s the biggest challenge.
How have you determined the makeup of a successful facilitator for a virtual classroom?
Brian Ingram: Diane and I were just having this conversation prior to this. This is one of the things that we realized in previous iterations of using Proximity Learning as a hodgepodge solution. If we can’t find a teacher, we were going to use Proximity until we find a teacher. Well this year, we made a strategic shift and Proximity Learning is the teacher. There is no going back and forth. This is the solution for the year.
With that being said, I’m sure many of you have experienced a lot of teachers who have exhausted their emergency credentials. With that particular population, we have teachers with at least 3 years of experience in the classroom. They understand management, district expectations, and district platforms. We actively recruited those individuals and brought them in for what we call “education support” professionals. That is the facilitator in the classroom.
To Ms. Duren’s point, they may not necessarily have the content knowledge, but they understand classroom management, classroom culture, and the ins and outs. I think it’s very beneficial to have someone who has experience working with students and understanding district expectations. That could be a paraprofessional or a substitute - individuals who understand the ins and outs of your organization will really help accelerate results that you see with Proximity Learning.
Dr. Diane Hicks-Watkins: One additional thing that I would like to add to that is making sure that you find a person that is very big on relationships, especially bridging the parental involvement into your classes. Relationships are one of the most important things because they’re able to tell what little Johnny may be doing in the classroom and explain that to the parents - whereas the student just says, “I don’t know, mom. The teacher just comes on screen.” That facilitator bridges the gap and makes sure that the parents feel comfortable with the virtual learning as well.
We were using Proximity Learning well before Covid, so that was one of the big challenges - parents were not familiar with virtual learning, and they didn’t feel comfortable with it. The right facilitator makes all the difference in the world.
Do you see a virtual option as a viable solution to the ongoing teacher shortage?
Daphne Donaldson: This is the future. Right now, we’re in survival mode. But if we really start thinking about the future, we can start utilizing this for our homebound students because we do an unbelievable disservice to homebound children. They only get to see a teacher 3 times a week, and they’re in there for a minute or an hour. These kids don’t get to interact with other children.
If we start thinking holistically, we could use virtual platforms like Proximity to provide education for those kids connected with other districts around us. Because we don’t have a lot of kids who are homebound, we can connect with other districts so now these kids can interact with other children, get instruction, grow, get assessments, and connect with the teacher. Then you won’t lose that learning opportunity for those kids. That’s thinking proactively.
Also when we start thinking about staffing, we think of the normal staffing model. We really should start looking at the number of students who want to take physics at high school A. We may only have 4 kids. If I have 4 kids at high school A and 6 kids at high school B, I can put them together in a class, the kids are able to take it, and I can utilize the human capital I have in the building to actually provide instruction for my physical science classes.
Redesigning how we do our normal staffing model is going to save us money. We all know that ESSER is going away. Right now we’re all rolling in cash like Scrooge McDuck, but we know that that’s going away. We are going to have to tighten our belts. If we start thinking holistically into the future, this is a way that we can use the human capital that we have in the district and shift it around. We can provide virtual [learning] for certain students and proactively provide face to face instruction using those people in our building.
“Redesigning how we do our normal staffing model is going to save us money.”
This is the future, and we have to embrace it. I want us to start thinking proactively. Now I can start offering high school courses to my middle school kids without fighting with certification for middle school teachers to get high school certifications. Now they can take Proximity courses, and I just need a facilitator in the classroom. I can have twenty kids in a room taking seventeen different courses at the same time with live instruction. They have their headphones on. This is us thinking proactively using our resources better because ESSER will go away.
How do you interact with the virtual teaching staff regarding curriculum and instruction?
Brian Ingram: We have really worked hand in hand with Proximity this year. I have to shout out my colleague Monica Jordan who really leads that work for us in the district. Just last week, we had our Proximity teachers as well as our education support professionals for a 2 day inservice right before fall break.
It was important for us to reset because we’re very strategic with curriculum in our district to ensure that every child has equitable access. It doesn’t matter if you go to school A, B, C, or D - you should have the same experience with the curricular resources and expectations. We didn’t want that to be any different with Proximity, so we do a lot of level setting with Dr. Robinson’s team as well as with our local team.
Our Proximity teachers go through the same onboarding that our brick and mortar teachers go through - our new teacher academy. They get all of the resources and learn the ins and outs of our curriculum. Facilitators stay in a close knit relationship with Proximity as well as at the district level to maintain the integrity of our curriculum implementation. We’re really excited to see what our results will look like with the updated implementation this year. I’m really encouraged with what we are seeing thus far.
Dr. Donna Eagle: I want to add something that was really helpful in regards for PWCS - is that we aligned the Proximity teachers by grade level with the particular school for PLCs (learning communities). They plan weekly with an actual brick-and-mortar grade level team. That’s something that was really helpful for us in ensuring that they were receiving the same resources. All students are equitably served throughout the division, including our virtual students.
What recommendations do you suggest for districts with many teacher vacancies that persist during the school year?
Jessica Duren: My recommendation is that you think outside the box and that you give virtual instruction a true look. Whereas my colleague said this is the future, I would challenge that and say this is the present because this is where we are now and we’re not going back.
Students are digital natives, the current generation is used to using technology in their everyday lives, and we have got to get onboard in school divisions to be able to service them and provide instruction in a way in which it will be received successfully.
I really encourage districts out there to look at the virtual option because Proximity Learning is a platform that will allow a lot of flexibility with the school division: allow your curriculum or you can use theirs, they will support you as well as the teachers that are servicing your students, which just allows more resources for the teachers that are working with your students.
It’s also a company that I can say is very responsive as well. They will call you back, answer your questions, and do what they can to support you to make sure that the virtual option is successful.
You’re going to get push back because it’s difficult to change people’s minds and change is hard. A lot of your administrators may push back on it, but I challenge you to tell them that this is the present. Challenge them to give you a solution to this teacher shortage. If they can bring in 800 teachers that are fully certified, let them do it. Tell them you’ll hire them. But if they can’t, then we have to try something different. That’s the conversation we had to have with our administrators.
Dr. Michael Robinson: I want to just say this. I’ve talked to thousands and thousands of educators. I do this everyday. You know what the shortage is. You’re sitting on the sidelines. Think about those children who are sitting there.
I remember when I was a kid growing up in the 70’s in the Chicagoland area. I knew that everyday walking in those doors, there was going to be a certified, qualified teacher who not only understood pedagogy and content but also loved me and built that bond with me.
When we have a situation where we are just putting a body in a classroom, but the person doesn’t understand the content or the pedagogy, what does that say? We are in a crisis, so please don’t sit out there on the sidelines and be a naysayer. Try it out. It may work for you.