Virtual teachers and big bonuses help North Texas schools overcome staff shortages
About a month into the school year at Lancaster ISD, Leslie Beal’s seventh grade daughter came home with the news that she had new teachers in some of her classes.
Beal was surprised to learn that the new instructors weren’t teaching in person or even inside the Metroplex. They filmed in the classroom from a remote location.
Lancaster is one of several local districts working with a private virtual learning provider that matches on-campus courses with national or state-certified teachers across the country.
Students attend lessons normally, but instead of learning from a teacher in person, they engage in lessons from an on-screen educator. A district staff member oversees classroom management and technology issues from inside the classroom while the distance teacher manages daily lessons.
The unusual strategy is among those aimed at helping schools overcome a national education shortage during a pandemic that has only exacerbated the number of open positions. Some districts in the region are digging deep into budgets to offer big signing bonuses.
Burnout from an already trying profession, health fears over COVID-19 and other job opportunities are the reasons for so many vacancies, experts say. Huge learning loss also presents significant challenges that not all teachers might be keen to meet.
Lancaster ISD started the year with seven open positions at the college and another 10 at the ninth grade center, spokeswoman Kimberly Simpson said. School officials sought out candidates, offering scholarships of $ 10,000 for certain specialties. But he still struggled.
“There just aren’t enough applicants to become full-time teachers,” Simpson said. About 7% of full-time teaching positions in the district were vacant as of mid-October.
As a result, Lancaster uses a virtual teacher provider, Elevate K-12, to staff some middle and high school classrooms.
Elevate K-12 is a Chicago-based company that offers live lessons to hundreds of schools across the country. Founded in 2007, the educational technology company is responsible for ensuring that instructors are certified and equipped to teach the curriculum appropriate to the grade level and subject matter of the students. The founder of the company compared him to the “Platoon” of training.
Rural schools have long used virtual teachers to meet demand for lessons due to a talent shortage, said Michael Lee, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural School.
A few years ago, when Lee was working as an acting superintendent in a small school system, his own district used this strategy to provide Spanish instruction. The principal monitored the class as they went online from a computer lab for their lesson.
It’s not the same as having an in-person teacher who can bond with students and work with them one-on-one, he conceded. And those Spanish students probably weren’t given as much knowledge as if the district had a full-time teacher, Lee said.
“It’s just hard to replace and replicate a teacher who actually sits in the classroom,” Lee said. “The alternative is to have none of these instructions to offer, and that is not a good alternative.”
Beal agrees that distance education is not an equal replacement for a classroom teacher educator. When her daughter enters the classroom, she is greeted by a Lancaster employee in person who oversees the day-to-day operations of the classroom while the Elevate instructor takes care of the lesson.
Since the LISD employee is the point of contact for families, Lancaster’s mum doesn’t think she has a chance to form a relationship with the teacher in charge.
“I don’t know who is teaching him. I’ve never met this teacher, ”Beal said. “They need this individual report. They need to have someone they can trust and turn to. They are in college. They are going through changes. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally.”
Cedar Hill ISD is also using Elevate K-12 to fill five vacant high school and college Spanish teacher positions, said Shemeka Millner-Williams, deputy district superintendent of program and teaching.
Millner-Williams, now in his 21st year of study, noted that foreign language positions have always been a challenge, and this year the number of vacancies has increased.
“Our hope is that we will bounce back from the shortage with teachers returning to the classroom as the pandemic becomes less threatening or as more teachers leave college ready to teach,” Millner-Williams said.
The cost of Elevate K-12 is around $ 65,000 per instructor, which is less than what the district would pay for a full-time staff member, CHISD leaders said at a council meeting. administration in September.
Lancaster hopes to fill his remaining vacancies this school year as the district continues to recruit, Simpson said. But he has a one-school year contract with Elevate K-12 as a back-up plan, with the district expecting to spend at least $ 624,000 on the service, according to the Federal LISD Pandemic Assistance Plan.
The district will use the service to staff 14 periods of English and seven periods of Spanish for ninth graders and nine periods of English, six periods of mathematics and six periods of life sciences for seventh graders.
A nationwide problem
The National Education Association has warned of a worsening teacher shortage before the start of the new school year. A survey of nearly 2,700 members found that about a third planned to leave the profession earlier than expected due to the pandemic.
The number of planned early departures was higher among people of color and those with more than two decades of experience, according to the NEA.
This trend has been evident across the country, with districts reporting significant staff shortages among bus drivers, custodians and substitute teachers.
Natalie Brown, a second-grade teacher at Frank Guzick Elementary School in Dallas ISD, has seen many of her fellow educators look for new jobs in the middle of the school year, an unusual decision as most teachers don’t like to leave. their students in the middle of the year.
“Teaching during a pandemic is so much more emotionally and physically draining than teaching in general,” Brown said. “Teaching has become a profession where you are not only a teacher, but you are also a counselor and a social worker. “
The multiple roles and heavy responsibilities outside of school education are taking their toll, Brown said.
Open positions are a common challenge throughout North Texas. As of this month, Mesquite ISD had 17 teaching positions open, over 40 paraprofessional vacancies and 185 auxiliary positions open, including catering workers, guards and bus drivers.
Grand Prairie ISD reported nearly 120 openings for professional applicants and over 50 for paraprofessionals, while Richardson listed over 110 openings in total. DISD had 2% of its approximately 10,000 teaching posts vacant, and replacements are increasingly difficult to find. The biggest problems are with bilingual elementary teachers, special educators, high school math, science and English educators, said DISD spokesperson Robyn Harris.
So what are districts doing to overcome the personnel crisis? Some increase their salaries or offer new allowances to attract applicants.
DeSoto ISD, for example, offered up to $ 29,000 in incentive pay and recently hosted a career fair where Royond Hendrix, 47, joined his daughter, Reality Hendrix, who was looking for available positions in schools. .
Reality, 22, received a letter of intent on the same day for a position as a drama and dance teacher at Meadows Elementary School, where she currently works. She attributes the shortage to a mix of school districts “not doing enough” to protect children and educators from COVID-19, burnout and low wages.
“It makes it hard for them to come and want to teach the kids,” she said. “It’s hard to fight that and find educators who are still passionate after being locked up after a year.”
But her mother, a former teacher and director of the North Texas area, said the problem was not new.
“There has always been a shortage of teachers over the past decades,” said Hendrix. “The pandemic has only exacerbated this shortage. “
The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation on pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.