One of the new realities facing education systems around the world is the dwindling supply of teachers, both full time and substitute.
A high rate of teacher attrition in the first five years has long been the case – for a variety of reasons, new teachers decide that the classroom isn’t where they belong and move on to other careers. What’s different now is that the attrition rate has escalated just at the time when baby boomer retirement is reaching an all-time high and fewer young adults are entering teacher-training programs.
Teachers have been vocal about the root cause of this crisis. While the pandemic played an outsized role, it amplified preexisting conditions that were already straining teachers – to the point where now most describe themselves as burned out. Early in 2022, the National Education Association chronicled the results from a member survey, including the ominous fact that “a staggering 55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned.”
Staggering is the right word. Education is a people-intensive business – both in sheer numbers and the special skills and perspective that they bring. With learning from home during COVID fresh in everyone’s mind, the clear preference is for in-person education. No teacher equals no learning for many.
Manifestations of this problem are now getting substantial local play. It’s becoming commonplace to see headlines like this one: “Florida has 9,000+ teacher, staff vacancies for upcoming school year.” While it’s clear that long-term solutions must be found, what can be done in the near-term to address the issue for the upcoming school year?
The problem with larger class sizes
Given the strong preference for in-person learning, many school systems will simply increase the number of students in a classroom. This means that 25 becomes 35 by moving more desks into a classroom – done. Much of the advancement to limit class sizes to enhance learning will, by necessity, be undone with the stroke of a pen.
But an increase in class sizes comes with increased stress and challenge for the teachers who remain in the profession. They will bear the load of these additional students, with more papers and tests to grade, plus the management struggles that come with overcrowded classes. Larger class sizes also mean less individual attention for students, making it harder to meet the increasingly diverse needs of the population.
It's clear that other strategies will need to be added to the mix to support teachers – or the wave of resignations will only increase. What tools or other people can be added to lighten the load?
The promise of distance education
One possibility is to consider what we can learn from districts that have long struggled with staffing. For years, students in remote, sparsely populated areas have relied on distance education to access the same high-level courses that students in major urban areas take for granted.
Distance learning has helped ensure students have the prerequisites for whatever they want to pursue in their postsecondary studies. They may attend classes in person (connecting with a teacher from another school) or may join remotely from home. Either way, smaller districts can make the most of limited resources while offering students the courses they need.
With the looming teacher shortage, we may need to redefine “distance” to now include classes in the same city or even school. If a district is suffering from a shortage of qualified teachers – especially in hard-to-staff areas like advanced science or math – students in one school could join another class remotely. Or teachers could simultaneously teach two classes of students in the same building, alternating which is the “in-person room” from day to day. With better technology and an increased aptitude for remote instruction, students would still have a high-quality learning experience.
Distance education alone wouldn’t be enough to make this approach work. The “remote” classrooms would need to be supported by a monitor or other resource person. Other strategies to support the teacher handling multiple classes would likely also be required to cover such activities as grading assignments and tests.
As usual, developing a hypothesis of what could work and what is required is a good place to start. Then relentlessly experiment until success is found.
No miracle solution
Distance education is one possibility of many to solve the staffing crisis, but one thing is clear – a long-term fix is going to take time. This problem wasn’t created overnight, and there will be no short-term miracle solution.
Getting to the root causes and resolving them will be the true challenge – one that teachers, administrators and society as a whole will need to confront. But in the meantime, strategic use of distance learning may just help bridge the gap, keeping students learning successfully and teachers supported despite difficult circumstances.
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Posted on August 3, 2022