Increase in demand juxtaposed by overall teacher decline
From manufacturing to food service, just about every industry in the country is experiencing the two-pronged challenge of attracting new hires while hanging on to current talent. This pressure cooker for employers means looking at new and engaging ways to get and keep the workers they need for success.
While always a demanding profession, education withstood a traumatic hit in January 2020 when COVID reached U.S. shores. By June 2021, a survey by the National Education Association of 2,690 members indicated 32% of the 2,690 members responding said they plan to leave the profession earlier than planned. Couple that research by a study done by RAND Corp. that blames the pandemic for “intensifying attrition, burnout and stress on teachers who were almost twice as likely as other employed adults to feel frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.”
No one can argue that this is an extremely demanding time for educators, traditional and online alike. Lest our valued teachers and all those who rely on them lose heart, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) issued a beacon of hope in its May 2022 publication, Recruitment and Retention of Online Teachers. A long-standing member of the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA), Michigan Virtual is recognized for its thoughtful research and guidance on issues impacting the virtual learning community.
In its recent study of Michigan teachers and administrators’ social and emotional needs, MVRLI found that nearly two-thirds of teachers responding said they considered leaving their jobs during the 2020-21 academic year. These findings prompted MVLRI to commence its deep dive into the state of online teacher recruitment and retention, examining the challenges and uncovering strategies to overcome them.
Specifically addressing COVID’s impact to online teachers, Rich Copeland, supervisor of teacher quality of Georgia Virtual, provides a distinct perspective. “COVID has impacted online teachers by making them necessary and integral to teaching during the pandemic. At the beginning they were lumped in with emergency remote learning, but I think the distinction between quality online learning and remote teaching has been absorbed …. I encounter some district leaders who are still shell shocked from the experience.”
In the same vein, John Ashworth of Virtual Arkansas, another VLLA member, does not forecast a shortage of online educators in the near future. Rather, he anticipates a continuation or worsening of the teacher shortage in traditional classroom environments.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have had a dramatic increase in contacts from educators across the state inquiring about job openings,” said Ashworth. “We are seeing an increase in teaching online since the pandemic. In our program, we routinely see several dozen applicants for each position we post which gives us an opportunity to hire very highly qualified educators.”
This perfect storm between an exodus of traditional brick-and-mortar educators and the increased demand for online teachers has prompted a better understanding of creating blended classrooms. Thus, said Copeland, we can collectively better respond to emergencies or simply promote the continuity of learning.
“We are currently working directly with educators across the state of Georgia in our PartnerUp program which allows districts and schools to use our LMS, content, professional learning, and technical expertise,” said Copeland. “ We are hoping to build capacity for quality online and blended learning so that districts have some flexibility in addressing the overall teacher shortage.”
Recruitment: The challenges & opportunities
When it comes to hiring talent, online programs must work harder to fully inform and educate potential teachers. Dispelling misinformation and myths are part of an overall strategy that also includes providing a structure that is attractive, functional and supportive.
MVRLI research shows the top three challenges for online learning programs are:
- Compensation and benefits
- Belief that openings are only in specialized areas such as special education, math, science, and technology
- Low awareness of online teaching programs among those looking for work
Compounding these noted trials is teacher perception of the value and rigor of online learning programs. A lack of awareness keeps educators from even exploring the option of online teaching, an opportunity gap that, if remedied, can cast a broader net for recruitment.
With each noted challenge, MVRLI talked with experts in the field, including VLLA’s own Cynthia Hamblin. These best practices can help online learning programs navigate through the noted challenges of retain new and seasoned talent.
Among the MVRLI recommendations for recruitment are:
- Using existing networks to recruit, including social media, familiar posting sites, and job boards. Word-of-mouth remains the top source for letting current staff know about openings.
- Creating a structured orientation program that includes a dual approach of information and general training for online teaching. Effectively onboarding online educators on learning management systems, state requirements, instructional approach and expectations, policies, and procedures.
Retention: Keeping quality talent
The other side of the talent coin centers on retaining good educators who bring a broad array of experiences with them. To effectively address the departure of online teachers, the MVRLI study wisely uncovered some of the main causes.
The top three reasons?
#1: Not offered a full-time, permanent position
#2: Too many job responsibilities and lack of work-life balance
#3: The program is not able to offer a competitive compensation package
These issues are exacerbated for new teachers, who must adapt to online environments, motivating students, and carrying workloads required for learning. The statistics shared in a recent MVLRI blog found that 10% of new teachers do not stay in the post, and 44% leave within five years.
Virtual Arkansas understands the importance of attracting new online teachers while keeping its current educators satisfied, engaged, and supported by the program. “We try to focus strategically on recruitment and retention … and what motivates educators to go to a specific organization and stay there,” said Ashworth.
Beyond competitive compensation, Virtual Arkansas outlines the other components it uses to best serve both new and current educators. The top initiatives include:
- School culture
- Physical location
- Flexibility in teaching
- Career advancement opportunities
Coupling this strategic focus on other top motivators is teachers as recruiters. “If the teachers are happy and feel the organization is going in the right direction, other teachers outside the organization will hear it and want to be part of it,” said Ashworth.
Solutions to successfully address future needs
While an overall teacher shortage impacts traditional public schools, online educators are capably stepping in to fill the gap. The MVRLI study shed considerable light on the challenges and opportunities for online education programs.
Effective solutions uncovered in the research calls for a combination of logistical policies and professional practices. On the policy side, programs can allow teachers to work anywhere with stable internet, ensure a minimum number of enrolled students, and a competitive base pay with opportunities for increases in compensation. Among the professional practices outlined are mentors/coaches for new teachers, coordinating communities of practice, and professional development focused on teacher growth and leadership.
Beyond those, social and emotional supports are necessary for a successful program. This comes in many forms, including feedback, culture, inclusion, and engagement. This sound investment in new and current educators goes a long way in securing an online program now and into the future.
With these recruitment and retention strategies in hand, quality, online education will continue to thrive and play a critical role in the education of today’s children. Now, more than any time in history, online learning is an essential part of a child’s growth and development throughout his or her educational journey.