Recruitment & Retention

Using Virtual Teachers to Fill Vacancies: Smart Solution or Big Mistake?

By Alyson Klein — May 26, 2022 8 min read
Image of a child interacting with a teacher through the computer.
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“A simple solution to equity-related problems caused by the teacher shortage crisis.”

“Make high-quality instruction available to all students, irrespective of where they live, bringing equality to education.”

Those are the the pitches Proximity Learning and Elevate K12, rapidly growing for-profit companies that live-stream teachers into classrooms nationwide, make to districts struggling to find an algebra or physics instructor.

The companies’ approach to virtual learning, they say, offers more than just help for districts in filling vacancies and the chance for teachers to set their own hours and work from anywhere: It provides a glimpse into the future of K-12 education.

Staffing shortages and the desire to prepare kids for in-demand jobs will eventually propel many schools to offer a combination of face-to-face teachers and this new live-streaming model, said Shaily Baranwal, Elevate K12’s founder and CEO.

“I one hundred percent think that is coming,” Baranwal said. In some places, “it’s already happening.”

While it’s preferable to have an in-person educator, there are some communities that will likely always struggle with staffing, and without companies like hers, their students will miss out on opportunities, she said.

But critics question the true value of such virtual teaching services.

The companies may have “good marketing,” but they are not necessarily good for students, said Samuel Abrams, a former teacher who is now the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

In fact, he sees these companies’ very existence as a “symptom … of a diseased school system” that refuses to pay teachers fairly, or improve their working conditions.

Is a remote teacher better than no teacher at all?

Both companies have grown exponentially since the start of the pandemic, meaning more and more students are likely to be taught by a teacher who is not in their school building and might not even be in their time zone.

At the end of the 2020-21 school year, Proximity, which is used by 164 districts, had 295 teachers working for schools around the country. This school year, that number has almost tripled to 868. And the company has projected that next school year, its teaching ranks will almost double again, to about 1,500, including a mix of full- and part-time teachers.

Elevate K12, meanwhile, is currently working for about 250 districts, but expects that to double next school year to 500. The company had over 1,300 teachers this year, and will likely have more than 3,000 next year, Baranwal said. Its teachers work part-time.

I actually find it disturbing that a company is peddling this as a legitimate answer to a serious problem and that anyone who cares about their schools would see it as something that they could benefit from.

Both companies say equity is part of their mission. But Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, is skeptical.

These services are most likely to “be used by districts that either can’t or choose not to pay teachers adequately,” she said. Such schools are “often in communities that serve kids that have been underserved for years.”

For most kids, virtual instruction hasn’t been very effective, Moore Johnson said. And if teachers live several states away, they aren’t able to coordinate with their colleagues or connect with parents in person, or be part of the community. “That it is advertised as providing greater educational equity seems very suspect to me, " she said.

“I actually find it disturbing that a company is peddling this as a legitimate answer to a serious problem and that anyone who cares about their schools would see it as something that they could benefit from,” Moore Johnson said.

Baranwal, who worked in early-childhood education in her native India, agrees that “an awesome teacher in the face-to-face classroom is the best. But she said that is not always available anymore, given that fewer people are going into the profession and even fewer to work in certain geographic locations or teach certain subjects.

The pandemic, which brought widespread adoption of virtual and hybrid learning, seems to have made it easier for K-12 leaders to accept the big changes that companies like Proximity represent, said John Rollack, a former teacher and principal who is now the senior head of human resources at the company.

“The way that [the K-12 system is] doing things is pretty dated, pretty antiquated,” he said. “Colleges have been doing online instruction for 20 years. … And they’ve done it well. But for some reason in K-12 education, it’s ‘no, no, no, everybody has to be in a classroom.’”

Other professionals work from home, why shouldn’t teachers have that option?

The teacher shortage was already a problem before the pandemic. But it’s gotten worse, in part, because teachers say meeting kids’ academic and social and emotional needs in the wake of the crisis made an already difficult job even tougher.

Teachers are quitting—or contemplating it—in staggering numbers. Almost half of district leaders and principals labeled their staff shortages as “severe” or “very severe” in a fall 2021 survey by the EdWeek Research Center.

That’s likely to continue. Between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years, the number of people completing a teacher-education program dropped by nearly a third, according to a report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

College graduates considering future careers want the option to set their own hours and work from anywhere, Barnawal said. “Other professionals have gotten [flexibility] that teaching has not yet gotten,” she said. “If you go to the pain points of why they’re quitting, it’s flexibility.”

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More flexibility, though, may come with serious salary cuts.

Elevate K12’s pay ranges from roughly $20 to $50 an hour, depending, in part, on the subject being taught.

Proximity currently offers $25 to $30 an hour for part-time teachers. The company recently created full-time positions paying $40,000 annually. That’s a lot less than the estimated average yearly teacher salary of $65,090 during the 2020-21 school year and even lower than the average estimated salary in Mississippi—the state where teachers are paid the least—of $47,655, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But when teachers go to work for these virtual teaching services, a lot is taken off their plates: bus-duty, attending faculty meetings, chaperoning the prom, scheduling in-person meetings with parents, and making sure kids go to the nurse to take their medications, Rollack said.

“The more that you pile on to a teacher outside of their classroom, the more he or she becomes frustrated, and they burn out and decide to leave,” Rollack said.

For Joseph Liang, a former Chicago public school teacher, leading classes in Mandarin and sciences for Proximity has been “a dream come true.”

When he worked in a traditional setting, Liang didn’t have a classroom and had to drag a cart through a three-story building, which was tough on him physically. And if a student raised their hand and asked to go to see the nurse, it would interrupt the whole class.

He feels more connected to his students now. One even visited when he was in the Windy City. Liang and his family took him to dinner.

While most students aren’t going to benefit as much from virtual teaching as they will from in-person instruction, it makes sense that teachers like Liang enjoy having a more focused set of job responsibilities, said Evan Stone, the co-founder and CEO of Educators For Excellence, which seeks to elevate teachers’ voices in K-12 policymaking.

School districts should take that as a sign that the profession needs a big rethink.

“I think what this shows is that we have a lot of work to do in the country to improve the teaching role, what it means to be a teacher,” he said. What makes jobs at these companies, “appealing to educators is that they can control their time. And unfortunately, in most school buildings right now, educators aren’t able to plan their days and control their time and that impacts their ability to deliver for their students.”

Some experts are worried that schools would begin replacing regular teachers with virtual ones

Proximity and Elevate K12 teachers aren’t unionized, though some do work in states and districts with unions. And in many states, it is likely they are identified as temporary employees.

School districts provide an adult to stay with students in the classroom, often a teaching assistant or paraprofessional, while the virtual teachers run the lessons and work with the students. In schools working with Proximity, for example, that person who is physically in the classroom might manage the day-to-day of the classroom, contact parents when necessary, and help with grading. Ensuring that there’s a school district person on-site might add to the cost of working with these companies.

The arrangement may not be the best use of a district’s scarce resources, Stone said, because the virtual teacher “is getting less money, and there’s a profit margin being carved off.”

What’s more, companies like Proximity and Elevate K-12 may drive down wages for brick-and-mortar teachers, Abrams said.

He continues to be concerned about the quality of instruction. “You need personal engagement with a teacher. We’ve known that forever, since the days of Socrates,” he said.

Kids who want to learn, say, Mandarin Chinese might be self-motivated enough to benefit from the virtual classes offered by these companies, Abrams said.

But if a district opens the door to that, it’s “a slippery slope” he warned. “Spanish could be next and then you don’t have any language instruction in house, then the same with calculus and then, say, physics. Pretty soon, you’ve gutted your whole school. And I think it’s a dangerous path to travel.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2022 edition of Education Week as Using Virtual Teachers to Fill Vacancies: Smart Solution or Big Mistake?

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