At a time when school districts – and universities – across the United States are feeling the pain of a nationwide shortage, the ability to retain and attract teachers is crucial. One way to do so is by offering more of what educators want and need to thrive in the classroom: opportunities for professional development and to collaborate with colleagues. For schools in rural areas, that first means overcoming some long-standing barriers that have made professional development and collaboration difficult in the past.
The Washington Post reports that U.S. classrooms were short approximately 60,000 teachers in 2015, and the annual shortage could increase to over 100,000 teachers by 2018. But, according to REL Southwest, “Oklahoma, like many other states, has faced severe teacher shortages for years, and district administrators have been concerned not only about a lack of applicants, but about the expertise of applicants who were applying for the vacant positions.”
Research findings by REL Southwest “suggest that small school size coupled with geographic distance to [professional development] opportunities can foster what previous studies have labeled ‘professional isolation’ among rural teachers, a factor contributing to the difficulty some rural districts have in attracting and retaining teachers.”
REL Southwest found that just 61% of rural schools offered teachers collaborative learning opportunities, versus 91% of non-rural schools . Peer coaching or mentoring was offered by 62% of rural schools versus 76% of non-rural schools. And 37% of rural schools provided teachers common collaboration or planning time, versus 63% of non-rural schools.
Research by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) also underscores the need for additional collaboration opportunities. “Teaching conditions—which also define learning conditions for students—are a strong predictor of teachers’ decisions about where to teach and whether to stay,” reports the LPI. One of the four factors consistently cited by LPI survey respondents are “Opportunities for professional collaboration and shared decision-making: Teachers’ career decisions are shaped by their connectedness to a team working with a shared purpose. Opportunities for teacher collaboration and input are key factors.”
It’s understandable how school size and geographic distance served as barriers to professional development and collaboration in the past. Traveling to a large city or another state for professional development can mean multiple days away from the classroom, and schools don’t always have the extra staff to cover absent teachers. Collaboration opportunities may be ad hoc or non-existent. However, with today’s collaboration technologies, this need not be the case.
Video conferencing and other collaborative tools help close the distance, enabling face-to-face training and learning from virtually anywhere in the world. Whether it’s within a single school system or across state lines, faculty, students and administrators can connect with resources formerly unavailable without the cost of travel and time. Similarly, teachers from rural areas can participate in professional development courses without having to leave their hometown.
One of the strategies LPI researchers recommend to federal, state, and district officials for improving teacher retention is to “Incentivize professional development strategies and the redesign of schools to provide for greater collaboration.”
Implementing a distance learning solution can significantly reduce the cost associated with making professional development and collaboration opportunities available to educators. Rather than redesign an entire school, districts can bring teachers and mentors together anytime and anywhere – and the same technologies can be used to connect students to new learning opportunities.