Students and teachers alike can thrive when flexibility is built into the educational experience.
Summer is usually a time for teachers and administrators alike to reset and recharge for the coming school year. This year, however, the “slow season” doesn’t feel as restful as it has in the past. On the horizon, there’s a problem looming: teacher and support staff retention.
Staffing shortages are fast becoming the next crisis that school leaders are working hard to prevent. Teacher turnover, which usually averages about 16% nationwide, could see a spike as anywhere from 25% to 54% of educators are considering leaving the profession. And that’s not even counting non-teaching support staff positions, which are becoming harder to fill.
High levels of stress, increasing demands on time and energy, salary considerations, safety concerns and more are all contributing to this potential exodus. At the same time, teacher training programs are seeing a drop in enrollment as fewer young people choose to pursue education as their profession.
To understand what’s driving teachers to consider exiting the profession, I connected with Deb Meyer, Director of Strategic Growth at FlexPoint Education Cloud. We discussed online learning, the need for flexibility—and what could happen if we don’t adapt to the brave new world of education.
Why teaching is getting tougher
Teaching has always been challenging, but why is it so much harder now? “The teaching profession hasn’t evolved much during the past few decades,” says Meyer. “The pandemic further exposed the gaps and needs in education. Today, parents are more involved; stress levels and mental health issues remain very high for everyone; plus, our societal changes are all affecting what happens in the classroom.”
Meyer also points to the generational gap between teachers and their digital-native students. “These students learn a different way and teaching strategies should evolve to reflect that,” she says.
Part of the answer, Meyer believes, is for communities to embrace an online or blended learning model. But wasn’t online learning a bit of a disaster back in 2020 when America’s schools went remote overnight? Meyer admits that the main objection to online learning is that most parents think of online education as the crash course we all took in remote learning at the start of the pandemic.
“The remote learning that families, students and educators experienced at that time is not what true online learning is,” says Meyer. “Online learning done right includes teacher training to acquire the right strategies to teach online, and curriculum developed specifically for the online learning environment.”
Like it or not, online learning is here to stay in one form or another. “One of our recent surveys to parents shows that they believe online learning helps their children build skills that are necessary for school and future success, like communication skills, time management and problem solving,” says Meyer.
And despite many schools’ rocky start in 2020, remote learning can be remarkably successful, both in terms of student success and teacher retention. Meyer points to FlexPoint’s parent organization, Florida Virtual School, where teacher retention consistently stays above 88% year over year, even increasing to 93% for the 2020–21 school year. “Part of that is because our teachers feel that an online learning environment allows them to truly focus on what’s important to them—decreasing their administrative workload so they can focus on helping their students succeed,” she says.
Flexibility is the key
Education has traditionally been considered a field where flexibility is just not possible. You have to do the prep, show up in person and often work after hours communicating with families as well as planning the next day’s lesson. But now, the rigidity of the teaching profession is being challenged. Like everyone else, teachers want flexibility—or else.
Online and blended learning models are giving teachers some of the flexibility they crave, and not just in terms of time. “Teachers can focus on what they do best—teaching and building relationships with their students—while adapting their style to the individual needs of their students,” says Meyer. “For example, some students might prefer communicating over video conferencing, while others might respond better to phone calls or text messages.”
This gives teachers more of a fighting chance to forge the human connection that students need more than ever. “One of the top advantages we constantly hear from teachers is that online learning allows them to create more one-on-one connections with students, thanks to more personalized interactions,” says Meyer.
As in other professions, the online environment can offer the flexibility of achieving goals and being productive without having to go to a physical location. “A teacher friend of mine recently had to go into school even though her students had the day off,” says Meyer. “It was supposed to be a time for the teachers to get together and plan, but why did they have to physically be there to plan?” In actuality, they didn’t.
Flexibility for students
The benefits of a blended or online learning environment extend to students as well. “Students love the opportunity to take classes that aren’t available in their traditional school or district, to either get ahead or discover new interests,” says Meyer.
Case in point: a school in Florida offers their students hands-on experiences while using FlexPoint’s online curriculum and courses. “The school is set in a working farm,” explains Meyer, “and while the afternoons are dedicated to taking their online courses, the mornings are all about learning life skills that they wouldn’t learn in a traditional setting through farming/permaculture, surfing, skateboarding and mindfulness.”
Another pro of online learning, Meyer says, is the ability for students to focus on the areas that they need extra time. “If there’s a lesson that they need to spend more time on to truly understand it, they can do so; or they can move on to the next lesson when they master it without having to wait for the rest of his or her classmates.” All of these things are naturally tougher to accommodate in a physical classroom.
Learning on demand is also gaining traction, as school leaders and superintendents note the need to offer support for students beyond the traditional classroom hours, including weekends, holidays, summer vacations and other times. “An online learning platform allows content to be available for students around the clock, where teachers and students are no longer ruled by a bell, and both can choose what works better for them,” says Meyer.
It’s unclear what will happen if the education system remains rigid and inflexible in its demands on both teachers and students. “Truthfully, we don’t know the answer to that yet,” says Meyer. “This is so much broader than the teaching profession, this is a matter of how we deliver education and instruction as a whole.”
Meyer believes that creating flexibility for teachers and students is something that will require societal change, with all stakeholders onboard and looking to the future. And online learning options are apart of that more flexible future.
“We all agree that, in several aspects, we can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic, and education is part of that,” Meyer says. “So, let’s make sure we use the learning from the past few years to re-energize education, and shift the focus to individualized learning that adapts to the needs and interests of a diverse student population.”
Finally, says Meyer, what’s most important is for families to understand that they have options. Parents and their kids should design a learning journey that works for them. Flexibility is the future of education—if we’re brave enough to embrace it.