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4 Ways Technology Can Help Overcome the Teacher Shortage

February 09, 2024   •   Insights

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It’s no secret that this year’s teacher shortage is among the biggest issues facing educators since the COVID pandemic first shut school doors in 2020. Even before that, some states like Tennessee, Virginia, and California were already struggling with increased teacher vacancies across varying school types and subject areas.

At best, schools are able to fill their vacancies with long-term substitutes or other solutions. At worst, especially in states with teacher shortages, schools may be forced to close their doors on days when they simply don’t have sufficient staff to teach kids.

No matter which way you turn your head, nearly every state and every school has been affected in some way by the US teacher shortage — including substitutes. More vacancies in classrooms mean more gigs, sure, but it also means increased pressure placed on substitutes and a school district’s systems to attract them to fill in these gaps.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many districts have turned toward creative solutions to the challenge, including technology. In fact, some schools now depend on technology to keep their classrooms running and survive teacher shortages.

But the question is — are these tools helping or hurting schools?

Technology: A Bane or Boon for Short-Staffed Schools?

When teachers are in short supply, districts have a number of levers they might pull to try and fill those vacancies more readily or, at minimum, ease the pain of staffing gaps.

Gabe Cohen with CNN investigated how school and district administrators are responding to teacher shortages this year and discovered that the myriad of strategies includes:

  • Increasing teacher salaries and incentives (but only if funds are available)
  • Increasing student-to-teacher ratios (in some states, it’s as high as 21:1, compared with the national average of 15:1)
  • Hiring virtual substitute teachers located thousands of miles away and kids sitting in their classrooms on school devices
  • Lowering qualifications for recruiting and hiring new staff, especially common for hard-to-hire subjects like the sciences
  • Tapping into support or part-time staff for help
  • Implementing ‘teaching’ through online learning programs

These strategies vary from state to state, depending on what funding and resources state departments can make available to their districts. And more than a few solutions have stirred up controversy.

According to a recent report from Linda Jacobson with The 74, about 100 districts and charter networks have spent more than $31 million on just one virtual teaching technology platform since 2021. Aside from the bottom-line costs to districts, many parents are worried about the impact of absent teachers on student achievement.

Jacobson quotes from one parent, “A (virtual instructor) environment wasn’t conducive to learning. Coming out of the pandemic, it doesn’t support [students] being able to function in the classroom.” Cohen reports another parent’s response when asked what they thought about even non-tech-based solutions to the shortage: “I’m a parent and the first question I would ask would be, are my children’s teachers licensed in the subject that they’re teaching my children? And if they’re not, I would ask the principal, how are you supporting the teachers who are unprepared or unqualified to be teaching these students?”

The one solution that parents and educators do agree works is finding qualified, high-quality substitute teachers, short of filling a vacancy with a full-time candidate. Yet as more teachers leave the profession or don’t return to their schools, districts need more substitute teachers to take their places. As a result, there is a parallel substitute teacher shortage compounding the situation.

Like most challenges in education, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for any school or district in surviving the teacher or substitute teacher shortages.

But what about the technology educators are using here? Are there certain characteristics or elements that can determine how well schools navigate a teacher shortage and successfully fill vacancies at least with substitute staff? What qualities of technology may actually hinder these efforts?

4 Ways Tech Should Serve YOU To Survive the Shortage

As it turns out, there are four ways in which technology can greatly support educators in surviving the shortage. Let’s examine how each characteristic boosts fill rates while also helping districts attract substitutes into their talent pool — and what tech factors get in the way.

#1 - Timely, clear, two-way communication

Any HR district administrator would likely agree that communication is the backbone to successfully filling substitute needs: communication from teachers to their school about absences, communication from schools to their substitute pools about new vacancies, communication about changes to substitute teaching assignments… the list goes on.

In that spirit, technology tools for managing absences and substitute assignments are incredibly powerful resources — if they support timely, near-real-time communication across all critical stakeholders. K12 platforms that use only certain types of outreach like email (or worse, robocalling) put schools at a disadvantage to attract and retain substitute teachers.

Red Rover is intimately familiar with the critical role that real-time communication plays in fill rates. We also know that pushing information to key players is far more effective than relying on them to open their inboxes at the right time.

That’s why our mobile app experience revolves around streamlined communication to all parties — substitute, principal, and district administrator. Have to reschedule a substitute’s assigned classroom for the day at the last minute? With just three clicks on the platform (or thumb-presses on the app), everyone is notified of the change instantly via text messages.

Communication doesn’t necessarily have to be real-time, all the time, to be timely, either. For substitutes, advanced information about their assigned classrooms, the school they’ll be working in, and available lesson plans are huge plusses when they accept a new gig. On Red Rover, teachers can create classroom profiles complete with emergency lesson plans, student incentive guidelines, and more to help substitutes step into their classroom culture with ease. Principals can also build a school profile page to share basic information about the job, like where to park, how to check in, and what support resources are available to substitutes onsite.

Solid communication sets up everyone for success, even when the stress of a shortage weighs heavy. Technology platforms should streamline, not stifle, this critical workflow for educators.

#2 - Maximal flexibility to match your context (not change it)

Another key characteristic of helpful technology is flexibility. Unsurprisingly, in Red Rover’s annual survey, substitute educators from around the country reported that flexibility was one of the most important factors they weigh when examining a job.

As such, technology tools should fit each school or district’s unique circumstances, whether it’s a small rural K-12 school or a sprawling urban high school district. When tools fail to adapt to unusual staff schedules, substitute availability, or extra duty coverage parameters, it can create more headaches than educators have brain space to handle in the midst of a shortage.

When Red Rover launched the first version of its absence management solution in 2020, we knew that flexibility had to be core to the design. Today, we are proud to offer customizability unlike any other absence management tool in the market to help school districts attract substitutes, virtual or in-person. HR administrators can easily program specific schedules at each of their school sites as well as flexibly manage how vacancies can be filled in by multiple substitutes. In turn, substitutes may be more likely to help fill in for these longer-term vacancies in smaller chunks, if needed.

As an example, imagine one of your schools is trying to fill a teacher’s absence for 10 school days. Some outdated technology systems only allow one substitute to fill that 10-day period, severely limiting the substitutes who can fulfill this request. In Red Rover, you can control how and when to accept partial fills for extended absences — a key tool during a teacher shortage when vacancies may drag on for unknown lengths of time.

What about extra duty coverage and timesheets? Admins can finally say goodbye to the paper timesheet and use Red Rover to securely track these hours across staff, making sure they get properly and accurately compensated for their work. Read Columbus City Schools’ inspiring story about how they used Red Rover to streamline extra duty coverage to the delight of their school and district staff.

#3 - Make your data work for YOU

Data is critical to HR administrators’ work. It guides funding decisions, shapes the narrative behind advocating for resources, and can even help uncover creative new ways to tackle a district’s biggest challenges. At the very least, data should help administrators understand what their schools’ staffing needs look like — especially during a teacher shortage. Technology that makes such information accessible is a boon; platforms that complicate this become a bane.

Red Rover’s intuitive and easy-to-use reporting tools have your back here. With just a few clicks, school and district administrators can jump up to the big picture view to guide decision-making across all campuses and staff needs, or dive way down into the details. Leaders can run with our pre-built reports and tooling, or create their own story from the data — how you leverage your information is entirely up to you.

When looking at technology tools, in a teacher shortage or otherwise, easy data access and analysis is essential.

#4 - Quick to implement, even quicker to use

This last characteristic may seem obvious, but technology shouldn’t take months to implement and cause headaches while learning how to use it. Yet how many times have educators experienced launching a new tech tool, only for its implementation to be derailed by complicated integrations, difficult-to-use interfaces, and unclear use cases?

The good news is that not all platforms cost districts months of implementation and training time just to reap their benefits. With Red Rover’s implementation strategy, districts are up and running with our solutions in just 3-4 weeks. Further, Red Rover is highly intuitive and easy to navigate, as celebrated by our many happy district partners. Last, and perhaps most critically, Red Rover seamlessly connects with other existing tools in your system for things like payroll, benefits, and more.

This is why Red Rover follows the ‘best of breed’ approach to designing our software for educators. When K12 platforms pitch a solution to these kinds of challenges, odds are that using their all-in-one platform will also require migrating other tools over. In the end, educators end up with more problems than solutions.

Learn How Red Rover Can Help You Survive the Shortage

It bears restating that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to most challenges in education, and surviving this teacher shortage is no exception. Yet, when it comes to the technologies administrators employ, having the right tools with the right flexibility and features is essential to making the ride as smooth as it can possibly be.

If Red Rover could snap its metaphorical fingers and fill every teacher vacancy with a qualified candidate, we would. Though we can’t offer that magical remedy, we can offer districts a modernized, integrated K12 workforce management solution that simplifies absence management, boosts fill rates, and ultimately gives leaders back the most precious resource — time.

Request a demo to learn more!

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