To fill critical classes with licensed teachers, Shelby County Schools briefly considered hiring remote teachers who would instruct via video conferencing before some board members rejected the idea in committee.

The proposed $998,000 contract was to hire 15 online teachers for high school math courses. The contract would have been through Proximity Learning, a 10-year-old Texas-based company that was recently bought by the Knoxville-based Education Solutions.

Shelby County Schools had 126 classroom vacancies last week, about 20 of which were for high school classes that require special certification, according to a board presentation. That’s about 2% of district teachers based on numbers from last school year.

Districts nationwide are struggling to recruit and keep enough teachers, which has led to a myriad of strategies that look for teachers outside the traditional four-year teaching college. Research is limited on learning from a teacher in a live video conference, but some evidence suggests even academically advanced students perform worse than their peers when taking an online course.

District staff said remote teaching was a creative solution to fill the gap and cited Proximity Learning statistics that showed students performed well. An educational assistant would be on hand to monitor and help students.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Barker, deputy superintendent for Shelby County Schools

“We have challenging times in filling classrooms with teachers at this point in the school year,” said John Barker, a district deputy superintendent. “What we know is we have to turn toward innovation to help us with that.”

But board member Stephanie Love said she believes most of the vacancies are in high-poverty schools, where students already need more academic support compared with other schools.

“And because of that, I don’t see how a teacher on a computer would be more equipped to support our students when I know that we have a high number of students who are not where they need to be,” she said. “They need that support, in-house versus online.”

Other strategies to boost recruitment in Memphis and head off vacancies have included moving hiring fairs earlier in the year, offering bonuses in high-need subjects, and creating initiatives to increase recruitment and retention of male teachers of color. But teachers have said lower pay and less flexibility over what they teach also contribute to higher vacancies.

The school board is considering asking state legislators to allow districts to hire high school teachers who are certified to teach, but not certified in subjects that have the highest vacancies. Other districts, such as in Newark, N.J., are considering similar measures.


Related: Newark schools are short dozens of teachers, leading to bigger classes and more substitutes


According to case studies listed on the company’s website, most districts use Proximity Learning for highly specialized courses such as world languages or Advanced Placement for college credit — not core classes. Yolanda Martin, the district’s interim chief of human resources, said the district would only use remote teachers for high school math, an area Shelby County Schools saw significant growth in last year on state tests.

District staff said they could still bring the proposed contract for a board vote. School board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman said the district will have to come back with better ideas.

“These are my babies,” she said. “And to sit up and say we can spend this type of money to bring somebody on a computer screen, the first question I would ask if I saw my child in a classroom and somebody on the computer screen: ‘You couldn’t find somebody to care enough to come into a classroom and teach my child?’”

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.