Laptops out and headphones on, a class of Weaver Middle School sixth-graders followed instructions from their teacher.
But Taylor Rodgers wasn’t standing at the front of the classroom. She was working from her home in Texas.
The school is one of three in Bibb County that began using virtual teachers in the classroom this fall. The school board approved the hire of seven more at its Nov. 17 meeting.
Seventh-grade English at Ballard-Hudson Middle School and second grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School also are being taught remotely, said Bibb County schools Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Paige Busbee.
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An extra teacher will be added at both Ballard-Hudson and Weaver middle schools, one at Appling Middle School and two at Northeast High School after the holiday break, said Mallori Gattis, human resources coordinator for the system. The other two positions have not been finalized.
The participating schools have the most vacancies and principals who were willing to try out the pilot program, Busbee said.
“We actually had a need for it,” said Shandra Yarbrough, principal of King Elementary. The school has two virtual teachers, both in Alabama, for its second-grade class, with each instructing half a day.
“Our second-grade classrooms right now are oversized, so we were having difficulty finding a certified teacher since there is a shortage. We were unsuccessful in finding someone who was a good fit for the school.”
The online staff is provided through a contract with Proximity Learning, an online education provider based in Austin, Texas. At a cost of $48,000 per teacher, the August contract was for $144,000 for three teachers, and the additional hires would be $336,000, according to a school district memorandum. The district will also pay $12,600 for a substitute teacher to be in each classroom as a facilitator.
How it works
The school district tells Proximity what teaching positions are vacant, and Proximity finds professors who are qualified in the subject area and available during the class times.
The company now has a pool of about 250 instructors, who are state-certified and have credentials from an accredited school and five years of experience, said Proximity CEO Evan Erdberg. Many of the teachers are stay-at-home parents or retirees who can’t work a full-time job or come to a campus every day.
“(Students) go from having no teacher or just a substitute to now having a certified, highly-qualified teacher,” Erdberg said. “It’s basically the next thing you can have in the class. Georgia is facing such a teacher shortage.”
Proximity ensures that the required technology is in place for virtual instruction and that the district’s curriculum and grading policies are followed, he said. The academic coach at King Elementary works closely with the virtual teachers so they cover the same material as the school’s other three second-grade classes, Yarbrough said.
The teacher video-conferences into the classroom and the lesson is displayed on a large screen. Students follow along on their laptops, Busbee said. The teacher videos in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to instruct the students and makes and grades all assignments.
“They’re doing a great job,” said Ballard-Hudson Middle principal Eclan David. “On any given day, you can walk to the classroom and see students attentive and listening. It’s probably week three or four for us, and it looks like the newness has not worn off. They’re still fascinated by a lady on the screen who’s teaching them.”
The environment is very interactive, and the teacher can have students watch videos or send them quizzes, Erdberg said. Through a virtual white board, students can raise their hands or be called on to write things, answer questions or do equations. The teacher can see what they’re doing in the classroom and speak with students as a group, individually or through email, said Shikesha Thornton, a long-term substitute for the sixth-grade English classes at Weaver Middle.
A substitute teacher, who does not have to be certified, is in the classroom every day, monitoring students and working with them on assignments on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Busbee said. The two teachers communicate every day, and the sub get hands-on instruction time and can work toward becoming certified while in that role. Thornton, for instance, is very close to earning her English teaching certification.
Even with virtual teachers in the classroom, the school system is always looking for certified, permanent instructors to fill their vacancies. The virtual teacher’s contract ends once that happens, Busbee said.
Ballard-Hudson Middle had a virtual teacher for eighth-grade English at the beginning of the year and was able to an hire an in-classroom teacher two weeks later. Then, the school got another Proximity teacher for seventh-grade English.
King Elementary is planning interviews now and hopes to get a full-time, second-grade teacher in place by January, Yarbrough said.
“Our first choice is to have a highly qualified certified teacher in every classroom,” Busbee said. “But with the teacher shortage, I think Proximity is a great substitute for that. It’s a viable option for districts.”
‘They see the quality’
Across the country, 120 school districts are working with Proximity, Erdberg said. Foreign language, science, math and special education are the subjects most often taught remotely.
This is the first year Georgia has participated. Proximity won Fulton County’s request for proposals, which opened up the door for other districts in the state to work with the company if they desire. Another district is signing on in January.
“At first, (districts) are skeptical, like they are with any new technology,” Erdberg said. “After three or four weeks of seeing our teachers in action, the districts turn around that skeptical mentality almost always. They see the quality of that educator.”
The program has been successful at the Bibb middle schools, which officials expected since the older students are very in tune with technology, Busbee said. They’re used to doing everything online, so the virtual teaching model is not unusual to them.
“Children are resilient,” Weaver Middle principal Sherri Flagg said. “They are more exposed to technology than we were at that age. Now, to have an opportunity to have a teacher in another place be a part of their world is exciting.”
There’s been a learning curve with the virtual teaching model, but overall it’s going well at Weaver Middle, Flagg said.
The technology freezes up every now and then, but staff members are always able resolve the issues within a few minutes, Thornton said. Things have been running relatively smoothly since King Elementary hired a consistent, long-term substitute to supervise its second-graders, Yarbrough said.
The Bibb school district has not heard many negative comments about the teaching agreement, Gattis said. Parents were hesitant at first about someone teaching their children remotely, but they were encouraged after hearing how much students love their teachers. Yarbrough said parents needed reassurance that students would be doing more than just watching TV during class.
Using virtual teachers does not negatively impact the school budget, as the cost of both virtual teacher and sub is about what the school system would pay for a full-time teacher, Busbee said.
“I think our students are being provided with a better quality of education,” Yarbrough said. “Our substitute teachers do a good job of following the plans that the other team members leave for them, but it’s not like having a certified teacher.”
The district would like to have Bibb County teachers or retirees participate in the program in the future, Gattis said. Erdberg said some districts are already using virtual teachers from their own area.