Rural school districts have come to a crossroads. Recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers remains a persistent challenge and even a crisis in some states. While stagnant salaries play a role, feelings of isolation, overwhelm, and lack of access to support are among the top reasons teachers cite for leaving rural classrooms.

Education leaders are turning to digital innovations for possible solutions, especially as the cost of technology falls and wireless internet is reaching even the remotest corners of the US. But can our new digital era keep great teachers in rural schools?

Challenges with attracting and keeping teachers in rural schools range from the lack of local human capital to inadequate housing options to the struggle to compete with urban and suburban teacher salaries. But competitive pay is not the biggest factor when it comes to retention: Take a state like Montana, with teacher turnover below national averages despite often being ranked among the bottom states for competitive salaries and job security.

Teachers usually cite other reasons for leaving their posts. The 2015 NCES longitudinal study of beginning teachers found a correlation between how much training and support new teachers received and their likelihood of leaving after their first year. Other studies confirm that access to high-quality professional learning opportunities, along with time for collaboration and planning and an ability to build professional relationships, helps reduce attrition.

Rural teachers have historically gotten the short end of both the training and collaboration sticks. It’s expensive to send rural educators out to professional development workshops, and difficult to find local substitute teachers to cover their classes. Often they are the only teachers of their subjects and grade level bands in their districts--and sometimes the only educator with their particular expertise within a 100-mile radius.

Of course, many of these educators turned to the internet years ago to combat their professional isolation, but with inconsistent success. Online educational materials vary widely in quality, and few platforms exist for virtual collaboration with experts. Simply put, it’s difficult to find human-to-human connections in a sea of clickbait and unvetted resources.

Virtual coaching via video conference (as distinct from pre-recorded modules by subject matter experts) has become a critical solution for rural districts trying to give their teachers both collaboration partners and relevant, ongoing professional development. This is especially true in rural districts that are too small or underfunded to hire instructional coaches full-time.

Amanda Steed, a teacher at Oakdale High School in Morgan County, Tennessee, shared this about her experience video conferencing with a BetterLesson instructional coach: “I work in a small rural school where I am the only one who teaches my classes. I love having someone to bounce ideas with who always listens to my ideas, including any frustrations, and offers real and doable suggestions.”

A recent study conducted by Harvard and Brown University researchers found no differences in the effectiveness of in-person versus virtual coaching, which is particularly important for rural districts looking to lower coaching costs by eliminating the need to bring in expert coaches and consultants from out of town.

Video conference-based coaching is also more scalable for small and rural districts with diverse professional learning needs. For example, BetterLesson’s personalized coaching model makes it possible to pair 20 expert coaches with 20 teachers across K-12 grades and content areas. Internal instructional coaches usually have a specific area of expertise that can make it difficult to support the unique content and pedagogical needs of 20 or more teachers simultaneously.

Technology is helping teachers make learning more relevant and individualized for rural students. Technology also has the potential to help keep teachers in rural schools, but not “technology” void of humans. The power of launching FaceTime on an iPhone or Zoom on a computer is the power of bringing humans together when they’re thousands of miles away. Virtual coaching harnesses the power of collaboration when it connects instructional experts far and wide with the rural educators who need them most.

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