Educators’ Advice to Prepare for Back-to-School

July 30, 2020

Educators’ Advice to Prepare for Back-to-School

Equity. Diverse learning modalities. Grace. Learn what members of NIET’s educator advisory board are prioritizing as they look to an unprecedented year ahead.  

The impact of COVID-19 has caused every district to approach 2020-21 in different ways. Yet schools share one common goal: to provide all students with the opportunity to excel, whether they participate in person or virtually. Spring and summer have allowed for deep reflection and resolve. What are educators prioritizing as they reimagine education in an uncertain world?

We asked members of NIET’s educator advisory board to share their reflections. Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Chris Burkett, Gamecock EdQuarters Executive Director, University of South Carolina
Corrie Callahan, Master Teacher, Perry Township, Indiana
Angela Davis, Executive Master Teacher, St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools, Louisiana
Dr. Araceli Montoya, Principal, Avondale Elementary School District #44, Arizona
Lauren Moore, Master Teacher, Goshen Community Schools, Indiana
Sarah Tomic, Teacher and Instructional Coach, Harrison School District, Colorado

What are you prioritizing as you prepare for 2020-21? What are you learning?

I am prioritizing people. If their human needs aren't met, other needs can't be met.
Corrie Callahan, Master Teacher, Perry Township, Indiana

CB: We are prioritizing hybrid learning. As we work within our university system and with partners spanning preschool through 12th grade, we are building plans that are flexible and allow for student learning in as many modalities as possible. This process includes learning new collaborative platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Blackboard Ultra, and how to use them to their capacity to transform learning in a multitude of scenarios − face-to-face, virtual, or a mix of both. 

CC: As I head into the 2020-21 school year, I'm prioritizing people. It's so easy to get caught up in data and numbers, but our teachers and students are people first. I want to prioritize their human needs over their professional and academic ones. If their human needs aren't met, other needs can't be met. 

LM: My district is prioritizing differentiation in an effort to meet the needs of all students, whether in person or online. This is also important when thinking about teachers and their needs. We want to keep a pulse on students, teachers, and the community to best differentiate support and instruction.

AD: Equity is at the forefront of our planning. Due to COVID-19, we realized that there was a lack of equity in terms of teaching and learning throughout the school district. For example, only two of our schools were equipped with one-to-one technology. These schools had less difficulty when transitioning to virtual learning. This was not the case for the rest of our schools. We have prioritized ensuring that funding utilized within the district is in alignment with these needs. Next, prioritizing the safety of our schools as we plan on an August return. K-3rd grade will return to a traditional learning environment, while 4th-12th will use a hybrid model. Finally, we are prioritizing the instructional needs of our schools. We have delayed the start of school to ensure that our teachers are prepared to teach in a hybrid environment.

AM: I am familiarizing myself more with blended learning. I have been researching distance learning and watching webinars to study what good instruction consists of. What are the best practices we should incorporate into our vision? NIET's planning and support guide has been helpful to identify "look-fors" to deliver distance learning effectively.

I am also working with our staff on how to simultaneously teach in person and online, and what those skills will entail. Our parent survey showed that 60% of our students will participate in 100% distance learning, so this training is important. Given that state law requires us to deliver synchronous instruction for at least 4 1/2 hours per day, we are establishing norms that are more conducive to a learning environment. These include minimizing noise disruptions at home so that all students can easily engage in class discussions.

ST: As an instructional coach, I'm prioritizing effectively preparing my teachers to deliver content in person as well as virtually. I am also focusing on training teachers on positive reinforcement strategies and how to create a strong and supportive classroom community, both in person and virtually.

What is your greatest piece of advice for other educators?

COVID-19 has allowed us to take a hard look at inequities. It is up to us to take action.
Angela Davis, Executive Master Teacher, St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools, Louisiana

LM: No matter the platform, keep good instruction in the forefront. Students deserve good, quality instruction no matter how it is delivered. The planning and thinking beforehand may need to be tweaked depending on the format, but high-quality teaching is still the most valuable aspect for students.

ST: Focus on relationship-building. Without mutual respect and care, instruction, no matter how well planned, will never reach its potential.

AM: Visualize what you want your plan to look like, and give yourself grace and time to think it through. Research best practices in distance learning to help you. If you don’t have a set idea, it will be difficult for your teachers to formalize what they should see. I would also ask yourself, "What are you doing mentally and physically to keep yourself healthy and energized?"

CB: Remain flexible. This was necessary last spring, but I suspect even more so this fall. With parental choice of delivery method, educator flexibility will be essential. Most districts are offering a 100% online option as well as hybrid/face-to-face options. My hope is that all educators feel supported as they are flexible to meet the needs of students and parents this fall. 

AD: Utilize this opportunity to do what is right for kids. COVID-19 has allowed us to take a hard look at the inequities. Now that we have diagnosed the issues, it is up to us to take action.

CC: Take care of yourselves. Your work is so important, but don't forget that you are, too! 

What is your biggest takeaway or lesson learned from the past 3-4 months?

I can't say enough about having an incredible staff. My teachers are willing to jump in and try new things. We are learning and growing together.
Dr. Araceli Montoya, Principal, Avondale Elementary School District #44, Arizona

ST: Our students' families are struggling more than we ever realized. We need to be constantly checking in with families to ensure that they are receiving the support they need, even in regard to the most basic of needs. 

AD: Balance is the key to success. Also, strategic planning is critical for district leadership.

CB: Teachers are even more resilient than most thought. The fact that the teachers across the nation were able to move curriculum online and serve students remotely with little preparation illustrated to the nation the dedication and heart of our noble profession. As districts make tough choices for the fall, I hope all public education constituents – teachers, parents, students, and the broader community – will make educating students in the safest way possible paramount. 

LM: Allow grace. Be ready to give yourself, your students, your colleagues, your parents, and your administrators grace. The situation is not ideal for anyone, and we can never fully know the experience of others.

AM: We really had to figure out how to do diagnostics for our little ones. We are comfortable with determining levels for 3rd grade and up, but we need a system to better identify developmental reading levels for our younger kids. One of our teachers has experimented with entering data through the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) system online. We are refining those efforts.

We also learned that students tended to be more engaged when teachers used PowerPoint beyond lecturing. It's easier to grab students' attention in the physical classroom. Now we have to think more innovatively about using visuals. For example, when delivering a lesson on phonemic awareness, teachers might put Elkonin boxes up on the screen.

Finally, I can't say enough about having an incredible staff. My teachers are willing to jump in, try new things, and if they don't work, look at something else. We are learning and growing together.

CC: Educators are, by nature, problem-solvers. We were faced with a huge problem and found solutions. We learned the technology, found the funding, and did what was needed to be done for kids. I couldn't be prouder to be a part of this incredible group of professionals.