Lessons learned from NIET's partnership with South Carolina
In response to their schools' transition to virtual learning this spring, the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) quickly moved to make free, high-quality virtual instruction training available to thousands of teachers and principals statewide – starting in summer 2020. As part of its plan, SCDE engaged with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), a longtime partner and collaborator on the South Carolina Teaching Standards 4.0 Rubric, to align the support with an instructional resource educators are already familiar with. This effort, funded partly through the federal CARES Act, is now providing thousands of teachers and leaders with strategies, tools, and resources they can use immediately to support student learning.
"When the state approached us in early summer, we had been training educators across the country on virtual instruction as early as the spring and were well-positioned to help South Carolina on a large scale," said NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen. "We had developed a virtual companion tool to our K-12 Teaching Standards Rubric, which was a perfect fit to build on principles that educators already knew and could apply directly in their schools."
As a result, so far nearly 1,500 South Carolina teachers and 600 leaders have received in-depth support on virtual instructional practices – with more professional learning options to come in spring 2021.
High Demand, High Impact
For this partnership, NIET designed a series of 90-minute synchronous sessions that span the spectrum of instruction – from preparation to delivery to creating an engaging virtual classroom. There are two tracks available to educators: one for teachers, which focuses on content that is directly applicable to virtual classroom instruction, and one for leaders, which focuses on virtual coaching approaches that are connected to those instructional strategies. All sessions model the engaging and interactive virtual strategies that teachers are encouraged to use with their students.
Timing has been structured to accommodate educators' schedules. There were options for attending in the weeks before the school year began, and now there are a variety of times during school, after school, and on evenings and weekends. Educators also earn recertification credit toward their license for participating.
The session offered very engaging delivery of timely strategies for making virtual learning a viable option for today's students.South Carolina District Director of Instructional Technology
Trainings have been in such high demand that about 2,000 educators registered in the first week alone, and NIET expanded capacity to offer nearly 150 sessions in the fall semester. The state also invited higher education faculty and site coordinators, as well as aspiring teachers, to attend – and 16 institutions so far have registered to participate.
Feedback from educators has been overwhelmingly positive. They report leaving sessions with practical knowledge, clarity, and the confidence to be effective in a virtual setting.
"This session taught the ability to take what we already know and do in the classroom and apply it to the same level of excellence in a virtual setting," a middle school teacher said.
"The presentation made me feel comfortable enough to ask questions that could help the teachers I serve," said a math instructional coach. "My teachers struggle with giving quality feedback virtually. The facilitators were phenomenal and actually provided links that were helpful to my colleagues."
How States Can Take Action
For many districts, virtual learning in some fashion is here to stay. Here are key actions states can take to strengthen their teachers' effectiveness in a virtual classroom, based on the feedback from and impact of South Carolina's initiative.
The reflection questions solicited some wonderful, practical suggestions from the participants. Focusing on the most essential indicators gave me a launch point for helping our educators figure out where to begin in what seems like an overwhelming and daunting task of transitioning to online instruction.South Carolina Leader
1. Align virtual training to state efforts that increase educator effectiveness.
Offering virtual training is important, but it is more effective and sustainable if it is connected to state efforts or systems already in place – like an observation rubric, evaluation system, or instructional coaching protocol. That way, support can build on the state initiatives rather than be seen as a separate one-off training. Educators then will more likely understand expectations and make connections with their own practice and students.
"They were very clear about strategies and how to understand and identify the standards and procedures that work in virtual classes. Actually, it also helps face-to-face learning," said an elementary Spanish teacher. "I loved the way they integrated in the rubrics to share what we need to work on and why. It makes it easier to understand."
2. Open up sessions to educators at all levels.
Invest in training a large number of educators in a variety of roles – classroom teachers, principals, and higher education faculty and aspiring teachers. This will help states address a variety of needs and create cohesion in language and communication, principles, approaches, and goals. Publicize the sessions widely on the state's website, in the media, and in newsletters – and encourage attendees to spread the word.
"Any educator at any stage of his/her career could have felt comfortable in the trainings. I am encouraging the teachers I support to register," said a high school teacher.
"Offer more sessions like this and advertise more broadly," said a special education teacher. "I know lots of educators who would benefit! These were the best online workshops/trainings I've attended in years!"
3. Plan for principals and leaders to "go first" and attend at higher rates.
Principals and teachers want hands-on strategies that directly impact the classroom, as well as suggestions for coaching, observation, evaluation, and support. They also often want to participate in a training ahead of their educators so they can maximize the impact the professional learning has in their school. South Carolina's sessions are an opportunity to sharpen educators' skills as instructional coaches, and district and school leaders in the South Carolina-NIET partnership have enrolled and attended at proportionally higher rates. Planning these sessions early and intentionally will ensure that states meet leaders' needs, demonstrate the critical role leaders play in the process, and give them the opportunity to take the sessions first – and then motivate their teachers to do the same.
Offer more sessions like this and advertise more broadly. I know lots of educators who would benefit! These were the best online workshops and trainings I've attended in years!South Carolina Special Education Teacher
"The reflection questions solicited some wonderful, practical suggestions from the participants," said one leader who participated in some of the first sessions. "I got so many great ideas to use in my role as a coach of teachers and administrators. I think this was a bonus of the synchronous format that would have been lost if these sessions were presented as self-paced modules. Focusing on the most essential indicators gave me a launch point for helping our educators figure out where to begin in what seems like an overwhelming and daunting task of transitioning to online instruction."
4. Make sessions interactive and relevant for educators.
This support is not "sit-and-get." Use of chat rooms, polls, annotate tools, and breakout sessions help to gauge educators' needs and foster interaction with each other and the specialists. NIET's sessions also include several videos of real teachers demonstrating excellent virtual instruction, and teachers are hungry for even more examples. Provide lesson plans, tools, and other resources that educators can customize immediately and reference year-round.
"The session offered very engaging delivery of timely strategies for making virtual learning a viable option for today's students," said a director of instructional technology.
"The documents created for each session were great! Now I keep the Rubric Companion Tool for Virtual Instruction on my desk so I can reference it easily," said a middle school instructional coach.
5. Track attendance by district to identify who may need more support, and administer surveys to plan next steps.
Providing large-scale training can give states a fuller picture of their educators' needs, where to target extra support, and how to adjust the content along the way. Perhaps there are particular regions that need more attention, or a need to create more support for specific roles, subjects, or grade levels. Surveys can further pinpoint where educators may need help, particularly as they get more experienced with virtual and hybrid learning. Both strategies have made the NIET-South Carolina partnership successful and are informing the content for the spring sessions.
Large-scale training, done right, can demystify virtual instruction, make it more accessible, and help enhance educators' everyday practice in the classroom.
In addition to the partnership with SCDE, NIET is working with the Louisiana Department of Education on statewide trainings. South Carolina educators can visit the NIET site to sign up for live sessions through May 2021. Louisiana educators interested in sessions during the spring semester can learn more on the NIET site.