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Aug. 7, 2020

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Virtual school: Teachers want to improve, but training varies

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Aimee Rodriguez Webb works on her computer Tuesday at her dinning room table that she set up as a virtual classroom for a Cobb County school in Marietta, Ga. After a rocky transition to distance learning last spring, Webb is determined to do better this fall.
Aimee Rodriguez Webb works on her computer Tuesday at her dinning room table that she set up as a virtual classroom for a Cobb County school in Marietta, Ga. After a rocky transition to distance learning last spring, Webb is determined to do better this fall. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

After a rocky transition to distance learning last spring, Georgia teacher Aimee Rodriguez Webb is determined to do better this fall. She bought a dry-erase board and a special camera to display worksheets, and she set up her dining room to broadcast school lessons.

“I’m getting myself geared up for what I feel will prepare me and allow me to teach remotely with more fidelity now that I know what I want it to look like,” Rodriguez Webb said.

She and other teachers from suburban Atlanta’s Cobb County School District recently started three weeks of training as they prepare to launch the school year virtually.

With remote learning part of an increasing number of fall reopening plans, districts are facing pressure to improve after many students got left behind this spring in the scramble to close schools during the coronavirus pandemic. But investment in training varies widely. While some school systems have offered new guidance on teaching from afar, many educators feel like they’re on their own.

More affluent school districts have used the summer to train teachers both on technology and getting the most from students who are learning at least partly online, according to Richard Ferdig, an education technology researcher at Kent State University.

Teachers in those districts will perform well, he said.

“For the ‘have-nots,’ I’m concerned — not that they couldn’t do it, but that they weren’t necessarily given the right things to do it,” said Ferdig, who edits the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, which released a special issue and online book dedicated to professional development during the pandemic. “They’ve either been given nothing or they’ve been told, ‘Here’s the tools we bought for you,’ with very little support on how to integrate those tools into” teaching.

Many teachers were frustrated by the unplanned experiment in distance learning, a change most weren’t prepared for given how few schools had virtual components and how little their own college education focused on teaching both in person and online.

A poll of 1,500 Washington teachers said 79 percent wanted more professional development or training before the start of the school year, with 23 percent of those saying they need significant training to be more effective in the fall, said Linda Mullen, spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association, which surveyed its members.

“They want to do better,” Mullen said.

In New York, polls indicated that parent dissatisfaction with distance learning increased as school closures persisted. That was especially true among families in high-needs districts, where instruction was less likely to mirror a typical classroom.

“We kind of just threw them out there and gave them a Zoom link or gave them a Google Hangout or a Google Classroom,” said Dia Bryant, deputy director for The Education Trust-New York, which conducted the polls. “Our teachers deserve better, and we need better professional learning for them.”

Some districts are adding days at the start of the school year for training in distance learning.

Portland public schools are relying on in-house learning and technology teams as they set aside part of the first two weeks of school for training. In western New York, more than 500 teachers from 27 districts signed up for online sessions offered by a public education collaborative body.

Texas officials offered 8,000 principals and other school leaders training on how to guide teachers through the shift to remote or blended learning.

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