by Hayley Roberts
Director of Teaching and Learning
John Thomas Dye School, Los Angeles, CA
(Understanding how Folio members transitioned to remote learning can provide valuable insight for independent school leaders guiding their faculty to plan for the Fall. This is one in a series of blog posts in which members share their process.)
In March, like many schools around the world, The John Thomas Dye School made the difficult decision to close our campus in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. When we launched our Remote Learning Program, it was quickly apparent that the move from a traditional classroom to a virtual platform was going to be a challenge for many of our faculty. Not only were our teachers facing the many challenges of teaching through a screen, but they had also lost the benefit of collaborating with their co-teacher or asking our IT staff for in-person help using our new digital platforms. We immediately recognized that technology might very quickly become a major obstacle for our faculty, preventing some from continuing to offer a robust educational experience to our students. Teachers’ skills were vastly different – some teachers were able to quickly adapt and understand the new digital platforms, while other teachers needed help just to log in.
While planning our transition to remote learning, we looked at the big picture – creating a structure that worked for everyone and that could evolve to meet the needs of teachers, students, and parents, who would be supporting their learners at home. From the beginning, we were prepared to make revisions and adjustments to our Remote Learning Program, as needed. We initially rolled out our Remote Learning Program in mid-March, utilizing the Seesaw platform to manage assignments and share video lessons, and using Google Meet to for classroom check-ins.
We quickly realized that Seesaw was a very effective platform for our elementary-aged students, but that Google Meet was not the best option for our school community. In Google Meet, teachers could only see a few students at a time and couldn’t mute all students with the click of a button (an important feature when you are managing a classroom of five and six-year-old students). Teachers quickly shared that they wanted to be able to see all of their students on the screen at once in a gallery mode. We knew we needed to quickly adapt to implement another video conferencing platform that would better suit the needs of our teachers and students. It was also becoming more and more apparent which teachers were adept at adapting to the new technology platforms, and which teachers were not.
In order to provide quality activities and learning experiences for students, we knew we had to find a way to help our teachers develop their technology skills. While some of our teachers have more than two decades of teaching experience, our Remote Learning Program created a new teaching and learning environment for everyone. It was as if all our teachers had become first-year teachers again!
Two weeks after we launched our Remote Learning Program, we had a two-week Spring Break. We knew that with faculty stuck at home, having canceled Spring Break plans, many would be interested in using the down time to work on their technology skills. Anticipating this, we rolled out opportunities for teachers to take advantage of professional development. We chose four main areas for skills development: an in-house Zoom Master Program, the Seesaw Ambassador Program, the Google Certification for Educators, and the Apple Teacher Certification. Additionally, we created an incentive program for teachers to develop their own professional development. We encouraged our teachers to become champions of technology for student learning.
After our first few bumpy days using Google Meet, we decided that after Spring Break, we would transition from Google Meet to Zoom for class video meetings. We made this decision as the Zoom education platform offers more tools for teachers to collaborate with students: breakout rooms, annotation, screen shares, and more. While these are great features, we knew some of our teachers would need more time to learn about the features and practice using them. With this in mind, we developed a “Zoom Master Program,” awarding our own Zoom Certificates to teachers who demonstrated their mastery of these features by filming themselves using each of these tools.
We also encouraged teachers to become Seesaw Ambassadors, showing proficiency in the Seesaw platform, sharing in the community of global educators utilizing Seesaw, and helping to inform the future of the platform.
The school incentivized these trainings. If teachers took part in activities and became certified they were rewarded with their choice of an Amazon gift card to buy classroom supplies or a document camera.
Teachers were also encouraged to become certified as Level 1 or Level 2 Google Certified Educators or to become certified Apple Teachers. We have used both Google and Apple devices and platforms for many years and we want teachers to become skilled on the devices and platforms that work best for them. We reimbursed them for the cost of the certification tests, and we offered a gift card for their time.
While Spring Break technology professional development was not required, 45% of our faculty chose to do some kind of training. The impact of this training has been exponential. Thanks to our co-teaching model, the teachers who learned new technology skills are impacting 100% of our teachers – how we are using technology with all teachers and students. The engagement level of students has increased; teachers are now able to use even the simple Zoom features to annotate and screen share. Teachers and students are making the most of features they didn’t know existed, like non-verbal feedback.
In the weeks before we offered these professional development opportunities for our teachers, we were constantly troubleshooting one-off technology issues. Now, teachers are often able to resolve their own issues and are comfortable designing instruction organically with classroom tools they are familiar with, rather than being forced to utilize a tool an administrator had imposed on them. This has been a key shift across all grade levels and disciplines.
At our school, providing teachers with the opportunities to be experts in their field removed the new technology hurdle. Knowing the ins and outs of the technological platforms they have quickly had to adopt has allowed them to shift their focus to offering our students a rich educational experience, even when we are all at home. Each day, we ask our students to come to the classroom with an open mind, and tout the virtues of being “lifelong learners.” This spring, our teachers were able to lead by example, growing themselves, and in turn offering the best classroom experience possible for our students.