In our district, it has become obvious that a return to what school once was will now come in phases. And that means an interim period where we are, as my principal recently remarked, building a plane while also flying it.
My student teacher and I departed that flight in phase one of our district’s return to school policy a few weeks ago. Our typical day looks like this: We have 31 students including mainstreamed students from a special education classroom. We have 6 students present physically in the classroom and 25 online virtually from 8:30-12. At 12, physical students are dismissed and students online work asynchronous online. From 1-2 pm we have groups of physical students (6) who do either math or ELA in the classroom, and also small groups of students on the computer (4-6) depending on need and ability.
Because we, the student teacher and I, were the only teaching staff for our grade level who could be present in the classroom, other teachers arranged for their students to be in-person with us. However, we soon discovered a few realities in our efforts to help, to differentiate, and to include.
In our case, three things become obvious quickly:
1) If we were going to do any real teaching, then students from other classrooms would not be best suited physically in our room.
2) Kids are still kids.
3) We need more people.
Here’s what we discovered as a guide teacher and a student teacher in a hybrid model of instruction.
“I was bored”
One of the biggest discoveries came at the end of our first day. Some students were placed in a classroom with a para-educator when the primary teacher was off-site. We learned quickly from our para-edcuators that either they could teach students some material physically in class, or they were going to assist the child as they learned on the computer. But they weren’t going to be able to do both very well. Not surprisingly, when the para educators assisted kids with their virtual duties, many kids said they would rather have been home, as we discovered by the number of children not interested in returning when paras simply assisted the online instruction.
This discovery may seem to be common sense but it has profound importance. It seems obvious now that school sites will need personnel at school to fill in for teachers who cannot yet return. These people, who often earn far less, need to be paid and given time to plan alongside teachers so that they can take students into a real breakout group on-site and in-person. In this way, they can actually teach, not monitor. If in-person instructors, like paras, do not feel comfortable teaching material, and why should they if they do not have time to plan as teachers do, then this is a wasted opportunity. Furthermore, this may seem trivial but students’ affect should remain a high priority for our schools. If we essentially put them in detention, kids will internalize the opposite of what we want them to feel about school. Affect effects motivation, motivation affects performance. Performance will not be lost equally in classrooms across the nation who are unequally affected by the move to online instruction. We must consider the impact of under-utilizing these personnel resources.
For us, the ideal scenario for a hybrid model was to have the student teacher use the physical space as a breakout room during virtual learning while I taught virtually on the computer. This means that physically present children may be more heterogenously grouped based on the reality of who can be on campus, but it has great benefits. First, students selected to be on site were there because they wanted to do physical activities on paper, wanted to feel part of a classroom again. Second, this allowed the physical instructor–in our case the student teacher–an opportunity to create anchor charts, display mentor texts, post work, use shared spaces in the room that the students could refer back to as scaffolds when they needed. Finally, these students physically being in a breakout room allowed the teacher leading lessons virtually to focus on content, rather than technology issues. It essentially reduced the classroom load for a while so the virtual teacher could focus on students and content, meanwhile giving students who were physically present the learning modality they had come for in the first place. We think teachers in hybrid models who have a strong para-educator could replicate this structure.
Students online need frequent and short breaks in between tasks. Students in their seats do too but without something enjoyable to do, they feel constrained. We learned that books, puzzles, and art stations disinfected and kept separate at student stations was ideal. Also, allowing students to “take a walk” or to “go out into the quad and remove their mask for a bit” was important. We also found fun ways of moving them safely from the room or having them participate in distance learning lessons like PE or music. Whenever possible we used outdoor spaces safely.
For us, the ideal structure became obvious. Whoever led lessons virtually needed to do so quickly in a launch, explore, summarize type model. This allowed plenty of time to break up and break out into physical groups and virtual ones. Ideally, we feel that a second para-educator was ideal for this situation to break up the virtual load allowing differentiation. While the student teacher taught physically in class, I could teach an advanced group of learners and allow a virtual visitor such as a resource pushin teacher, a para-educator, or the like, to teach a small group of the neediest students. In this way, we could differentiate learning for as long as possible. Once back as a whole group during the summary portion of the lesson, we could guide students to lead discussions just like we used to do. These moments became highlights of the lesson and led to deeper understanding. This occurred simultaneously between physical and virtual students, which has been both rewarding and engaging.
We realize that the idea of two additional people assigned to a single teacher may seem difficult, but if we consider the many positions qualified to work with children at a school site, we think strong leadership and strong professional communities at a school site may be able to create a schedule to assist teachers if a structure such as what we have found effective were created and implemented.
And in conversations with our para-educator colleagues, we realized that a few other changes at site, perhaps long overdue, needed to happen as well.
For example, para-educators are often not given or paid time to plan with teachers. In a hybrid model this is set up for failure. Simply having para-educators stand behind kids while they are on Zoom, or have them stand by while kids sit in detention like setting at school should not be a standard for anyone’s child, nor seen as a good use of excellent personnel. In order though to best utilize their skills, paras like teachers need time to plan, prepare materials, and collaborate with the teachers prior to the lesson implementation. Many para-educators have not been trained or given proper access or paid time to locate and prepare materials. Furthermore, teachers and paras have not been given appropriate guidelines in how to work together during this time, and so a “feel it out” process begins that could otherwise be better organized.
Furthermore, a classroom without at least one assigned para-educator will not be able to implement a breakout room in any way aligned to a lesson in a hybrid model. On days when my student teacher is absent, these structure breaks down completely. Additionally, schools not using personnel to be in virtual or physical classrooms in a hybrid model are wasting huge opportunities to allow for differentiation based on data and assessment.
On days I am alone, I can either teach online, or teach a small group in person, but I can’t do both. One para-educator or one resource teacher should be the norm in a hybrid model by necessity. But, in classes who have included special education students, it must be the norm that a person suited to work alongside students with special needs be available for them to do that as well. Without this support, due to the reality of the heterogenous grouping that will exist for both the virtual teacher and the physical one in a hybrid model, we should not expect included students to be able to have proper support. In conversations with colleagues around the country, this seems to be occurring en masse and it does not have to if schools get creative with staff or if districts hire more personnel.
Expecting one teacher to teach a hybrid model with sporadic support from a secondary adult will continue to place an undue burden on the parents of those families who now feel as though they must help the child work alongside their general education peers–not to mention the teacher attempting it. Differentiation through breakout groups will also make the experience of being in school far from enjoyable or in a modality students seek. It is our experience that these students are struggling the most, and they do not need to be. But it will require personnel, money, and a change of thinking–not just after the pandemic but now in the interim especially.
It’s going to take a village to bring everyone back, and it’s time now to consider the interim phases that are coming for at least several more months. It’s become completely obvious to us in just a matter of weeks that schools will need to consider using personnel to put as many people alongside children in physical spaces, and to break up virtual classes into smaller units as possible. Hiring more para-educators seems like a good start, but for them to do their best, they will need to be paid and to be included in real planning and curriculum creation as well as how we consider the way children need to and want to learn during this crisis. We must consider the basic needs of students, and their parents’ wishes, during this interim period of returning to schools, and not just get by until we are back to normal.