COVID-19 Resources

Trial by Fire: Teachers Helping Teachers

This group of current and former tech-savvy educators is donating one-on-one advisory time to help their fellow teachers make it through the pivot to remote learning.

This group of current and former tech-savvy educators is donating one-on-one advisory time to help their fellow teachers make it through the pivot to remote learning.

Up until recently, Ready Learner One was a company made up of educators who traveled around the world, consulting on how to support immersive and emergent technology in learning in education and the corporate space. By mid-March, however, co-founders Micah Shippee, Christine Lion-Bailey and Jesse Lubinsky recognized that a whole bunch of teachers were going to have to adopt technology almost overnight to deliver remote instruction in the time of pandemic and that some of them were going to need help fast making that transition.

These three have educator chops. Shippee, a father of three, is both the RL1 chief executive officer and an eighth-grade social studies teacher in a Syracuse school. Lion-Bailey serves as RL1's chief strategy officer and director of technology and innovation at a district in the greater New York City area. And Lubinsky, also a father of three, is RL1's chief learning officer; he previously spent seven years in the classroom as a teacher and 11 years as a directory of technology and innovation for a New York state district.

Even as they were making the shift to remote schooling with their own children, the trio were seeing posts on social media from educators around the world volunteering to help their fellow teachers on the fly. So RL1 decided to systemize the process. The company created a scheduling system that would allow people to book a block of time where they could get free one-on-one support. Then it tapped its extensive network of tech-savvy educators to volunteer. "Within a day, we had our entire schedule filled for two weeks with educators from around the world who were willing to donate an hour or two of their time," Lubinsky said. Now, coverage is available 24/7.

Currently, about two-dozen people are volunteering their time. As educators sign up for help, RL1 coordinates behind the scenes, making sure that everyone has someone to talk to. "What we didn't want was educators out there feeling that they were totally isolated and alone with this burden of expectation, while their own kids are in the other room and if they had a question or two, they didn’t know who to go talk to. We said, we may not have all the answers, but we want you to know you're not alone," said Lubinsky.

Likewise, he added, it's giving those educators stuck at home who want to help a way to do so. "They want to make a difference. They don’t have medical training to help at the hospital. But in an hour or two of time at the computer helping other educators support kids, that's going to make a huge difference. We have educators coming together and providing resources to each other with no expectation of anything in return other than trying to help their peers."

This approach is different from standard professional development, noted Shippee. "I could go do an hour presentation on something I'm an expert in. But that may not be what someone wants, because the needs of every teacher are so different. So, we said, 'Sign up for one of our timeslots and talk to one of our experts.' We don’t know if we're going to have all the answers, but you're not going to be alone, and if we don’t know the answer, we'll help you find someone who does--or at least get you to the resources you might need to take that next step."

Because they've seen teachers participate in sessions and then come back and book another time with someone else, Shippee is fairly certain "people are getting something out of the support."

The Kinds of Questions Teachers Ask

While the support requests are often unique, the essential needs have a few common themes.

A lot of the questions have to do with the use of Google Classroom. While many teachers were already familiar with the program, explained Lubinsky, their use was limited to storing assignments and documents. "Now, they're being asked to use this as the hub of all learning they are doing in the classroom. Some of them are having difficulty with that transition from using it as a supplementary tool to support what they were doing in the classroom to doing everything there, including posting Zoom or Google Hangouts."

With the advent of "Zoom bombing," in which strangers hijack Zoom sessions meant for learning, teachers began asking about the "proper security settings" for video conferencing.

Teachers in New York City were facing a double quandary. Some of the districts there were giving out Chromebooks to make sure students had technology to take home. Teachers were not only being asked to transition to the use of Google Classroom, but they may not have had any training in it in the first place.

In probably the most "technically complex request," a teacher reached out wanting to figure out strategies to relay information to families. In that case Lubinsky stepped in and routed the educator to a third-party tool that would allow linking Google Classroom to the district's student information system.

In some cases, the volunteers are directing people to popup sources of help, such as the Facebook group, "Educator Temporary School Closure for Online Learning." When Lubinsky joined, there were about 1,500 members. Now the private group, created just a month ago and intended solely for educators, has more than 124,000 members. (Separate groups have been set up for administrators and parents.)

Similarly, to help teachers navigate the flotsam-laden waters of ed tech, RL1 launched a blog series, which the company has committed to running daily for at least three weeks. Each post covers a different topic related to remote learning--video creation tools, managing a workflow through Google Classroom, running virtual field trips--and provides resources that can help teachers pull off lessons.

Advice for Instruction

Cut lessons in half. Beyond the technical help, teachers are struggling to figure out how to convert their standard lessons into shorter ones. A colleague in China who was a few weeks ahead of them in making the shift to online schooling recommended "very early on," to go with a lesson structure "that was half as long as usual," said Shippee. "If it's a 40-minute lesson, make it 20 minutes." How is that possible? Just consider all the time in the physical classroom expended on "social breaks, transitions and conversations," that don't happen in the distance learning world, he pointed out. "To think, 'Well, I teach 40 minutes, therefore I need my students to be staring at my content on their devices for 40 minutes,' that's irrational. It's bad pedagogy."

Forget about innovative technology. Teachers are looking for help with what they already have on hand right now. "Yes, they may be familiar with Classroom. Yes, they may be familiar with Hangouts. But they haven't had to run their full instructional day through this type of tool while their kids are in the background. Don't use this time to impose further stress on teachers by recommending ed tech outside their immediate realm.

Turn to modified flipped. Consider recording mini-lessons and assigning those to be done by the students on their own, then spending Zoom or Hangouts time "answering questions and doing work with your students," Lubinsky suggested. A recent lesson Shippee gave his eighth graders, for example, incorporated a video about how the United States mobilized for World War II and how businesses changed what they were producing to match needs for the war effort. "Students watch a six-minute video and then they go into their microblog in Google Classroom to share how people doing that today," he explained. "I want them to talk about garment factories making COVID-19 masks and people at home making face shields with their 3D printers. I'm hoping they make that connection." In total, that's about 10 or 20 minutes of work.

Encourage teachers to leave perfection behind. Teachers are "professionals," said Lubinsky. "They want things to be perfect, pristine." Recently, he was helping a media specialist figure out how to get a podcast going with fellow teachers; but he found she was getting "into the weeds" on using special effects and close editing. His advice: "Let go of the perfection expectations you have for yourself, because that's what's going to drive you crazy and bring you down. We just need to be able to get content out there. How can we get that done?" Right now, even as teachers are telling their parents, "Be easy on yourself," he said, they too "need to reflect and modify those expectations for themselves."

Shippee called the move to remote teaching and learning a "trial by fire." But at the end of it, he said, he believes instructional practices will be stronger than they've ever been for two reasons. First, he said, "I spend a lot of time helping my students with the workflow, and there's a sense of learned helplessness in the classroom: 'I don’t get it, so Dr. Shippee is going to walk over and show me what to click on.' They're figuring things out at home, and I now know what they can do without me. That's going to increase what I ask of them when I see them face to face." Second, now that he and his colleagues are all using the same system as a communication tool, "that's going to help my students stay organized, it's going to help us [teachers] stay organized, and it's going to increase collaboration."

If you're a teacher who wants help from another educator, you can sign up through this Calendly scheduler. Timeslots currently officially run 15 minutes.