This year, classrooms are opening with a combination of optimism and uncertainty. On one hand, this is the first truly “normal” back-to-school opening since the fall of 2019. But on the other, teacher burnout, educator shortages, and mass teacher resignations have plagued districts and states across the nation. Pandemic-related learning loss and student mental health remain among educators’ top concerns.
But, ready or not, back-to-school season is here. Seven educators shed light on their own back-to-school experiences, from early childhood education to STEAM and robotics and teacher recruitment.
Here’s what a return to classrooms looks like for these educators:
Hiring and Retaining Teachers
At Greenville ISD, we have approximately 500 teachers and have about six more positions to fill before the students arrive August 17th. In a small district like ours, that many vacancies means that we’re looking at student-teacher ratios of above the expected 22:1 ratio.
To fill that gap, we have adopted three strategies. First, we have been recruiting people who have bachelor’s degrees and enrolling them into an alternative program to earn their teaching credentials. Second, we have been taking advantage of a program that allows districts of innovation such as ours to hire CTE teachers and then get them certified. Third, we are looking at bringing back retired teachers to work part time—as little as a half day each week—just to ensure we have a teacher for every classroom.
To keep that gap from growing throughout the year, we are offering retention incentives. Teachers will receive a $1,000 bonus for starting with us in September, another $500 if they’re still here at Christmas, and a final $500 award if they are still here at spring break.
As part of our IGNITE TSL grant project, our teachers participate in regular intentional walkthroughs, “coaching for success” sessions, and professional learning communities. By the time we’re into the second six weeks of the school year, all of our teachers will be trained on capturing video of themselves in the classroom to upload into ADVANCEfeedback for self-reflection and the increased confidence that comes with it.
To ensure that our teachers feel safe on campus, we have added front door cameras to our campuses, and our board has authorized police officers from our school district’s police department to be present on each campus and added an alarm for any propped open doors.
Finally, we’re trying to increase retention by improving our culture. To focus on the social and emotional needs of our staff and students, we hired a new school psychologist. We are also checking in each morning to make sure teachers have everything they need for the day—and even looking at teacher assignments, such as morning and afternoon duty, to see if we can make them one on/one off to give teachers regular breaks from those additional duties.
Welcoming Parents Back to the Preschool Classroom
Over the past few years, COVID forced Brooklyn Preschool of Science to rethink and reshape how we approached the start of the school year. Now that we are in a better place, we are excited to return to our roots of starting the year with a beautiful community-building framework. This framework is broken down into three phases.
Phase 1: Our teachers set up a one-on-one Zoom with all of their families. The beauty of this is it gives teachers an excellent opportunity to get to know their future students. Hear about their strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes is crucial to a successful start. This also allows families to ask any questions they may have, which eases the anxiety that the beginning of the year can cause.
Phase 2 is what we call “stay and play,” and it takes place over two days right after Labor Day. This has happened outdoors the past two years, but now we will finally be opening our doors to our families. They’ll have the opportunity to come into the school with their children and stay and play. That’s it! Giving kids and families a chance to play, hold animals, and build robots creates a wonderful sense of security for all.
Phase 3 is the final part of our transition, and it happens over three days. The first day is a two-hour morning where all families will come into the schools and meet each other. Parents must stay the entire time. Singing songs and partaking in activities will allow parents and children to meet one another. The second day is a two-hour morning where parents stay for an hour and then have one kiss, one hug, and one goodbye. Parents will leave for the first time and give teachers the chance to do their magic and help with all the separation anxiety. The third and final day is parents bringing their children into the classroom to say goodbye.
After two years of parents saying goodbye at the front door, we’re excited to be back to parents dropping off kids in the classroom. This allows everyone to see each other daily and communicate about the ins and outs of the school day.
Carmelo Piazza is the executive director/educational director of Brooklyn Preschool of Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Integrating Robotics and SEL
We both come from schools that use a responsive classroom approach, so we’ll spend the first six weeks of school setting up our routines. It seems like a large amount of time to invest, but elementary students need to learn how to go up and down the stairs, how to line up, and not to spin in your chair. If we do it at the beginning of the year, we’re better than if we have to go back and explain things.
Integrating SEL at the beginning of the year also pays off in the long run because students practice those skills all year, and they get better and better at raising their hands, asking for help, expressing their feelings, and working through a solution.
As STEAM educators, we have both found robotics to be a natural vehicle for SEL. In fact, your students can practice skills in all five of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL’s) five core principles through robotics before they even start coding. These principles include relationship skills, social awareness, self-awareness; self-management; and responsible decision-making.
The robot that we use, KIBO, comes in ready-to-go kits that include many different parts, such as wooden programming blocks, sensors and modules, wheels, and motors. To inspire social-emotional learning, all you have to do is put different pieces in different baskets, such as all the motors in one spot. By asking the students to get their own parts, you can inspire all kinds of deliberate conversations about sharing pieces. Students need to think about their own needs to finish the project and the needs of their peers who are trying to gather the same resources. This leads them to communicate with one another, advocate for themselves, think about the consequences of these decisions for their project, and communicate all this information with their peers. By combining robotics and SEL, we look forward to starting next year with a combination of efficiency and excitement.
Megan Bounit is the director of educational technology for Wellesley Public Schools and can be reached at email@example.com.
Barbara Tennyson is an instructional technology specialist at Needham Public Schools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knowing the Code
This school year is shaping up to look different than in the years past. We thought this past year was going to be “normal,” but the lingering effects of students missing the fourth nine weeks of instruction in 2020 have taught everyone about being flexible and how to adapt to any situation. This coming year we are looking to focus on Tier 1 instruction with an emphasis on foundation
skills to build our learning capacity with unique engagement techniques.
We will continue to focus intensely on the “Core Four” (review, guided practice, dictation, and transfer) with the Reading Horizons Discovery phonics curriculum. By hitting the restart button, we want to perfect our phonics instruction to continue raising our phonics scores. Teachers will
be emphasizing “knowing the code.” When students “know the code,” they can speak a language that now doesn’t seem confusing or a mystery. Our teachers will implement the Sound City sound wall instruction in kindergarten through second grade. Each teacher will begin their daily
instruction by introducing or reviewing the 44 phonemes of the English language. Plus, we will continue the Sound City portion of the phonemic awareness program piloted last year within our school. We saw massive growth within the domain of phonemic awareness when using the pilot that helped many second graders close gaps necessary to be proficient readers by the end of third grade. With this “powerhouse” instruction, we are confident that our students will be on the road to being successful readers.
Becky Carter, M. Ed., is an academic coach at Suwannee Pineview Elementary. For the last eight years, Becky has coached teachers and taught retained 3rd-graders. For the past several years, she has also provided Tier 3 instruction for striving 4th- and 5th-graders and tutored middle school students. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Closing Districtwide Learning Gaps
The beginning of every school year comes with long-standing rituals and ceremonies: Teachers writing summer welcoming letters, parents taking first-day pictures, principals greeting students as they exit the cars or buses that brought them—the list could go on. We intend to continue to recognize, encourage, and celebrate those community and family traditions. We will invite our younger students, as well as those who are new to us or who are starting at a new site, to visit us in the week before classes begin so that the first day won’t be totally new.
We are taking a closer look at learning gaps that haven’t been closed despite our efforts last year. Recent research from NWEA is suggesting that, on a national level, the greatest gaps seem to be occurring in middle school, particularly in math. We will be sure to be looking at this area, as well as all areas. We will use informal teacher assessment of where students are in the core academic areas, and if we find that they’re not where we would expect them to be, we will plan to address those areas while at the same time reinforcing the key premise that learning and discovery has to be an enjoyable experience.
Dr. Charles V. Khoury serves as district superintendent of Ulster BOCES. In addition to his role as chief executive officer, he is the New York State Education Commissioner’s representative in the field, the major liaison between local districts and the state education department, as well as the spokesperson for regional education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Summer Reading to New Turf
Petersburg City Public Schools is proud of our partnership with Waterford.org. Our school system has been able to capitalize on the use of the Waterford Reading Academy’s individualized learning plan for our K-2 students. It’s one of the tools used to support our student-achievement gains in reading. In fact, we incorporated Waterford Upstart Summer Learning Path so parents and caregivers could spend the past few months getting their children ready to enter our kindergarten classrooms this fall semester. We look forward to continuing our working relationship with Waterford as we gear up for another exciting year of student growth.
No doubt, COVID-19 continues to be an issue, with no definite end in sight. But we navigated those waters at the outset of the pandemic when the situation was new and felt more ominous to all of us. We pulled together in our school system and galvanized the community to forge paths that continued positioning our students for success. That is what we do in Petersburg City Public Schools.
While school systems across the country enter the school year with a shortage of teachers potentially hampering operations, we are very fortunate to have a small number of vacancies. That is not by accident. Not only do we work hard to recruit, but we also try to be cognizant of doing the personalized little things to aid in retaining the very fine educators already assembled on our team. It’s a family atmosphere in our school community, and that is serving us well during these challenging times.
Creating learning environments and activity spaces where stakeholders feel safe and supported is vital to our overall performance both inside and outside of the schoolhouse. We have been fortunate during the pandemic to be able to leverage local, state, and federal dollars to help with various capital improvement projects. Whether it is HVAC system upgrades, the installation of water filling stations, or much-needed repairs to older facilities, our students, faculty, administration, and community have a sense of satisfaction and pride with the completion of many projects this past year.
There are also several projects that are still in the works. One of the projects of note is the near completion of the renovated football field at Petersburg High School. The installation of turf will help modernize the stadium and make the field safer for our student-athletes. They’ll love it, and we can’t wait for the community to see it under the Friday-night lights!
Julius Hamlin, Ed.D., is the acting superintendent of Petersburg City Public Schools, Petersburg, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.