California school districts struggled to prepare teachers for distance learning this fall

October 13, 2020

Lorraine Angel teaches a Calaveras High School chemistry class online.

Many California school districts offered a wide variety of training over the summer to prepare teachers for distance learning in the fall, but some struggled to offer enough to meet the needs of all teachers, leaving many to find training on their own.

Many districts offered in-house trainers or hired teaching consultants. But in many places, training focused only on teleconferencing tools like Zoom and educational platforms like Google Classroom. In other districts teachers were largely on their own to convert lessons from in-person to virtual, according to a recent EdSource survey.

Eighty-five percent of the 67 California school superintendents who answered a survey question on the topic said their districts were offering distance learning instruction. About 40% of the districts offered 9 to 16 hours of training, roughly a third offered 5 to 8 hours of training and 16% offered 1 to 4 hours. Less than 10% of the school districts offered more than 16 hours of training for teachers.

Lorraine Angel, a chemistry teacher at Calaveras High School, turned to webinars provided by the California Teachers Association, California Department of Education and others after she couldn’t find the training she needed through the Calaveras Unified School District. She and other teachers in the district also searched the Internet, joined Facebook groups and watched YouTube videos.

“There is a lot of frustration,” said Angel, who also heads the district teacher’s union. “It was so hard just having enough time to be able to learn what you needed to learn. Until you are actually doing it, we all feel like we are putting the plane together while we are flying it.”

Despite the challenges of providing training during a pandemic, the professional development offered by the district over the summer was “robust and multifaceted,” said Mark Campbell, superintendent of Calaveras Unified, which serves 2,875 students in the foothill communities of Calaveras County, southeast of Sacramento.

Calaveras Unified required teachers to attend at least 6 hours of distance learning preparation and offered classes on teaching math and English strategies online, as well as how to work with Google Classroom and Google G Suite. The district paid for outside training teachers wanted to attend.

Erin Enguero enrolled in K-12 Online Teaching Academy, which consists of a series of 23 training videos created at San Jose State’s Connie L. Lurie College of Education to prepare for remote student teaching. The graduate student is completing her final semester as a student teacher at Joseph Azeveda Elementary School in Fremont.

The videos range from teaching tips for synchronous (live teaching) and asynchronous (students working independently) instruction, to writing support for students, to tips on re-engaging multilingual students. They cover approaches to teaching various subjects through distance learning, including computer science, math, reading and writing.

“I can see myself going back to the San Jose State University webinar academy to brush up on some things,” Enguero said. “Even though the webinars are over, I feel like it’s helping contribute to this very important conversation about what it means to do distance learning.”

With training and the skills teachers learned from their experiences in the spring and summer, the quality of instruction has increased in many places, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education  in an interview.  She is also president of the Learning Policy Institute, a non-profit education policy research organization.

To meet the demands of distance learning, there has been a greater focus on lesson planning, she said. Teachers have not only needed instruction on using Zoom and online video platforms effectively, they’ve also learned to organize instruction and curriculum in ways that are constructive, she said.

The teachers who are effectively teaching this fall semester have adjusted their teaching methods to distance learning, rather than using old teaching methods in an online format, said Darling-Hammond, who recently co-authored the report “Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond.”

“There are people who are learning how to use time in more productive ways. The places that are less successful are using the old pedagogies,” she said. “The kids read and answer questions from the back of the book.”

At Calaveras Unified, Angel took advantage of a partnership between the district and the San Joaquin County Office of Education to learn to effectively use Google Classroom, but found most of what she needed outside the district. The district paid for a class on how to teach science remotely through the Bureau of Education Research and she took free virtual classes from the California Teachers Association, some taught by teachers from the California Virtual Academy, a distance learning charter school.

“Those were great, and it really gave you a lot of perspective on what to expect,” Angel said.

Information on using educational platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom, as well as training on how to teach specific student groups and subjects online can be found by searching the internet, YouTube channels like Going The Distance and Facebook teacher groups like Teaching during Coronavirus.

Teachers also have done their best to share training opportunities with one another at the school site level, union level and across the state, Angel said.

Mike Albiani, a teacher at Elk Grove High School near Sacramento, said he learned most of what he knows from other teachers.

“I’ll be honest, the majority of my training came from the millennials that I work with,” said Albiani, who has worked in his district for 36 years.

Albiani, an agriculture teacher and career technical education coordinator for the school, couldn’t attend all the voluntary training offered, because of scheduling conflicts. Spots in the workshops also filled up fast, he said. To make sure everyone benefited from the training, teachers who attended the training later shared the information with their colleagues, he said.

Elk Grove Unified, the fifth-largest school district in the state, serves 63,000 students in Elk Grove and Sacramento. In July and August, the district held 190 voluntary training sessions to prepare teachers for effective teaching in a distance learning environment, said Xanthi Pinkerton, district spokesperson. All sessions were filled to capacity and many had a waitlist, she said. There also was mandatory training on how to help students develop interpersonal skills and how to recognize students who have experienced trauma.

“The more training we can provide to help people feel as comfortable as they possibly can in this online environment, all of that adds up for good,” said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified.

The Central Valley district of 73,000 students offered training for teachers this summer, some led by Douglas Fisher, co-author of “The Distance Learning Playbook.” Modules in the book include lessons on how to manage the first days of school, how to develop engaging tasks, how to provide feedback to students and how to build credibility with students. Each module is supplemented by videos from the 74 teachers who shared their distance learning techniques with Fisher and co-author Nancy Frey.

Fresno Unified teachers received additional training on strategies they can employ during distance teaching and effectively using Microsoft Teams, the software they rely on to connect with students and their families. Teachers could sign up and receive the training live or watch the recording later. Teachers who attended the live sessions were paid their daily rates.

Nelson acknowledged the complexity of preparing for virtual teaching.

“This is going to be like surfing when you never surfed before,” he said. “You’re going to miss some great swells and you are going to fall off the board and hit the back of the head, and you are going to get banged up on the reef, but you can’t learn to surf from the sand.”

Washington Union Elementary School in Salinas didn’t have enough resources to offer its teachers more than just a few days of training right before school started this fall. The teachers largely depended on training the district offered in the spring or training they sought out on their own.

Much of the training from the district has been technology-based: how to set up Zoom and use it while also monitoring the chat box, for example, said Gina Uccelli, superintendent.

The district of almost 900 students is small, and funding for training is limited. But if funding opportunities were available, the district would have offered training during the summer, Uccelli said.

Regardless of the limitations, she said that teachers in the district were better equipped to teach this fall than they were in the spring, despite the new challenges.

“There’s more confidence in the classroom,” Uccelli said. “But there’s an added layer of anxiety and stress right now. I think teachers want it to be perfect and the amount of pressure they put on themselves to be there for their students weighs heavily on them as professionals.”

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