Lessons Learned in Year 1 at SRVA

There are many lessons learned from the school year in terms of teacher preparation and professional development. Listed below are some of the key lessons learned by the Six Rivers Virtual Academy teachers.

1. Start Early!
This may be impossible in some situations, but the sooner teachers are hired the sooner they can orient to the new program, become familiar with the curriculum, prepare their office/classroom, and meet their students. While it can work to start later, it is certainly less stressful to have at least a month before school begins to prepare.

2. Plan a Robust Orientation Program
For some teachers who have never taught virtually there is a lot of new information to learn; and if they have never taught before there is even more to learn. Administrators will want to give teachers the training necessary to be successful. It is common in the Blended Model environment to schedule two to three weeks of orientation prior to the start of school.

Orientation should include topics such as:
        • School policies and procedures
        • Work expectations
        • Reporting procedures
        • The differences between face-to-face teaching and virtual teaching
        • The role of the virtual teacher
        • An overview of virtual learning
        • Definitions of common virtual terms
        • Technical support available to teachers
        • Course overview
        • Virtual tour of the curriculum
        • Navigating the LMS
        • Discovering the available supplemental virtual teaching tools
        • Communication with students
        • Communication with parents
        • Monitoring students
        • Using data to drive instruction

3. Build in Time to Prepare for the School Year
Orientation is just the start of the preparation necessary for the start of the school year. Teachers need time to practice using virtual tools, become more familiar with the curriculum, set up their office, meet students, host student and parent orientations and
more. One to two weeks after Orientation and before the first day of school would be ideal.

4. Schedule Monthly Professional Development Sessions
There are many topics that could and probably should be covered in Professional Development but there are three elements that should be included in each PD that will make it a win for teachers. They are:
        • ongoing program evaluation
        • learning or practicing new skills
        • collaboration with colleagues

5. Provide Ongoing Support for Teachers
In a new Blended Model program ongoing support is crucial. Each school will need to determine how they provide it for their teachers. Of course there needs to be ongoing Professional Development, but there also needs to be support for the times in between PD. At Six Rivers teachers have a supportive administration. Superintendent Kenny Richards and Principal Chris Hartley both are 100% behind the program and willing to meet with teachers to discuss the program whenever needed. They also have access to the support services of the Blended Model industry leaders at Integrated Educational Strategies, which has proven to be pivotal to the success of the SRVA team. Some schools may consider providing the next level of support by assigning new teachers to mentors or master/lead teachers so they have even greater access to an expert in the field.

6. Be Flexible!
Unlike traditional schools whose format doesn’t vary much from year to year, Blended Model programs are adaptable, and by design are more fluid making them able to change on a daily basis to meet the individual needs of the student. In Professional Development sessions school leaders need to communicate the emerging role of the new Blended Model teacher. They also need to cultivate a culture of experimentation and flexibility. Teachers need to be given permission to try new things and possibly fail. They need to be taught to critically evaluate the changes to determine if it remains in the program, gets tweaked, or is scraped entirely. This healthy flexibility will make the program more agile and able to adapt as necessary.

7. Give up Control!
In a digital learning environment, teachers soon learn that they do not have the same degree of control as they did as classroom teachers. They shift from teaching in a teacher-centered to a student-centered environment. This shift is more difficult for some teachers than others. In Professional Development school leaders can help their teachers navigate this change. Creating Individualized Learning Plans for each student can be helpful because these documents start with the student in mind. Teachers than assist the student in meeting the goals and benchmarks listed in the plan. Tracking student progress through the curriculum will also aid in become more student-centered too.

8. Students Don’t Learn Independent of Teacher-Led Instruction Even When Using Technology
It is true that this generation of students is comfortable with technology. One recent survey revealed that the average teenager spends 58 hours per week using technology. Educators may make the assumption that if they were able to harness student interest in technology students would automatically learn. Unfortunately that is simply not true. Students are interested in technology, but need to be led through their online lessons. They cannot be expected to sit in front of the computer and become educated. The teachers at Six Rivers quickly learned that lesson. Their job was to help connect their students to the digital world. They learned how to lead their students through online lessons when the students were at the school and when they were at home. Professional Development sessions should be designed to help teachers do those more effectively and efficiently.

9. The Teacher’s Role is to Make Lessons Come to Life
Online lessons combine text with interactive and engaging activities. The “off-the-shelf” curriculum is designed to appeal to the typical student. For some students this is exactly what they need to learn and they are content with the curriculum as it is written.
For many others who are perhaps struggling students, high achievers, or more unique learners the lessons are not meeting their needs. The teacher needs to help those students who are anything but typical learn and master the material presented in their lessons. They need to help the lessons come to life. They are the ones who will raise the questions, “So what? Why does this matter?” help summarize the key points, present supplemental resources to help students understand concepts more clearly, or provide more practice problems. The teacher is constantly assessing student knowledge of core concepts and reteaching it in a way that makes sense to the student. The teacher’s role is critical to student success. Professional Development sessions on assessing students and alternative instructional strategies become key in a Blended Model program. The teachers at Six Rivers would like to see even more sessions devoted to this in the future.

10. Use Additional Technology to Enhance Your Program
In the first year of operation the primary goal of the Six Virtual Academy Rivers teachers was to learn the curriculum. They needed to become subject matter experts in every subject they were teaching. Initially it was overwhelming, but they have done a fabulous job in “getting up to speed” quickly. Next year they want to investigate additional supplemental technologies to enhance the program. For instance, they are considering creating a Facebook page for the school as another means to connect with their students. They also have an interest in utilizing virtual science labs, text readers, blogs, wikis, and tools to differentiate instruction. The possibilities are staggering and they want to be wise about the supplemental technologies they choose. Professional Development sessions could be devoted to exploring these options and for training in how best to use them.

What’s Next?
A comprehensive Professional Development plan is one of the keys to building a successful Blended Model program. The resources to develop the plan are readily available. A good starting point is to enlist the support of fellow colleagues and experts in the field. In addition, Six Rivers stands ready to offer their experience to help newcomers to Blended Model teaching grow. Integrated Educational Strategies, Inc. has a complete professional development training support program designed to help those new to online teaching take their crucial first steps. Included are development plans, and monthly sessions designed from the field experience of the experts. For further information, contact Lisa Gillis at Integrated Educational Strategies, Inc ( www.fromvisiontoreality.org) or Prinicpal Hartley at (chartley@nohum.k12.ca.us)