Indiana back-to-school teacher training: First, how are you?

New teacher Connor O’Day picks up classroom supplies from a Wayne Township orientation event.
New teacher Connor O’Day picks up classroom supplies from a Wayne Township orientation event. (Courtesy Wayne Township)

On the first day since March that Beech Grove High School teachers returned to their buildings, they didn’t talk about teaching academics. 

Instead, they reflected on the trauma they’ve lived through during the pandemic. Principal Elizabeth Walters wanted to check in with teachers, making sure they felt safe so they could help students feel the same.

“My goal today was to provide some structure in what we know will continue to be a chaotic situation,” Walters said after training Monday. 

Beech Grove and other Indiana districts refocused orientation and training for the new school year to address effects of the pandemic. Some schools are bracing teachers for tending to students’ emotional needs and preparing to possibly shift to remote learning again as coronavirus cases rise in the state. Some schools already have decided to start the year virtually. 

Across Indiana, schools aren’t just resuming. They’re welcoming their staff to a new reality, and asking them, “how are you doing?” 

Normally, returning teachers might fixate on class sizes and worry about finishing students’ schedules. They’d talk about historical discipline and attendance problems. 

This year, they’re putting those issues on the back burner.

“We are by nature very controlling,” Walters said about educators. “We are Type A personalities. The conversations now, I think, are really about teachers embracing the unknown.” 

First-year teacher Spencer King expected to look to veteran teachers for advice, but he now finds himself in the same position as educators who’ve been working for decades. That can be at once confusing and reassuring.

“It’s like we’re all starting over again, and we’re all learning together through this,” said King, who will teach fourth grade in person at Garden City Elementary School in Wayne Township. 

He thinks the conversations about safety, online learning, and classroom cleanliness will serve him throughout his teaching career, including in a post-pandemic world. 

He expects to track effective online platforms, learn to teach students healthy habits, and figure out the best way to sanitize a classroom. 

“I like to think it’s going to be invaluable as I move forward,” King said. 

He has supplemented his district’s training with regular Zoom and FaceTime calls with fellow new teachers. They’re looking through the district’s guidance together and brainstorming practices like how to encourage one-way traffic flow and write classroom procedures to encourage social distancing. 

He’s also thinking ahead, in case an outbreak or high case numbers force the district into complete virtual instruction. He’s going to keep gallon-sized Ziplock bags on hand for students to store their belongings, which he could then distribute to their homes if they aren’t able to return.

Across the state, districts have augmented training to prepare to resume school, whatever shape that takes.

When Wayne Township moved back its first day of school, Chief Personnel Officer Shenia Suggs said school leaders built in extra days for training. This week, new teachers are going through a digital seminar introducing them to online platforms. 

All new teachers in the district go through 32 hours of training over two years, which this year will be online and include tips on teaching remotely.

“It’s what we have to be able to do, and do well,” Suggs said. 

Teachers are drawing on lessons they learned from the abrupt switch to remote learning in the spring.

Connor O’Day, who student taught in Wayne Township last spring during his final semester of college, will teach completely online this fall. He said he feels comfortable with the assignment now that he’s familiar with the district’s online system.

“I feel pretty confident going into the school year so far,” he said. 

O’Day will teach 32 students in his online class — slightly bigger than a typical sixth grade class. In addition to coordinating with his fellow sixth grade teachers, O’Day is seeking advice from people with experience teaching online.

“It’s just a lot of asking questions, experimenting with different features on Google Classroom, and seeing what would be best to be used for my students,” O’Day said.

New teachers at Christel House always learn how the charter school network handles grading and teacher assessment. But this year, they’ll also learn how to teach virtually. Head of Academics Carol Larson said the network had fortuitously planned before winter break to triple teacher training time for this school year.

So Larson brought in outside experts to teach sessions on implicit bias, the transition to remote learning, and virtual lessons for students with disabilities. 

The training also looked at how teachers can recognize in a virtual format when students have challenges associated with mental health, and how they can respond to those situations remotely. 

Beech Grove provided teachers with three courses on online instruction that ranged from an introduction to the online learning platform Canvas to best practices for teaching students in person and online at the same time.

Beech Grove students will start Thursday completely online, and then students may choose to switch to a hybrid format. Principal Walters said all teachers are going through training on the blended model. 

“We really felt that it would be a more efficient use of our teachers’ time,” Walters said.

No one knows quite what to expect this school year — academically and logistically. 

In Wayne Township, new teacher King hopes families understand that teachers won’t be perfect. 

“There are already those apprehensions about ‘Oh, there’s this teacher who not only has not had their own classroom before, but they’re having their own classroom during this pandemic,” he said. “And that changes the whole game.”

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