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With Changing "Classroom" Landscape, Educators Need Flexibility

courtesy StrongMind, Inc.
Students learning at home.

Texas educators are evaluating what they learned from a year of school impacted by the pandemic.  Some say it’s time to improve online education, which may be here to stay.

Online education programs are growing, but educators are not convinced that's the best way forward for all students.  Kim Hardin, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Abilene Christian University says schools were forced into virtual learning by the pandemic, "We had students whose families didn’t feel comfortable with them being in schools. We had even teachers who didn’t feel comfortable, so we had to move pretty quickly to that model."  She says some students thrive in a virtual learning model, and with enough training teachers can be more successful. 

One company working on solutions is StrongMind, Inc. President Mary Gifford says hybrid systems may be the new driving force for online education, "Those fully online models are necessary, but we also need some flexibility. Teachers probably are not going to be effective if they are teaching students online and in a classroom at the same time. It's ridiculous to expect teachers to do that."

She notes that Texas failed to pass legislation which would limit what teachers could be asked to do, and provide training for working in newer teaching models. Gifford says she hopes that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will move forward to implement change because the state.  "Since 2013, has actually been behind other states,” Gifford notes.  “Very few states have moratoriums on new online schools. It could be a really wonderful time for innovation, and not done in response to the pandemic, but from the knowledge we gained from the pandemic."

Some school districts have heard from parents that want the flexibility of hybrid schools to continue.  Professor Hardin says as both a parent and an educator, she sees more interest in the classroom environment returning, "There’s a level of socialization that is really important. It’s those 21st century skills that we’re really wanting our kiddos to have. Most of the families that I know that went virtual went back to in-person schooling."

Mary Gifford recommends districts leverage the many different sources of available funding and focus on planning to meet those needs. That could include staff training in new teaching methods and helping families access technology. School districts like Abilene ISD are currently developing grant applications to allocate CARES Act funding that will support new technology.

Professor Kim Hardin describes education like a very big ship, saying it will take a long time to turn.  In the meantime, she and her colleagues are preparing the next generation of teachers to be flexible as they get ready to enter a hybrid educational environment.  "It all comes down to what schools plan for and budget for. There is money from different pots to purchase technology and "my-fis" [personal hotspots] to provide connectivity. There are also offline activities to be done. There is also a need to determine usage and needs for special needs students access and being ready to do that from day one. Teachers getting trained better to use those resources is what helps.  Leveraging all those funding sources to plan for these needs going forward.  Also important to think where students would go or congregate to access connectivity. We have to bring education to them, so where will they be?"

As the pause of summer break arrives for teachers, the near future of what school may look like is still a moving target for education professionals. Professors like Hardin say the newest members of the workforce are prepared for that kind of flexibility, "Our clinical teachers just completed their education teaching in those hybrid environments. I think they are well-positioned to function in those different areas.  There is not one right answer.  There is not one magic recipe. It's about responding with flexibility."  Both Hardin and Gifford say they think the coming generations of teachers will need to master a variety of teaching skills and employ a high level of flexibility to successfully negotiate the shifting landscape of education ahead.