One County makes educators “co-teachers.” Will it help with teacher burnout?

Teacher burnout is high. So is the need to help students get back on track after several years of pandemic disruption.

But providing structured support to teachers is difficult for schools.

“We are incredibly good at teaching and empathizing with our students,” said Frederick Hyde, superintendent of Polk County Public Schools in Florida. But, he adds, schools are less adept at meeting the needs of teachers, which is why burnout rates are so high, especially in public schools that serve students from low-income families.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Hyde believes a new tutoring program they’re running in Polk County will help ease that burden. It won’t stop teachers from feeling emotional strain, but it will give them structural support that has been hard to come by, he notes.

When it comes to tutoring services, the district is hardly unique. About 40 percent of schools plan to use their federal aid dollars for tutoring. Basically, these schools are hoping that tutoring will help students catch up on the learning they missed during the pandemic, a priority that has been doubled by alarming NAEP scores.

But, in this case, there is a twist. Polk County teachers directly assign specific students to teach during classes, turning tutors into a kind of “co-teacher.”

Teachers can enroll specific students in individual or small group online tutoring classes as part of the school day, as if another teacher were in the room. (Though those tutors come through the company that designed the program, Varsity Tutors, and not the school.) The schools also have access to more standard, on-demand tutoring outside of school hours as part of the deal.

Teachers are usually the ones who know when a student needs help, but they’re already stretched thin, Heid said. That way, teachers can use assessment and testing data to identify struggling students and bring them up to instructors, he adds.

In the past, Polk County Schools had a tutoring program that they liked, but it wasn’t incorporated into the classroom. Tutoring took place before or after school. It was run by a tutoring provider or, in some cases, teachers stayed after school to tutor students. And it was haphazard, Hyde says, and you couldn’t force students to attend even if they desperately needed it. “And frankly, you’re depending on your teacher cadre, which is kind of tired right now,” he adds. For an issue like early literacy, Heide says it simply made success a referendum on the efforts of adults in children’s lives.

The program is in a limited pilot phase in about five schools, serving several hundred K-12 students. In the end, it will affect about 40,000 students.

Teaching teaching in the school day

The rush to provide tutors, especially on-demand, has proven beneficial as schools both need tutors and struggle to find them.

That mix has produced big winners, rewarding them with big contracts from regions across the country. But while more intensive forms of tutoring are widely accepted as valuable, not everyone is as confident about on-demand models, which offer 24/7 tutoring but aren’t necessarily as intensive or well-researched as high-dose tutoring. Critics of on-demand tutoring argue that it is less evidence-based and that students may not often take advantage of these options. Meanwhile, the companies that offer these services counter that on-demand tutoring is the only way to help the many students who need it.

There’s still a bit of confusion about the types of tutoring services companies offer, says AJ Gutierrez, co-founder of Saga Education, a nonprofit that runs tutoring programs in schools. Last summer, Gutierrez described the tutoring industry as a “land grab” where companies advertised themselves as high-doses when they really weren’t. But supporting K-12 learning in the near future will require a full mix of tutoring options, Gutierrez says. There are also many more districts seeking evidence-based, high-impact tutoring, which is encouraging, she adds. While outsourcing to a vendor makes sense in the short term, Gutierrez argues that districts and states can effectively implement high-impact teaching on their own in the long term.

However, Varsity Tutors leaders see the new tutoring model being tested in Florida as part of an ongoing support structure for teachers. They believe their program injects the flow of instruction into the classroom, allowing teachers to use it “surgically” to motivate students to learn.

In contrast, on-demand tutoring is popular but can also be limiting, says Anthony Salcito, who runs Varsity Tutors for Schools, because these services force the student to take the first step in seeking tutoring. “We’ve learned on demand that they’re not always going to do that,” Salcito says.

Over time, classroom teaching is something parents will look forward to, Salcito predicts.

National model.

Polk County is betting on it. And leaders there say they are optimistic, especially about the benefits tutoring services can have for teachers; “I think teacher morale could be improved,” said Hyde, the district’s superintendent.

That’s because the coronavirus has brought into focus some of the struggles that are painfully affecting children. For teachers who had to watch it as it happened, it could be overwhelming. “Kids get spanked, drug abuse runs in the family, other things that run in households,” Hyde says. “We witnessed it in real time.”

When the coronavirus hit, Heid was in an Illinois school district. Unlike many districts, they were relatively prepared for distance learning, Hyde said. But they weren’t necessarily prepared for the emotional struggles they saw in their students. “I remember teaching in the inner city and being in tears when I heard some of the stories my kids told me,” Hyde says.

Helping teachers carry that weight has proven difficult for schools. But structural support, Hyde believes, will help.

Whether online teaching in the classroom will actually ease teachers’ workloads remains to be seen. Polk County officials initially agreed to allow EdSurge to speak with a teacher and tutor participating in the pilot program, but later changed their minds, saying it was still early in the process.

But Hyde says he’s excited to try a new strategy.

“And you know what, I hope it produces the results that we’re hoping for, because I think this is arguably a national model for what this kind of tutoring should be going forward. and intervention,” he says.

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