Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard school system doubles down on teacher training as classes get ready to go into virtual mode full time

It’s been 17 years since Faith Lewis has felt this way. The excitement, the nerves, the slight uncertainty — they’re all coming back to her in a similar way.

Lewis remembers that combination of eagerness and anxiety about being a first-year teacher from when she started as a second-grade teacher at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia in 2004.


Now, 17 years later, Lewis said she feels the same way as the Howard County Public School System prepares for virtual learning this fall because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Everything is so new. I feel like a first-year teacher all over again,” said Lewis, 39 and now a fifth-grade teacher at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City. “I’m eager and excited because I’m that kind of teacher who is excited about learning something new. But it’s also nerve-wracking because there’s so much to take in, and it’s all new to me.”


In less than a week, the Howard County school system will kick off the 2020-21 academic year in a completely virtual mode. With only the experience from the school system’s abbreviated distance classes from the spring, teachers in Howard County are spending the two weeks prior to the first day of school on Tuesday gearing up for the virtual semester.

Lewis isn’t the only one who feels like a new teacher again.

Lisa Pellegrino, 54, is a fourth-grade teacher at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City. She also said she’s experienced similar feelings preparing for the virtual semester, which ends Jan. 28.

“My biggest concerns are connecting with students and maintaining their engagement,” said Pellegrino, who is entering her seventh year of teaching. “In the spring, we already knew our classes, but now we’re getting new groups of students we’ve never met before, so we want to make sure [of] a safe, fun and welcoming environment for them, even if it’s virtual.”

In the spring, when the school system launched its virtual learning program in late April about six weeks after the pandemic shut down schools in Maryland, River Hill High School social studies teacher Jamie Parrish, 42, said it was an adjustment to only talk to his students once a week.

Now, though, as the school system has had more time to prepare for a virtual model and purchase Chromebooks for students, the amount of live learning time is substantially increasing for students.

Parrish may have had a head start on some others when transitioning to a completely online mode of teaching, having already gone paperless in his Advanced Placement Government classes even before the pandemic hit.

“I was able to go from anywhere between 85% to 90% paperless before the pandemic,” said Parrish, who has been teaching in the county for 21 years, “so when it came to using Canvas [one of the school system’s online learning systems], I was pretty skilled at going virtual. The transition for me was a little easier for me than maybe some of my other colleagues who hadn’t used that level of digital integration. But it was still difficult, especially not being able to see my students more than once a week.”


Howard County educators officially went back to work Aug. 25. Some of the training — the countywide professional development, presentations on mental health and tools to utilize student data — is the same as any other year.

However, instead of setting up their classrooms, gathering materials and meeting in person with their teams, educators are being trained on the new virtual learning model in both live presentations and self-guided sessions.

“We did continue with the countywide model because there is a lot of information that needed to be shared centrally,” said Lisa Davis, director of program innovation and student well-being for the school system. “For example, on [Aug. 26], every single teacher received information from us as central office staff. I also had [a] Google Meets [session] with 250 high school teachers and another one with 250 middle school teachers.”

Lewis said the most helpful part of the school system’s training has been with technology and the different programs she has to learn. From Canvas to Lexia Core5 to DreamBox — the school system’s online learning systems — it’s been a “challenge” to balance all the new information and programs.

“I consider myself average on technology, but my husband is also a teacher and he’s better with technology, so I lean on him,” said Lewis, who has one child in kindergarten and another in middle school. “The training has been working for me. There’s a video for every type of technology piece they’re asking us to do. The downside is that we’re on the screen so long and we’re taking in so much information.”

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To not cram too much training into a two-week period, the school system has set up weekly training and planning times for teachers throughout the first semester. Every Wednesday — the day that is designated for self-guided learning time for students — teachers will have a 75-minute, countywide training in the morning as well as 75 minutes for planning. Students, meanwhile, will participate in about three hours of live learning four days a week, with Wednesday as a day for asynchronous assignments.


There are four training topics — digital teaching and learning, racial equity, culturally responsive teaching and dialogic conversations among teachers — that will rotate each week.

“We’re trying to create a balance,” said Juliann Dibble, the school system’s director of teacher and paraprofessional development and support. “We understand there’s only so much time someone can engage in a meaningful way. We want to make sure the professional learning is aligned to teacher practice, that whatever we’re doing with them they can apply the next day in their classrooms.”

Most of the training teachers receive is before the school year starts or during the school system’s two countywide professional development days, Dribble said, with a keynote speaker and breakout sessions during the year.

“Wednesday will be a day for us to see what happened the first few days of the week and allow us to address any issues,” Pellegrino said. “Otherwise, we’d just grind through. For the training, I think it will support us in real time. All professional learning is valuable, but are you getting it at the time you really want to? I think now I’ll be really open-minded about it throughout the semester.”

Lewis said she believed the weekly training on Wednesdays will allow teachers to improve and learn throughout the semester. While it won’t be perfect to start, Lewis believes the virtual model will go well this fall.

“With so many creative people and teachers, I think we’ll iron out the kinks. I think it will get better as the year goes on,” Lewis said. “I think the students and teachers will get more used to it, too. There may be some things that go wrong at the beginning, but we’ll make adjustments and make it better.”