Eureka and Middle School Math · Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

We all need a sidekick

In mid-February 2021, I took two online professional development trainings in a week. The first was the 6-hour MicroCredential Training called “Building Belonging in Virtual Environments” with the National School Reform Faculty; the second was the Math Leaders Network run by DESE, the Massachusetts State Department of Education. While different in structure and content, both had one major component in common: the sidekick.

In professional virtual workshops, I have noticed that there are always two or more presenters–the presenter and what I have decided to call “the tech sidekick” (or two). I first saw this when I attended the Math Leaders Network (MLN) run by DESE. And I saw it again at the Critical Friends Group (CFG) training. The MLN meetings are big and have a lot of moving parts–lots of pages you are trying to keep track of, some to open and share and others to fill out. In the beginning, I didn’t really pay attention to the complex ballet between the leader, Stephen, and another DESE person, Jennifer, as Stephen did the speaking and Jennifer manned the doors, letting in new people, etc.

In the CFG training, we were a much smaller and more contained group, capped at 25 participants and two presenters. And the lead presenter was explicit about the fact that the other presenter, while also trained as a CFG coach, was mainly responsible for running the tech side of things. Suddenly, I had an a-ha moment: when people are doing professional presentations….it takes two of them. What does that mean for those of us who teach in virtual settings? While most of the world is anticipating a return to “normalcy,” in the form of a return to brick-and-mortar, those of us in virtual education will not have that happen. And there are no tech sidekicks waiting for us. What are the implications for educators in virtual education?

Having realized that most of the world needs a tech sidekick makes me rethink some of the realities of virtual education. Is it any wonder that high-quality virtual education feels both near-impossible and exhausting? THERE IS ONLY ONE TEACHER. There is no tech sidekick. Just….one teacher.

As teachers, we are used to having monkey minds–the very thing we work so hard to shut down in yoga class is an asset in a job that requires us to make more decisions per minute than any job except an air traffic controller, or so we are often told. We have the slow food movement and Martha Stewart is publishing multi-page spreads of how to make yeast sourdough from scratch, yet teachers are now managing an additional aspect of their jobs that was never there before. It’s so challenging to do that in any live professional development setting I have been in, that IT TAKES TWO OR MORE PEOPLE to keep it running smoothly! But we ask our teachers to do it alone. Every day, every class. Alone.

For the vast majority of teachers, this teaching situation will end relatively soon with a pair of jabs in the arm. For those of us who remain in virtual education….it will not. Reflecting on the CFG training, where the two presenters performed a complicated-yet-seamless ballet, made me realize how choppy my classes can be my Academic Support (Special Education) groups. Those classes are relatively small, twelve at the largest (which is double what I should have, but well under half what I have taught as a General Education math teacher at times). I realized that my classes tend more towards “one second” or “let me just answer _____ in the chat” as I split my monkey mind yet again, monitoring a break-out room on the screen, kids in chat requesting help, kids live in the main room working with me, a co-teacher and I in Hangouts trying to prioritize make-up work for a failing student….all in the same fifteen-second time span (literally). What are the implications for my practice? What can I do better? What factors are beyond my control and which ones are not?

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