Georgia Model for Virtual Professional Learning: Supporting Educators During COVID
Presented by Joy Hatcher, Social Studies Program Manager, Georgia Department of Education; JoAnn Wood, Social Studies Program Specialist, Georgia Department of Education; Jennifer Zoumberis, Social Studies and Special Education Content Integration Specialist, Georgia Department of Education; Phillip Sykes, Social Studies Content Specialist, Coweta County School System (GA); and Dr. Connie Howell, Associate Executive Director, Heart of Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency.
In this edWebinar, the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) Social Studies team, made up of regional and district leaders, describe how their virtual learning communities on edWeb.net helped them support educators, and their students and parents, during a time of crisis. The GaDOE Social Studies team had the foresight to launch professional learning communities on edWeb in 2016, so their programs were in place when the pandemic hit, creating a successful, sustainable solution for personalized PD before and during the pandemic, and beyond.
Joy: We want to provide an overview of where we began when we started virtual communities in 2016 and why we created them on edWeb, and then how our practice changed with the pandemic, and we had to pivot. We’ll start with our initial challenges. Why did we start communities on edWeb virtually in 2016? Georgia is a large state with 159 counties and 181 school districts. Of those 181 school districts, there are only 28 or 29 social studies supervisors who provide support and information and resources for social studies instruction. So that leaves a lot of districts without that specific support. They all have a curriculum director who wears multiple hats, but they’re not always social studies people. We also have 16 RESAs, which are Regional Educational Service Agencies, and only four of them have someone who has social studies in their title. When the social studies standards changed in 2015 – 2016, we needed a way to support teachers throughout Georgia without having specific district or RESA social studies specialists to do that.
We decided to create PLCs on edWeb that included a virtual community for every grade and course for social studies K-12 run by a virtual specialist who is a master teacher who can provide relevant and timely professional learning, communicate a consistent message from the DOE to the classrooms, and provide a way to highlight great resources we were creating for those standards.
One of the reasons we chose edWeb to begin with is because it connects teachers not just with us. Once they join edWeb, they can join communities for 21st century learning or gamification and many more topics. There are communities with professionals and people from around the world who are communicating with each other, and so I decided on this platform for creating our communities in order to open up a world of professional learning that their district or RESA might not be able to provide.
One of the other beautiful things about the community is we know we have teachers who are anti-social-media. They don’t use any social media platforms, and we do a lot on our social media. We can put our Twitter feed in the communities so that teachers who don’t like social media can still get that information by going into the community on edWeb.
JoAnn: We work as a team and communicate frequently with our virtual specialists. Each virtual specialist produces some monthly grade- or course-specific webinars. In between the webinars, we post resources to support our webinar topics and we also share other opportunities and news items and resources. We focus our webinars on best practices in social studies, and we link to resources that will be useful for classroom teachers and leaders of social studies. We’re the point of contact, and if our community has issues or questions, we funnel those back to the rest of our team, and then we funnel responses. It’s a really active network of communication. All of the communication back and forth is facilitated completely with edWeb. In addition to a community on edWeb for each course and grade level, we have a separate edWeb community for leadership, and that’s a very vital and active group. Districts can use that group as a sounding board and as a source of information, so there’s a lot of communication. Over the years we have grown in our membership, so now we have a total of almost 9,500 PLC members, and we add members daily. There’s always a constant growth pattern. We don’t go down, we go up.
Jennifer: These are our edWeb PLC numbers from the year we started, the 2016-2017 school year, through the 2021-2022 school year. We wanted to break down specifically how our numbers have grown since we started and through the pandemic. The first year was our rollout year when we rolled out the standards and started introducing them. The next year was the implementation year when teachers were moving over to the GSE standards. Look at the year of COVID. The year we went into the pandemic, we went up over 1,000 members, and that’s only including our grade and course PLCs, it’s not including the leadership community. Last year, as we went into the second year of the pandemic, we’re still going up. We’re really excited with the growth of those communities, but also with the support we’ve been able to give teachers through the pandemic.
Joy: When the pandemic hit and it was two weeks in, we realized that this wasn’t going to be a quick couple of days off school, and we needed to figure out quickly how to support teachers across the state, district coordinators, and RESA directors. We sent out a survey in March of 2020 to teachers and leaders and asked some basic questions. We had some schools that were 100% unplugged, and we had some schools that were 100% virtual. We needed to know who was teaching what way, and who needed support. We needed to know what platforms and tools they were using for their digital or virtual instruction so that, when we provided support, we could consider those things. If everybody is using Google Classroom or if everybody is using something else, we can provide some support that utilizes those platforms. And we need to know the logistics for those who were teaching unplugged.
JoAnn: Another thing that helped us was listening to teachers, and the main way we did that was to set up online coffee talks or tea talks with RESAs, and we communicated all of this through our edWeb networks. We had online gatherings of teachers, and we picked their brains. How is virtual learning going? What new tools and mentoring and modeling are you doing? What supports do your teachers need and what should be done about lost instruction or gaps? People poured their hearts out to us, and all of this was great information. These online “talks,” coupled with our survey results, helped us plan what we can do, what kind of resources we can provide, what kind of virtual support we can provide that would really target what they need. We found out teachers were really tired and exhausted, so we knew that when we provided support, we needed to address the fact that teachers needed to take care of themselves, and we needed to give them strategies for doing that. They were disheartened because students weren’t showing up. Some districts had practiced with virtual before the pandemic, but many had to start cold and had to start running from the moment that the pandemic shut things down. There were lots of issues with families, varying degrees of support, parents needing to work so students were being housed other places and that meant that no one was at home monitoring the packets or the online work. This was really vital intel for program-planning purposes. All of this had implications for the kind of resources we developed and shared via edWeb.
Phil: Being able to talk with other leaders during COVID, during the talks that our DOE hosted through edWeb, was extremely helpful in locating resources, getting ideas from other district leaders, seeing what’s working in other areas, and sharing our successes. Accessing the community on edWeb and working together ultimately brought everybody together, and I found it to be as effective as face-to-face learning and, truly, I look forward to continuing going down this path in the future.
Connie: Before March of 2020, we had done very few online professional learning sessions, and then our world just exploded and now most of what we’re doing is online. There were huge challenges for us, but it has helped us to grow, and we appreciate our partners like edWeb and the Georgia Department of Education because they have helped us grow tremendously.
Jennifer: We took all the information we heard from the teachers in the coffee talks and the tea talks and our leadership meetings and emails, and we put all those things together and threw everything we could at our teachers, and edWeb was a major tool in how we did that.
Joy: We created a series of webinars every week, from the end of March 2020 through the end of May. We did one webinar a week for social studies for every grade and course. We called them the “Ideas Ready to Use” webinars. They were generally 15 minutes or less. They gave a quick tip on self-help during the pandemic, and for teaching digitally, then gave an activity to use in the classroom that would work for your digital learners, and then activities that would work for your kids who are unplugged. All of this was communicated through edWeb, and when the webinars were finished, we would house the recordings and PowerPoints in the community resource library. Over the course of six weeks, we did 84 webinars. We used edWeb as a way for teachers to ask questions through the discussion forum or to send us information, and we shared all of the information and the virtual specialists’ webinars throughout the pandemic. Not every teacher in Georgia is connected with our edWeb community, but because we have so many teachers connected, when we share our professional learning and our resources with teachers, they will in turn share it with other people in their community, and that’s kind of the idea.
JoAnn: One of the biggest highlights of the edWeb community is the resource library. It’s jam-packed with great things and has been for the past five years.
Phil: Schools in our district, and it’s this way in a lot of districts, don’t always have the same resources at every school. By going into the edWeb community, teachers were able to get specific resources that they needed that were going to meet the needs of their individual students.
Connie: The teachers felt like these resources were vetted, and that it was a safe place that they could cometo so that they weren’t just having to randomly search, and the resources were aligned to the standards, and so it saved them valuable time. We have a group that we have been using for about four years, and they’re the data ambassadors, and one of our data ambassadors said that he used these resources and, with the power of what was on there, it saved him loads of time, and he could not wait to go back and share with his PLC. That was just a win-win for everybody.
Joy: All of our lesson plans and resources have embedded specific supports for building vocabulary and also differentiating to meet the needs of English language learners and special education students. We went through every lesson elementary, middle, and high, to make sure that we had supports in there for every learner.
Jennifer: We came up with different ways to provide inquiry and ways to provide for our unplugged students, so they were getting the same instruction as our plugged students. That’s a big component of the distance learning lessons, to make sure that our students who have no access to technology were getting the same exact lessons that our students who are face to face or virtual with the teacher were getting.
Jennifer: We want to point out how edWeb helped during the pandemic. The resource repository was invaluable. We have a resource library for every PLC for every grade, course, and the professional leadership community as well. The thing about the resource library is that it’s immediate. When we would do an “Ideas Ready to Use” session, we could immediately upload the PowerPoint from the session and every resource that we used in the session, so teachers had immediate access to it. Teachers could print the resources, save them, change them on their computers. Every website that we used could be saved in the resource library and teachers had immediate, free access to all of that. That was invaluable for our teachers. edWeb let us send information very quickly by sending information immediately through the discussion forums, emailing our PLC members through the platform, and archiving the webinars. Everybody was on a different schedule. Teachers, leaders, we had people teaching at night, we had people teaching during the day, we had some people who did a rotation of their schedules or different teacher rotations, so archiving the webinars for people to go back to was priceless. And we also found in our data when we’ve gone back and looked, people are still watching those “Ideas Ready to Use” webinars. Those are over a year and a half old now, and teachers are still going back and watching those today. So again, those were all tools that were provided for our PLCs through edWeb.
JoAnn: And we really had a concern that during the pandemic, with the resources that teachers might Google online and pay for, that they were going to be using very low-quality resources. Our resources are all inquiry driven, so I want to make sure that we do toot our own horn in that regard because it was really, really important for us not to see teachers going backwards with what and how they used resources in the classroom. Then looking ahead, what we’ve learned through the pandemic and through our work and through our quick pivots and adjusting and dancing the dance of the pandemic has been that we need a centralized location for our supports, and edWeb has been that for us. We were so, so excited that we already had a place established when we dove into this pandemic. We saw the need for increased communication, supportive communication, sometimes just listening. As we said earlier, in those online coffee talks, we asked questions and then we sat back and listened because teachers really wanted to talk to us.
Joy: edWeb was central to distribution of knowledge and communication. At the DOE, we have a team of three, but this could not have happened without the virtual specialist teams. These are the master teachers we’ve contracted for each grade and course who we were so lucky to get the best of the best throughout the state. It was not just our DOE team pivoting, it was our virtual specialist team pivoting, it was our district coordinators communicating with us what they needed and back with their teachers, it was our RESA leaders who kept in close contact with us about what their teachers needed, that allowed this all to happen.
Joy: What impact did edWeb have on your teachers and on your district during the pandemic?
Phil: If we did not have this professional learning community, our teachers would have struggled. I would have done what I could to support the needs of our teachers, but in a situation like COVID, if you don’t have standardized resources available, you’re going to have some schools that are going to be very successful and they’re going to have what they need, and you’re going to have some schools that are going to be without. My teachers who had already been involved on edWeb could instantly go to those communities and get resources that were very specific, very standards based, very subject based, high quality, vetted, as we said earlier, and immediately implement that. Ultimately, that helps with the equity issue because we have students who are coming from different backgrounds and different school settings, they are getting really, really good resources and lessons because their teachers were a part of these communities. Just being able to reach out and talk with other district leaders through edWeb was extremely beneficial. I could run ideas by people, see what was working, what’s not working, and really target my district’s needs based on the experiences that others have had that they were able to resolve. It was valuable before, but it’s so valuable now that COVID has happened, and we’re in the situation that we’re in, and I can only see it continuing this way.
Connie: I totally agree with Phil. The edWeb communities and the partnership with the Georgia Department of Education helped PLCs continue during the pandemic, whether it was before school, whether it was after school, whether it was during lunchtime. It helped strengthen what we were doing and revisit independent learning. As a teacher, as a leader, as a RESA person, we could go find what we needed. And where could we go to find that? We could go to the edWeb community.
Joy: I love that. You could communicate with other leaders, whether that be from the RESA to district coordinators or RESA to teachers. There are things that the DOE can’t do, like recommend specific resources. We’re not involved in any kind of paid resources, but having this community allows the leaders to get together and share the information that we normally wouldn’t do.
Joy: How did using the virtual communities in edWeb help address the issue of student equity during the pandemic?
Phil: Our district has a wide range of needs and people from diverse backgrounds, so the needs of these schools are extremely different based on what the student is coming to the table with. The teachers need to be appropriately equipped to be able to meet the needs of their students and to know who their students are so they can make sure that those students have an equal opportunity to learn the standards that the state has provided for us. By having edWeb and our professional learning communities, we have the ability to go in and target a need in a classroom or a specific need that a student has and be able to search through the resources and really seek out the help that certain students are going to need. What makes it so much more accessible is being able to do this on your time rather than rely on a district-wide PL session. If it’s not meeting a specific need that your students are having, then that district PL session is not going to do what it’s supposed to do for those kids. What we’re doing when we come to the PL community might be good for our mental health as teachers, but in the end our product is student learning, and we want to make sure that what we’re doing is impacting those kids.
Connie: The strength of edWeb is the on-demand courses, the archived sessions. It meets the needs of different schedules, therefore, it’s a level playing field for the teachers and the leaders. If you happen to miss a meeting, in the past, you missed the information. But now because it’s recorded and it’s easily accessible, everybody is hearing the same information and that strengthens everything for our students and for our professional learning for our teachers and our leaders.
Joy: What, for you, is the biggest takeaway or the biggest lesson learned?
Phil: I think the biggest thing that I took away as a district leader is that we’re not alone. You know, it’s very easy when you’re at the central office to feel like I’m on an island by myself. Having edWeb, a place for people with common philosophies, interests, backgrounds for you to be able to come together and seek out some commonality, it’s a very welcome opportunity and welcome space for teachers who can easily feel very secluded, and especially during a pandemic, when we are already secluded from the world. I’ve been very thankful for it, and I think just realizing and taking a second to step back and go, “We’re not alone.” We’ve got people out there, we’ve got the tools that we need to access the people who we can access, and we can get some solutions to the issues that we have.
Connie: We try to create a risk-free environment for our students, so this creates a risk-free environment for our professionals.
Jennifer: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always known how important relationships are with my students, and with my fellow co-workers, and the relationships were the key going through all this. Our teachers would never have shared with us their concerns or their challenges if we hadn’t already made relationships with those teachers where they felt they were safe to talk to us, to share their concerns, to share what they were seeing, and they were humble, they were honest, they were open, and I think that was because they already felt safe with us. It was already a safe place and relationships were already established.
JoAnn: My biggest takeaway has been that you can teach this old dog some new tricks because I’ve had to learn some new ways to teach and some new ways to reach students, and so have all the teachers whom we work with and work for. And they’ve taught me so much and I’ve learned a lot, and so I have learned that it’s true that you never stop learning.
Joy: My biggest takeaway is we’re better together. From my first year of teaching, I had a very supportive, loving department, and we shared everything, and every place I went in my county I wanted to reach out and learn more from other people because truly, we are better together. When I came to the DOE, I thought how great it would be if we could connect all of us who teach the same subject area. How great would it be for those people who have the intimate knowledge about primary sources and the best ones to use for every course and connect those with the teachers who are just technological gurus, connect your veterans to your new teachers, and how much better we could all be. That’s what edWeb has done for us in creating these virtual communities.
We couldn’t have had these PLCs without edWeb offering the ability to create online communities and build them free of charge. And let me say how easy it is to work with edWeb because when we have any kind of issue, like I wish we could do this, or I wonder if they could do that, all we have to do is email edWeb, and if it’s possible, it gets done.
The pandemic, in some ways, has had a positive impact by steering us all together in a virtual place.
About the Presenters
Joy Hatcher is the social studies program manager for the Georgia Department of Education and the president-elect of the Council of State Social Studies Specialists. Prior to working at the GaDOE, Joy spent 12 years as a high school social studies teacher and two years as a professional learning facilitator in DeKalb County Schools. She was a National Board Certified Teacher and is completing her Ph.D. in social studies education.
JoAnn Wood has taught many years at the elementary and middle levels. She has been an instructional technology mentor, academic coach, and district social studies supervisor, and now works at the Georgia Department of Education as a social studies program specialist. Working with children and teachers is deeply satisfying to her, as is sharing her enthusiasm for excellent children’s literature to promote social studies inquiry. She is equally fervent about reading, travel, tennis, civic engagement, and her beagles, Miko and Rufus.
Jennifer Zoumberis has been an educator for 21 years, teaching primarily kindergarten and first grade. She is the social studies and special education content integration specialist for the Georgia Department of Education. She is passionate about inspiring, engaging, and empowering young learners.
Phil Sykes currently serves the Coweta County School System as the K-12 social studies content specialist where he works to help lead social studies initiatives, manages social studies curricula, and works directly with teachers to improve their engagement and effectiveness within the social studies classroom. Before leaving the classroom to join the CCSS curriculum team, Phil taught eighth-grade Georgia studies at Madras Middle School for six years. During his time at Madras Middle, he served on numerous committees and was awarded Teacher of the Year in 2015. Phil also has experience teaching sixth- and seventh-grade social studies from a year of service with the Valdosta City School District. Phil is passionate about social studies education and strives to instill the love of history in all students and teachers whom he serves.
Dr. Connie Howell is the associate executive director for the Heart of Georgia RESA. HGRESA is one of 16 RESAs in Georgia. The organization provides professional learning and other requested services to leaders, teachers, and other staff. HGRESA strives to Help, Guide, Reach, Extend, and Serve All. We love partnering with other organizations.