Here to Help

The Friday Institute and NC DPI partner to provide resources, support for North Carolina teachers during transition to remote learning.

While educators across the state learned North Carolina schools would transition to remote instruction in response to the spread of COVID-19, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI) and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation were hard at work determining the best ways to provide resources, support and encouragement to teachers facing an abrupt halt to school — and life — as they knew it.

Within two weeks, the Friday Institute and NC DPI launched Remote Learning to Support NC Educators, a six-week program to provide professional learning opportunities for educators to support their implementation of remote learning during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Emmy Coleman, senior research scholar at the Friday Institute and a former teacher and principal, listened as teachers expressed concerns over how to handle instruction, time management, grading and more in a virtual environment. 

“Initially, it was hard for some teachers to wrap their minds around how this could be accomplished,” Coleman said. “Since our Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative team works statewide with educators, several teachers were already reaching out to our team members individually for help. We knew we had to be there to support them in any way we could.”

The need for remote teaching and learning support and professional development during the crisis was apparent from the start.

“Not only in North Carolina but nationwide, most K-12 teachers have minimal training in remote or blended learning,” said Angie Mullennix, Ed.D., NC DPI’s director of innovation strategy and interim director of K-12 standards, curriculum and instruction. “Despite that, our teachers jumped in with both feet, mainly because there wasn’t even time to process their hesitations.”

As teachers requested additional resources to help them make the transition to remote learning, Mullennix reached out to the Friday Institute.

“The Friday Institute’s Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative was the most obvious partner,” said Mullennix. “We have a great working relationship with their team, and they are highly equipped in this area. I’ve seen in action how the Friday Institute engages with teachers and creates positive outcomes from difficult situations. If we couldn’t physically be there to support our teachers in the classrooms, we wanted to provide them with virtual guidance and support.”

Through the Remote Learning to Support NC Educators programs, educators had access to online sessions facilitated by Friday Institute staff on topics ranging from fostering engagement in a time of uncertainty to strengthening digital literacy skills. Special sessions were designed specifically for principals looking for ways to support faculty as well as for teachers looking for remote instructional practices to support English language learners. To provide additional support, NC DPI also offered expert coaching sessions in small groups and 1:1 formats led by NC DPI staff and NC State College of Education faculty. The coaching sessions allowed participants a time to further discuss and understand the content of the Friday Institute sessions.

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D., who leads the Friday Institute’s Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative as their senior director, said those who facilitated the sessions were able to draw upon deep experience in developing professional learning opportunities, as well as work in instruction, leadership, social-emotional learning and learning differences. 

“Our team was motivated to meet the needs of educators across the state to support them in their work with students,” Wolf said. “We quickly identified who from our team would best lead each session and went to work developing interactive, job-embedded learning opportunities for administrators, coaches and teachers. The educators in our state jumped right in and added rich examples and challenging questions to deepen the learning and sharing in each session.”

To date, the program has hosted more than 40 sessions attended by more than 13,000 educators from across the state, country and world in eight different focus areas. The sessions are not subject matter specific but rather provide best practices and pedagogical support to teachers to implement based on the teacher’s learning objectives and outcomes. 

“We were amazed to see how many educators, from as far away as Australia, are using the program to help best meet the needs of their students,” said Hiller Spires, Ph.D., executive director of the Friday Institute and associate dean at the NC State College of Education.

Virtual learning requires different design principles, says Nancy Mangum, the Friday Institute’s associate director of professional learning programs. Teachers need to prioritize teaching standards, find new ways to promote collaboration among students and ensure they are providing feedback to student work, among other things. 

Educators are no longer able to use the traditional face-to-face methods for reaching students, such as using proximity to keep a student on-task or adjusting instruction based on students’ nonverbal reactions, according to Patricia Hilliard, Ph.D., a research scholar at the Friday Institute. Hilliard serves as one of the project’s session facilitators. 

“Teachers need to reestablish procedures for the online environment and find different ways to continue to build relationships with their students, such as letter writing or phone calls,” Hilliard said. “Educators have had to think smaller and slower. It is hard to hold the attention of students for the traditional 60- or 90-minute class period. They have redesigned lessons in small pieces while offering more options for when, where and how students can learn.”

Although classroom instruction is important, in light of the current environment, social and emotional learning support was a big focus for these sessions. 

“There’s a human element that we need to address as well,” Coleman said. “Beyond academics and best practices, we also talk about grace, patience and how it’s OK to let your students know you’re struggling too. Teachers need permission to sit back and reflect on what they’re missing. But if these last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that educators are resilient.”

The feedback from teachers has been excellent.

“I’ve had teachers share how it’s the best professional development they’ve participated in,” Mullennix says.

Donna Suzanne Valois, a first grade teacher from Selwyn Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of them. 

“I love the energy, passion and excitement shared in these Friday Institute professional learning sessions,” Valois said. “It made professional learning engaging, relative and enjoyable.” 

Although it’s too early to tell how recent events will transform K-12 education in the long-term, the crisis has provided some valuable opportunities to rethink teaching and learning moving forward, Mangum says.

“Many people are now realizing the importance of social and emotional learning, as well as ways to help students master competencies while helping them move forward at their own pace,” Mangum said. “Not only that, but this situation has also helped us realize that learning doesn’t necessarily have to take place in a school building or during traditional school hours — and that has some exciting potential.”