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Florida teachers lean on each other as online learning draws near

When a Pinellas County teacher launched a Facebook group to share ideas, thousands of colleagues joined in. They start for real next week.
Pinellas County teacher Traci Andrews, at left with her son, Hudson, recently started Teachers Going Digital Unite, a Facebook group helping Florida teachers prepare for online learning, which starts next week in response to the coronavirus pandemic. At right is an image from the group's page. More than 13,000 teachers had joined as of late Wednesday. [Courtesy of Traci Andrews / Facebook]

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Over 17 years as a Pinellas County teacher, Traci Andrews often toyed with the idea of online education.

But when the statewide transition to remote learning arrived in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Andrews quickly discovered she didn’t know much about how to engage her fourth graders in a virtual world. She had barely used the Microsoft Teams platform her district would rely on for lessons and communication.

So the Skycrest Elementary educator did what teachers usually do when faced with a job-related challenge. She turned to her colleagues.

“I was thinking, I am getting ready to do something I have never done,” she explained. “We always collaborate. We’re together, texting each other on nights and weekends. I thought, we definitely need a way to pick each others’ brains to get ready for this.”

With classrooms closed, and social distancing the new norm, Andrews went where everyone seems to be headed — online. Surrounded by her husband, parents and three kids, she created the Facebook group Teachers Going Digital Unite.

She had no idea she was starting a movement at 3:30 p.m. that Tuesday afternoon.

“I created it and came up with the name just off the top of my head. Then I added a couple of friends,” she recalled. “Within 30 minutes I was getting all these requests from people to join.”

The membership ballooned to more than 8,000 in just a couple of days. It’s continued to grow by the thousands since.

Teachers, principals, parents and others from across Florida all wanted what Andrews sought — guidance, ideas, coping strategies and other methods for making a success of the state’s ambitious goal to teach all students from afar.

She had one simple rule: Keep it positive.

Some people had already begun complaining across social media about all that was wrong with the model. Some didn’t want to train during their spring break. Others were critical of their districts’ approaches, or the Department of Education’s overarching philosophy.

Andrews said she understood. But she also wanted to find ways to help one another, not bring everyone down.

“I said, Go to your private page and do your venting there,” she explained.

For the most part that has happened, save for the occasional post about the institutional inequities of digital learning and such. More often, the participants asked things like, “How do you Zoom with your class if they can’t all sign on at the same time?” Or, “Does anyone know how to record the screen as you’re talking?”

And they expressed sincere thanks for the answers they could use.

The group is searchable, so users can find information they’re looking for without following the stream of information all day long. And teachers from similar grade levels, schools and districts have discovered each other there, leading to spinoff pages where they can focus on more targeted needs.

Andrews said she’s just “blown away” by the way everything took off. And she has high hopes, too, that all this work will lead to a better education system going forward.

“When we do return to the classroom, we’re going to be able to utilize what we’re learning,” Andrews said, noting she did get many of the answers she initially sought. “That’s going to open up a whole new style of teaching.”

More than anything, though, she stressed the camaraderie of educators coming together to make a new academic reality happen.

“In the midst of a pandemic, they are pulling together and pulling it off!” she said in a Facebook message. “It’s not perfection that’s amazing ... it’s the ‘effort’ being put out by the educators and staff that’s so incredible. The village is rising to the occasion for sure. And this site ... it’s just a starting point for the collaboration going on ... I’m so happy it’s being helpful because I think we all needed to rally together and have each other’s backs.”

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