Self-Care, Community Critical for Virtual Institute

Planning and executing a virtual summer institute for novice teachers is no easy task. However, with a year of experience behind us, we were intentional about learning from last year to improve while still bringing the same spirit of hard work and laughter to Summer Institute 2021.

We kept in place several key aspects of Summer Institute 2020: teaching from the book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”; focusing on classrooms skills like questioning techniques, lesson plans and student relationships; designing reflective equity and emotional resilience sessions; coaching fellows through weekly lesson planning cycles; and hosting outside facilitators who covered topics like Universal Design for Learning, working with ELL students, and employing trauma-informed education techniques.

While maintaining these critical elements, Summer Institute 2021 had a more intentional focus on self-care, both for fellows and staff members. With the added stress of COVID-19 and navigating the murky waters of teaching in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, it was imperative to help fellows find and employ ways of personal and professional well-being. Fellows explored different self-care practices and created self-care plans for themselves for the summer and into the fall. We also strategically employed off-screen work time and asynchronous assignments, allowing fellows more flexibility throughout the day and much-needed breaks from Zoom.

Our focus on teacher self-care and well-being created an opportunity to change the structure of summer institute by adding an optional meditation class each morning 30 minutes before sessions started. In these classes, fellows practiced meditation techniques and explored mindfulness practices like journaling and other reflective habits. They also developed tangible ways to incorporate self-care and mindfulness in their classrooms as lesson warm-ups, bellringers and end of class procedures.

Summer Institute 2021 also had a greater focus on virtual community building, hosting more intentional social events than last year. Everything from virtual karaoke, a virtual potluck, and virtual snack times gave fellows the opportunity to connect with one another outside of sessions. Summer Mentors also hosted office hours twice per week, allowing Fellows to obtain targeted one-on-one feedback on their lessons, unit plans, and other deliverables.  

Another new structure introduced this year was the brain break, a 30-minute time block held after lunch every day to share and demonstrate engagement activities for students. These brain breaks covered everything from online tools (like Nearpod, Padlet, Kahoot, and Plickers) to data, mindfulness, and meditation. These informal activities, as well as the end-of-summer celebration with friends and family, helped build a community full of empowerment, gratitude, and laughter.

This sense of community and family deeply impacted how fellows felt about the program as a whole. Overall, 94% of 2021 Fellows reported feeling like part of a community within ATC, 100% found their Institute experience valuable and critical for their success as a teacher, and 100% agreed they have the support from ATC they need to be a successful teacher and fellow. Additionally, 89% of 2021 Fellows said they would definitely recommend Arkansas Teacher Corps to a friend or family member.

Over the last two years, we have learned that creating a virtual summer institute–that is both engaging and effective–is not only possible but necessary in the field of education today. Surprisingly, survey data did not show a mid-summer slump (the typical dip in morale toward the middle of summer institute), further proving that a focus on helping teachers cultivate resilience is a powerful tool in developing powerful educators.

Instilling both self-efficacy and collective efficacy in fellows was key. We built teacher self-efficacy through individualized mentoring, personal reflections, and differentiated lesson planning cycles. We built teachers’ collective efficacy, through fearless dialogue centered on equity, peer-to-peer feedback structures, and our core value of collective responsibility. Building both is imperative to creating classrooms of belonging, resilience, and academic success.