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The Spark - April 2020

The Spark. A newsletter filled with information and inspiration for Colorado teachers.

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Katy Anthes headshot during the Thanksgiving holiday message

Dear Teachers,

First of all, I want each and every one of you to know how thankful and appreciative I am of all that you are doing in this unprecedented challenging time.

The COVID-19 outbreak has required you to step away from the classroom and reach your students in a wholly different way. And you've only had a matter of days to figure it out. Through it all, you've shown grace, creativity, adaptability, and a determination to succeed.

This global crisis has forced us all into a new paradigm. It will certainly leave a lasting impact, but I know that our extremely dedicated educators in Colorado will help not only students, but entire communities, get through it.

As we grapple with the challenge of supporting our students when we can't see them every day, I've heard incredible stories about how you all are staying connected and showing your students you care about them and their learning. Please take a moment to read the SPARK article below with words of encouragement and advice from our recent Teachers of the Year in Colorado on how to support learning at home. Look at the article from our School Nurse Consultant Sarah Blumenthal about ways to get through each day during this trying time. And refer to the collection of resources that can support your plans for learning at home.

The Colorado Department of Education has been working around the clock to support our school and district leaders, our educators and our students.

  • Before the first case of COVID-19 was found in Colorado, we applied for waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure emergency food services to students could be as seamless as possible and better meet the needs of communities across the state. Today, we have 500 sites in Colorado that are serving breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner to students. You can read more about emergency feeding programs here.

  • Our Health and Wellness office has been working night and day with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to provide schools with clear guidance to keep kids and educators healthy and safe, and now they are working on ways to use school buildings to provide child care services for critical and emergency workers.

  • We have waived all end-of-year assessments this year and paused the accountability system for 2020, so you all can focus on what's most important right now – keeping your students and families safe and healthy and being creative in how you continue their learning. This includes CMAS, PSAT, SAT and end of year READ Act and Colorado Preschool Program Results Matter assessments.

  • We developed a list of resources and tips to help you create your own plans for learning at home. We'll add to this as we learn with you about what is working.

The COVID-19 outbreak has made our world scary, confusing and frustrating. And it falls on your shoulders to help provide a sense of normalcy and calmness to our young learners. I know there are so many different challenges faced by our diverse communities in Colorado -- including limited broadband access, lack of Wi-Fifi-enabled devices and families who are dealing with lost incomes. But I also know that Colorado educators can do this! I know you will all do your best to meet the challenges that face you and support your students, and that's all we can ask.

We've never seen anything like this, and we know there is no way any school district in the country was fully prepared. Just know that we are in this together. The department is here to support you and your school and district leaders. We will get through this.


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Former Colorado Teachers of the Year: Sean Wybrant 2017, Christina Randle 2018, Meg Cypress 2019, Hilary Wimmer 2020

Colorado's current and former Teachers of the Year have advice for their teaching colleagues as they enter this unprecedented change in learning necessary while in-person instruction is suspended in Colorado – you are not alone, try your best and don't take on too much.

"I would say the most important thing to do is give yourself grace," said 2017's Colorado Teacher of the Year Sean Wybrant. "Give yourself space to learn how to do this."

CDE reached out to the current and former Teachers of the Year who are also gearing up to teach their students remotely.

Wybrant is a career and technology teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs District 11. He is working with other Teachers of the Year from around the nation who are all grappling with the changes from the suspension of in-person learning. They are holding webinars, sharing ideas on online bulletin boards and offering support.

"I would encourage teachers to know, No. 1, that you don't have to have all the answers," Wybrant said. "You don't have to know what this is all going to look like. It's OK to figure this out together. None of us are in this alone. There is lots of support out there. There's never been a better time to get online and fill that need."

Teachers also should let students know their teachers are there for them in this trying time, he said.

"This is a great opportunity for schools and families to come together," he said. "Families don't need packets and packets of school material now. They need to feel loved and feel connected to the school district. Students need to feel they are important human beings and that we care if they are scared and we are giving them supports they need."

Colorado's current Teacher of the Year Hilary Wimmer, a business teacher at Mountain Range High School in Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, advised teachers to take it one step at a time when teaching their students.

"A lot of people are concerned about getting all of their curriculum done, but I want people to remember we are in crisis," Wimmer said. "You aren't going to be able to deliver 100% of your content. Try to think, what are the most important outcomes that kids need to know when they leave your school. It's more about a life education now. Take those essential things and focus on those."

Additionally, she says it is important to focus on your well-being and the well-being of your students.

"One thing for teachers to remember, give yourself the same care and grace that you give your students," she said. "For many of us, this is going to be like going back to your first year of teaching. Be prepared for that. Give yourself some flexibility. Be willing to learn and change. Be positive. This will be a good change."

She advises teachers to do relaxing exercises, go for a walk, do yoga, practice self-care.

"Just like in any crisis, you want to check in with the kids, make sure each one is OK," she said. "We really need to ground kids. Many are scared. Kids look to their teachers for reassurance. We are reassuring them that everything is OK."

Every year Wimmer teaches a lesson in what would happen to society and the economy if a zombie apocalypse occurred. Students are charged with determining how goods and services would work in the time of such a crisis. Well, here we are, without the zombies.

"I prepare kids, even in the worst moments of crisis, that there are great opportunities to be a great human being and great business leader," she said. "This is where you see the great beauty in human beings. A lot of times in crisis is when innovation occurs. Now, I am having my students look for the shining spots in these scenarios. How can you capitalize them and make the world a better place?"

For example, Ms. Wimmer is spending her spring break sewing facemasks. She plans on sending them to homeless shelters.

"I am focusing on what I can do for others," she said.

Christina Randle, 2018's Teacher of the Year who is a first-grade teacher at Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Harrison School District No. 2, sees the silver lining in the experience.

"If there is such a thing as ‘good timing,' I would say this is the best time for something like this to happen," Randle said. "You have given your students three quarters of solid instruction. They are going to be OK; and whenever we get back together, we will meet our students where they are. Right now, let's make sure our students still feel loved and their families still feel supported. The rest will come together. Moreover, I hope everyone remembers that this is not a contest to see who does at-home learning best. It is not about outshining each other. Reach out to your colleagues for help: learn, share, and grow. We are all broken-hearted being away from our students, but I know our broken hearts will continue to lead and do right by students."

Meg Cypress, a fifth-grade teacher at Bradley International School in Denver Public Schools, was the 2019 Teacher of the Year. She has experience working with video in her classroom. Every day she creates video lessons for her students, who watch them from home or in class. Her advice to teachers who are new to creating videos – don't fill up the lesson with too much information.

"My first videos were full of everything I wanted to say on the screen," she said. "The students weren't absorbing what I wanted them to get. They need the most important things only. Don't do too much."

She encourages teachers to go easy on themselves during this tumultuous time.

"Really, understand that you are going to make some mistakes," she said. "You don't need to be perfect. We are all learning as we go. Everyone is doing the best they can. Be patient for the families because this is new for them too. Remember, sometimes computers are going to glitch. That will probably bother you. But you need to just know when to laugh."

Teachers should know they are on a steep learning curve.

"Something will work today may not work tomorrow, but we are going to get through this," she said. "I just want to say, what a great job teachers are doing coming together. Celebrate that. We are all rolling into something new. We need to celebrate each other and say, ‘Congratulations on doing a great job.'"

Read the interview transcripts for Hilary Wimmer, Meg Cypress, Christina Randle and Sean Wybrant.

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Photo of Sarah Blumenthal

We reached out to Sarah Blumenthal, supervisor of CDE's Health and Wellness Unit and the state's school nurse consultant, who has been very busy, as you can imagine. She took some time to answer a few questions for The Spark on good resources for teachers and strategies for getting through the day.

The Spark: How can school nurses help teachers during the coronavirus outbreak?

Sarah Blumenthal: During COVID-19, school nurses can support teachers by promoting prevention strategies, providing training and factual updates, and coordinating essential efforts with local public health agencies. They can also support teachers by providing targeted resources and guidance tailored to the school community needs.

The Spark: I'm sure by now people are very aware of the nature of this virus, how it started, how contagious it is and what people can do to stay healthy. But what are the most important things teachers should know?

Blumenthal: Following guidance provided regularly through public announcements is essential. These are measures known to reduce the spread and minimize the impact of the disease in your communities. Wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, avoid close contact, stay at home if you are sick, cover your cough and sneezes, and clean and disinfect regularly touched objects. CDC guidance for schools and childcare programs.

The Spark: Are there resources to use to talk to children about the disease –from kindergartners to teenagers?

The Spark: Teachers are doing things they have never had to do before this crisis, what are some self-care strategies people should be aware of to relieve the stress of this situation?

Blumenthal: Before anyone can be useful to support the needs of others, they need to make sure that they have the strength and stamina to do so. This is analogous to putting your oxygen mask on first! Self-care strategies go beyond. Here are some good resources:

The Spark: What are your final thoughts about how teachers can respond to this event?

Blumenthal: We are living in an extraordinary time, watching COVID-19 events unfold before us, questioning what these disruptions mean now, and how this affects the future. We have no comparable frame of reference or playbook. Not having the answers can feel uncomfortable and frustrating. Not being able to predict when things will return to normal, or what our new normal will look like doesn't sit well. In the coming weeks uncertainty is something we will need to get comfortable with to some degree. For now, here are some strategies that may help you navigate through each day:

  • Focus on nurturing relationships
  • Acknowledge that everyone responds to uncertainty differently
  • Tune in to your feelings. They can influence how you respond to uncertainty
  • Devote time to embrace the positive and things that are certain in life

Consider yourself a leader when it comes to responding to crisis. With that lens, try to focus on key actions that leaders take during a crisis:

  1. Put people first - always
  2. Create a list of priorities
  3. Consider creative and innovative ways to address challenges
  4. Be honest, empathetic, clear and simple
  5. Collect stories. They matter now, and they will matter later

As circumstances evolve we have an opportunity to gain perspectives, alter the course, and grow as a community. The next time we are faced with uncertainty, which is something we can all be certain of, we will all be better equipped!

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Teacher of the Year Nominations Graphic

Would you like to honor an exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled colleague? Nominate them to apply for the 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year award!

Each year, the Colorado Teacher of the Year Program honors an exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable, and skilled K-12 classroom teacher to represent the entire profession in the state. The selected teacher will automatically become Colorado's nominee for the National Teacher of the Year competition.

This special teacher also gets to attend the following events:

  • The National Teacher of the Year Induction, an opportunity for the country's teachers of the year to come together and understand their individual identities in their new roles.
  • Washington Week, an opportunity to go to the nation's capital for recognition. Teachers will get to visit the White House and meet the president as well as attend the National Teacher of the Year gala.
  • NASA Space Camp, where teachers participate in a version of astronaut training designed specifically for educators to take strategies and concepts back to their classrooms.
  • College Football Playoff National Championship Game to participate in the College Football Playoff Foundation's Extra Yard for Teachers event, which elevates the teaching profession by inspiring and empowering quality teachers.

All this can be possible for one exceptional Colorado teacher so tell the one you're thinking of to apply.

If you want to apply, stay tuned! CDE will announce the release of the application process.

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Decision Day Graphic

On Friday, May 1, Colorado will participate in Virtual Decision Day, which honors all the pathways that graduating high school students can take. That can include going to university, community college, occupational school or participating in an apprenticeship or serving in the military.

Over the course of this year, high school seniors have been researching their various options, applying to programs, and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Decision Day celebrates their hard work and recognizes their achievements and future goals.

On May 1, students, staff and community members are encouraged to wear gear to represent their favorite schools, alma maters or future programs to support students' future education aspirations.

For more information, check out the My Colorado Journey webpage

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Grace Byrnes always been passionate about working with children and realized that could be her professional calling – to be a teacher.

"Being a part of helping them and bonding with kids who really, really need it the most, that's my favorite part," Grace said.

As a senior at Grandview High School in Aurora, Grace is one of the inaugural students in Cherry Creek School District's Future Educator Pathway – a postsecondary program that allows high school juniors and seniors to spend half of their school days in an elementary classroom as a paraprofessional.

Grace is one of 12 students who are in the first year of the district's program, in which students become paid district staff members while earning both high school and college credit.

In Colorado, almost 9,000 teaching and special service provider (SSP) positions open every year – about 14% of all teaching positions and 19% of all SSP positions. SSP positions include school nurses, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, etc.

Of the teaching positions, about 3% remained unfilled in 2019-20 and 12% were filled through a shortage mechanism. And of the SSP positions, roughly 9% went unfilled in 2019 and 8% were filled through a shortage mechanism, which could mean everything from hiring substitutes to other emergency authorizations.

As districts struggle to find teachers every year, some are turning to "grow-your-own" programs like Cherry Creek's apprenticeship model.

"They are just like normal employees for us," said Mike Wadleigh, internship and apprenticeship coordinator with the district. "They went through the hiring process, fingerprinting, background checks. They are hired on as paras in the schools that they work at, so they are entered into the PERA (Public Employees Retirement Assistance) retirement program."

What makes Cherry Creek's model unique is that it isn't simply a peek behind the curtain at teaching – apprentices work at the schools for the full day, getting the full experience.

"We are asking the principals not only to have the students at recess and monitoring the lunch room, but we want them to truly get an educational experience so they know what it takes to teach – to work those small groups, to teach those mini-lessons, so it's more than just what a normal para will do but to get an experience of what is like to be an educator," Wadleigh said. "We are committed to them. We really want them to go off to college after their apprenticeship and know that they have a place to come back if they want to come back and teach in the district."

The idea is that these students will get a chance early in their careers to find out if teaching is what they want to do.

"One thing I've always said is that had a lot of teachers known what it is truly like early on, they may have changed their trajectory," Wadleigh said. "Student teaching is the last thing you do, which is the most intense part of the (college) education preparation program. These students are getting to do that as juniors and seniors in high school so they can make an educated decision about their careers."

In total, the district's educator pathway has 22 students. Ten of the students are taking a teacher cadet education course at Overland High School. Those students also do classroom observations. But the 12 who are apprentices do all the coursework online and also have an apprenticeship class.

Wadleigh said they interview the students in the same way they would a prospective employee.

"What we hear is that they are all passionate about working with kids," he said.

Working in the classroom helps the students gain an understanding about the profession, both good and bad. Students learn that it can be tiring, and that teachers don't get much down time, Wadleigh said.

"You have to be on all the time," he said. "But it is also very rewarding. Listening to these kids talk about their experiences is rewarding to me. I'm not in the classroom every day. But hearing from our apprentices, that they are in real, meaningful experiences."

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COVID-19 Resources

CDE's top priority is the health and safety of all students, educators and communities in Colorado. The department has compiled resources about Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) to help provide guidance to schools and districts.

Visit the COVID-19 school resources page.

Remote Learning Resources

In an effort to help schools plan for educational continuity while the suspension of in-person instruction is in effect, we have curated a list of best practices for remote learning and teaching including free web-based resources to help keep students academically engaged.

We've also compiled a list of online resources. Try connecting with Colorado educators using Facebook groups, Twitter, and Teacher to Teacher sites and check the CDE website often for important updates on support that is offered.

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