Dalton Public Schools still hosted new teachers this week for orientation, but the system made several alterations from the usual induction process to account for the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
While orientation was again four days, the location was changed this year to City Park School, with its new auditorium, a deviation from the usual recent host site of Dalton Middle School's quad, said Laura Orr, Dalton Public Schools' chief academic officer. City Park provides more room, and when they weren't in the auditorium, new teachers spread into five classrooms.
Temperatures of individuals were taken each morning, social distancing protocols were practiced, and masks were worn, Orr said. In addition, "we usually feed them up a storm, breakfasts and lunches," but this year, "they can only bring snacks from home."
The usual pomp and circumstance of the opening day — last year, Dalton Public Schools staffers welcomed the new hires by forming a human tunnel of cheering, clapping and exhorting — was also absent, making for a more "low key" start, she said. "(We're missing) a lot of the little things."
On Wednesday, new hires heard from Marcia Tate, a bestselling author, popular speaker and respected education consultant, virtually, Orr said. Tate visited Dalton Public Schools in February to speak to current staff members, "and we knew we wanted her" for new teachers, as well.
Because of the pandemic, that interaction happened virtually, rather than face to face, but "it's working great, and they're able to access her (expertise) just as we did in February," Orr said Wednesday. "They seem very engaged."
Due to the pandemic, Dalton Public Schools is giving families the option of virtual learning this school year, so teachers need to develop ideas for engaging those students who aren't in their classrooms, and Tate provided models for doing so, Orr said. "We like to collaborate, share ideas, and build relationships (in person), but now our first priority is keeping everyone safe, so we'll have to use some different strategies."
The system has roughly 50 new teachers this year, and, as usual, there's a mix of educators in their first teaching gigs and educators moving to Dalton from other locales. Bradley Balthrop-Lee is joining Dalton Public Schools after eight years teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in Hamilton County, Tennessee (Chattanooga), while Mary Clark is making third-grade teacher at Roan School her first job after graduating from the University of Georgia, but both knew from early ages they wanted to be educators.
"I always loved kids and learning and wanted to be a teacher," said Clark, a product of Dalton Public Schools. "I loved elementary school, and my memories of being in Dalton Public Schools are so positive."
Balthrop-Lee "knew I wanted to teach since I was very little," and with English as one of his strength's, an adviser at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga suggested he consider ESOL, he said. "I had never heard of that," but he quickly grew attached, so he stayed an extra semester to achieve his credits, then was hired by Hamilton County Schools only a couple of months after his graduation.
He jumped to Dalton Public Schools because "I knew the reputation (of the system) and the support (here)," said Balthrop-Lee, who will be an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at City Park. "It's a close-knit (system) where everyone is passionate about diversity, which is important to me as an ELL teacher because that's my way of living."
"I'm passionate about being inclusive and making sure every student has opportunities to be successful," he added. "I'm excited to dive back in, develop relationships with students, and show them all the opportunities they truly have."
The fact that Clark will now have her own classroom, rather than contributing to someone else's room as a student-teacher, "hasn't totally hit me, yet," she said with a chuckle. When she first walked into what will be her room at Roan, she thought, "Holy cow, this is mine.''
"I'm really excited to have my own room and try new things," she said. "On my own, I can build relationships with (students)."
Indeed, "the most common theme I've heard from speakers this week is developing relationships with students," Balthrop-Lee said. "They won't learn anything unless they know you care about them."
Even as someone who grew up in Dalton Public Schools, orientation week "was special" for Clark, because she got to see the system "from another perspective," she said. "I can see how much the community cares" about Dalton Public Schools.
All teachers will have more time to plot their instruction for the 2020-21 year than they would have expected, as Dalton Public Schools has delayed the start of the year for students from Aug. 6 to Aug. 31. Teachers won't report until Aug. 17, instead of early August.
"They'll be able to spend some more time getting acclimated," Orr said. There is some anxiousness among first-year educators about teaching during a pandemic, but that feeling extends even to veteran teachers, because "this is a new type of thing for all of us, and everyone is having to think differently."