Before the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic confined Barbara Sinclair to her Naperville, Illinois condo in the United States, the former public school teacher put her experience to use tutoring students in a GED class at a local college.
When it became clear that activity would have to go on hiatus, the 84-year-old wondered how she would spend all her newfound free time.
But her break from teaching would be brief. Along with more than 360 former educators, Sinclair has raised her hand to provide virtual tutoring sessions to kindergarten through 12th grade students during the school shutdown in a volunteer effort organised by the Illinois Retired Teachers Association (IRTA).
The first-of-its-kind programme for the association aims to keep students motivated while alleviating stress for parents, many of whom must juggle working from home with overseeing their children’s remote learning. Yet the initiative also benefits the volunteers who want to keep busy, a previously untapped resource that can help students remain on track academically despite the unprecedented disruption.
“Right now, we’re locked down, and I feel kind of useless, ” Sinclair said. “I’m used to tutoring and so forth. It’s something I felt like I needed to do.”
The programme matches the volunteers with students who need extra help in reading, writing, math or the sciences. Parents and students can sign up online with a form detailing the subjects they find challenging.
John Flaherty, president of the IRTA, said his organisation brainstormed the programme early April and began the matching process a few days later. Flaherty said he hopes to assist students who might be falling behind since all public and private schools in Illinois closed March 17, under Governor J.B. Pritzker’s orders.
“Our members are ready to help students build their learning skills and tutor in highly advanced subject areas like chemistry and mathematics, ” Flaherty said. “For elementary students, self-paced and self-directed learning is a foreign concept. A teacher-mentor will help students take their own initiative and focus their learning at their own pace.”
Once paired up, the tutors will conduct video sessions with students for the remainder of the school year, or through June 1. The video sessions can be held over Zoom, Skype, FaceTime or other electronic means.
Tutors will determine how often sessions should be scheduled, based on the students’ progress.
Parents are encouraged to monitor the individual appointments, Flaherty said. For security, tutors will only receive the name and email address of the student they are matched with, and those who want to volunteer must be members of the IRTA so their credentials can be verified.
“We’ve never had a situation like this before, and this kind of presents a lot of opportunities, ” said Flaherty, a former high school and special education teacher in Rock Island. “Retired teachers, like everyone else, are staying at home. The majority of them volunteer quite a bit and they can’t do those same things.”
Sinclair, who taught in Barrington 220 School District, said she is excited to connect with the student assigned to her.
A seventh grade student indicated needing help with math, and Sinclair said she feels confident she can make a difference, drawing on her 30-year career in elementary, middle and high schools. She said she emailed the student to set up an initial consultation. While the student was on spring break, Sinclair said she brushed up on lessons about decimals, fractions and geometry.
But the biggest challenge, she said, will be embracing new technology. Though Sinclair said she sometimes struggles with tasks like answering her iPhone, she’s game to learn about video conferencing and give it a try. Worst case, she said she will enlist her grandson, also a teacher in the Barrington district, to help set it up.
“I think all I need is some tutoring on how to work the Internet, ” she said, feeling positive about her prospects.
To date, far more teachers have signed up for the programme than students, said Nathan Mihelich, IRTA’s director of membership and marketing. He said he hopes more parents will reach out as word about the programme spreads.
“I think for our retirees, they have a real heartfelt desire to help during these times, ” Mihelich said in an email. “I feel very proud.”
Kathleen Stoch, 66, is a retired educator waiting to be matched. Stoch, who specialises in technical reading and writing, said she can help students with essays or understanding tricky story problems in math or science classes.
Stoch, who taught much of her 38-year career at Argo Community High School in Summit, said she takes the role seriously. Noting that her late husband was an educator as well as her son, Stoch said she heeded the call from IRTA when she learned about the programme through an email.
“This is what we believe in, and the opportunity to serve the students and families of Illinois is an opportunity that I would never not take advantage of, ” she said. “It’s what I do. It’s my life’s work, and I’m happy to participate.”
On April 17, Pritzker announced that all Illinois schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2020 school year. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service