With the pandemic completely shifting the way students are learning, a new initiative has been launched to help ease the complications of virtual learning — an online tutoring website by the Texas Retired Teachers Foundation.
“The big problem we’re finding with virtual learning is a much higher failure rate,” said Suzanne Bardwell, TRTA legislative issues officer and East Texas newspaper owner/editor. “It varies from district to district, but we’re seeing consistency across the state and I would hazard a guess that it’s the same across the nation.”
The new program utilizes a 400,000-plus pool of retired school personnel and pairs them up with students on any specific course for tutoring and mentor success.
“These teachers, they’re very capable, very smart, very energetic and engaged, and they want to help, they want to do something,” said Tim Lee, executive director of the TRTA and its nonprofit partner organization TRTF. “All of these facets have played into the minds of my leadership and they said, ‘Look, we can bring together this large group of retired, certified classroom educators and we can put them in a situation with a student and give them the support they need in whatever subject they might be struggling with.’”
Bardwell said oftentimes, retired teachers will become substitutes.
“Because of the pandemic, many of them are unable to do that because preexisting health conditions or age would put them at risk,” she said. “This is a way to engage that resource that actively seeks to continue in the profession and continue contributing to kids and education.”
The program’s website, www.trtf.org, is already up and running, but Lee said the foundation is undertaking a lofty $10 million fundraising effort to be able to help families cover the cost of the tutoring. The $10 million would amount to about 250,000 hours of instruction.
“There are some people who are willing to direct pay, who don’t want to wait until we raise the money, and we’re supporting that right now,” Lee said. “But not every kid is going to be able to pay and we get that. From a charitable side, that’s why we want to raise the money.”
Bardwell, who taught high school for more than 30 years, said the program can be an asset to today’s teachers as well as the students.
“If you’re dedicated to making sure that your kids are learning — virtual as well as in the classroom — you’re going to be working around the clock seven days a week,” she said. “I know how hard I worked and how many hours I dedicated, and I cannot imagine if I had the weight of 20 additional students at home.
“We’re expecting to see a really large teacher shortage after this, because most districts did not come up with extra pay and teachers are working many, many, many more hours a week than they were.”
Lee has four kids in public school, and said he understands first hand the challenges schools are facing right now.
“My real focus is pretty simple. Retired teachers need some extra revenue, students need help and schools need support,” he said. “We may have been born out of the COVID reality that we all live in today, but if it goes away, we are not.
“School is getting harder, teachers and parents and under pressure and students in Texas need a service like ours.”
TRTF has partnered with Knack, an online tutoring platform that has some experience in helping provide collegiate tutoring in other states.
“We knew if we did this without a partner familiar with this world, we would be doing a disservice to those we are trying to help,” Lee said. “They were as passionate as we are about helping Texas students.”
The TRTF tutoring website currently has about 200 retired teachers available for tutoring. It will take a little more time to build that base up, as the TRTF is very strict about security — a tutor’s certification must be verified, their names are compared with a ‘Do Not Hire’ list for Texas public schools, all of the available public data on each individual is reviewed and the teachers undergo an initial training process so that they can learn the software.
Right now, Lee said the program is seeking out bilingual tutors, particularly those in math and science.
“If we can make a significant impact in the Spanish-speaking population in math and science, that would be a major victory,” he said.