One of the most exciting parts of my fellowship right now is the opportunity to participate in summer strategic planning for the upcoming academic year. As a rising second-year fellow, I’ve had one year to learn the ropes at Reading Partners and play an integral role in the adjustments we made to transition our previously in-person tutoring program to an entirely virtual model. Last year was tough: we had to figure out how to manage tutor expectations and effectively communicate uncertainty, support tutors in learning a new virtual platform, and change several of our processes to adjust for the fact that location is irrelevant when tutoring online. Our task now is to take all of our learnings from the past year and make improvements across all areas of our operations that will set us up for success in this upcoming school year which is proving to be just as unpredictable as the last. In this blog, I’ll share some of the issues we are working to tackle this summer!
Communicating nuanced plans to stakeholders in the midst of uncertainty is hard. There’s just so many unknowns, last year and this year. Last year, we spent the year gradually pushing back the date of a possible in-person start. We also told tutors that they would start sooner than they actually did (due to delays in student enrollment), and continued to ask them to wait patiently. This year, we’re going to stick with planning virtual tutoring until we know more. Once again, we’re asking tutors for their flexibility and patience and not making premature promises of in-person engagement and tutoring start dates. We’re so grateful for the support of our amazing tutors!
Switching to online programming inevitably presents tech challenges, especially for some of our older adult volunteers. Last year, I developed our tech tutor program, where I worked with some of our federal work study college students to organize a system where they could provide one-on-one tech support to tutors that needed it. This year, I’m trying to formalize the tech tutor training: tech tutors need absolute expertise in all technical elements of our system (trust me, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong), as well as training on how to coach others on tech. I’m also working to streamline the scheduling and booking process by which tech tutors provide their availability and tutors book slots. We use a very helpful website called Calendly to allow tutors to select the time that works for them. Calendly then sends out an automated confirmation email and a reminder email before the session that includes the zoom link. We are so grateful to our tech tutors for making online tutoring possible!
One of the trickiest challenges we have is making sure we are collecting tutor availability in a way that is efficient, clear, and most of all beneficial to our students’ needs. If we have 1,200 students that need tutors and 1,200 tutors ready to tutor, that’s great, but it only works if the tutors can tutor when the students are available. On my team, we’re finding new ways to identify when students will need tutors by tracking enrolled students’ availability in our school center schedules, and using our data system and anecdotal info from our program managers to predict when students that are currently being enrolled will be available. We’re using a new Google Form to collect tutor availability, which allows us to receive their availability into one big spreadsheet, and adjust the Google Form week to week to indicate to tutors what our highest need times are.
One of the benefits of switching to virtual tutoring is that all tutors can tutor at any school (for example, a tutor that lives in the Bronx can tutor a student in Bed-Stuy). This means we don’t have to deal with shortages of tutors in specific neighborhoods, and tutors with very limited availability have lots of schools they can be placed with. To adjust to this new reality, we switched mid-year to a system that allows any tutor to be scheduled anywhere instead of having separate pipelines for each neighborhood. Right now, I’m working on optimizing this system to minimize things that were tricky last year: how do we accurately show remaining availability for tutors that tutor many hours a week? How do we manage data when some tutors are placed at multiple schools? How do we prioritize which tutors get scheduled?
To conclude, I’m excited for another dynamic year at Reading Partners and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given to be a leader on our regional team in these areas. COVID-19 has caused every organization to adapt, and with change comes first challenge, then learning, and now growth and improvement!
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