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Teachers described their challenges in combining in-person and remote teaching in a University of California, Santa Cruz, study published in January 2022. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Although educators are trying to keep schools open during the pandemic, they still have to figure out how to educate children quarantining at home. Some school leaders have been turning to an innovative solution: allowing children at home to learn remotely along with their in-person classmates. That sounds simple, but it means that teachers have to track students who are only present in Zoom squares while watching others at desks in the room. 

Now a small study of teachers across nine states finds that this hybrid solution is the worst way to teach because it’s exhausting for teachers to toggle back and forth between the two modes and all students appear to learn less this way. Student failures during the 2020-21 school year prompted three districts in the study to abandon the dual approach and split into separate in-person only and remote only classes. 

“Every teacher in our study was clear that being asked to teach in a blended-hybrid manner was the worst way to be asked to teach,” said Lora Bartlett, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “This is not whining about working hard at all. It’s a professional assessment of a flawed model. We’re saying it’s hard for teachers to meet the needs of students.” 

Bartlett compared this sort of dual teaching to driving a car on a highway while simultaneously playing a race-car video game on a screen.  “You can’t play a video game about driving and drive in real life,” she said. “It’s completely absurd.”

It’s unknown exactly how many schools around the country have asked teachers to teach two ways at once. Surveys of school principals during the 2020-21 school year by the RAND Corporation found that 60 percent of schools were offering hybrid instruction, but that could also mean that students alternated between in-person and remote days. RAND estimated that two-thirds of the teachers in hybrid schools were delivering remote and in-person instruction concurrently.

Teachers’ first preference, Bartlett said, was to teach in person. When that’s not possible, the second best is all remote. Alternating days and class periods between the modes is practical too. The problem is combining the two at once, according to “Specifying Hybrid Models of Teachers’ Work During COVID-19,” published online in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Researcher, in January 2022. 

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, Bartlett wanted to document the lives of teachers. She was an expert in teachers’ working conditions and the pandemic presented some interesting new ones. Along with some like-minded colleagues, she quickly formed an ad-hoc research group, “Suddenly Distant,” to capture this moment in history. Seven hundred and fifty teachers filled out a Google form saying they wanted to talk about what was happening to them.

“We naively thought this would be a short-lived situation,” said Bartlett.

As the pandemic dragged on, Bartlett decided to turn the short-term project into a long-term survey and oral history of what was happening in classrooms around the country. She selected 75 teachers from nine states to represent the range of demographics, geographies and union strength within the U.S. teaching work force. The teachers worked in elementary, middle and high schools. She sent them regular surveys and conducted more in-depth interviews with half of them. 

One high school history teacher in a Florida city described juggling three devices in the study. “I have the desktop that goes to the smart board for the students who are face-to-face and also at home. Then I have my [school] laptop to monitor anything if students email me during class that they’re having technical difficulties. And then I have my personal laptop on so the students can see me with Microsoft Teams.”

Despite these efforts, the teacher said her students were frustrated and often felt ignored. The in-person students complained that she was spending too much time behind her desk, talking to the students on her laptop. When she attempted to mix the remote students with in-person ones in small groups, it was hard for the in-person students sitting together at desks to engage with students at home.

Remote students also complained of muffled voices behind masks, which made it hard to hear what classmates were saying. 

One teacher in Texas attempted to overcome these audio difficulties by setting up cameras around her classroom and a big microphone and speaker in the middle of the room. “It would work great for the first period every day,” Bartlett said. “But then by second period, so many other teachers were on the internet that the system would crash. The students at home couldn’t see anything she was doing.”

A high school teacher in rural Kentucky called the two-way teaching “chaos,” with online students seeing something different on their screens than what the in-person students had in front of them. 

The teacher decided to have the remote students work more independently, which took care of the chaos, but also diminished how much they learned.  

“We ended up meeting with our virtual kids during homeroom [instead of in class] but it was only 30 minutes a day,” the Kentucky teacher told the researchers. “So I cut out a lot of stuff.”

Only three of the teachers in the study succeeded in sustaining synchronous instruction in both modes during the 2020-21 school year. Like the Kentucky teacher, many switched the remote students to independent “asynchronous” learning at home. 

Bartlett says that many schools are officially teaching in person, but in reality are continuing to demand that teachers teach both ways. “When students are quarantining, teachers are required to, or opt to – it’s different in different places – Zoom or FaceTime their students into the classroom so that they don’t fall behind,” said Bartlett. “There is really a very large amount of this hybrid occurring.”

“And I think a whole lot more might have to soon,” she added, as the Omicron variant makes its way across the country. 

This story about remote and in-person learning was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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  1. Dear Ms. Barshay,

    Thank you for publishing an article about a study confirming what every teacher around the U.S. has known for two years! I know that sounded snarky, but I’m really actually thanking you. 🙂 Teacher voices are stronger when backed by thoughtful research and reporting!

    I wanted to let you know that my middle school campus (7th-8th) has developed what our teachers feel is a pretty smooth workaround for hybrid teaching. I understand that not all schools will have the same resources, schedule, or personnel that we are fortunate to have, but there may be schools out there who could adopt a version of this method: the TA Interface.

    The TA Interface method only works with core classes (or classes that everyone in the grade takes). On our campus, 7th and 8th graders take the same core classes, plus various electives. First, our students are split into pods that travel together to the various core classes, such that teachers teach the same material to all pods. Next, whenever a student goes online, that student is temporarily placed with Pod #1, thereby collocating all the online students into one pod. This means that teachers only have to teach one concurrent class (the one with Pod #1), and the other classes can be all in-person. Finally — and this is CRUCIAL — we have hired TAs (college graduates but no teaching experience) to be the “online interface” for the concurrent classes. So for every Pod #1 we have, there is a TA who physically attends class with the in-person students in Pod #1. She (they happen to be all women at our school) sits near the front of the classroom, at one of those inevitably unoccupied-due-to-covid student desks, and SHE (not the teacher) is the one to set up the Google Meet, to read the students’ chat box, to make sure the camera and microphone is working, to present any slides or videos online, to answer the online students’ questions when she can, and to raise her physical hand in the physical classroom when an online student has a question she cannot answer. In other words, she is the Interface that the physical classroom and online students so badly need.

    We recognize that this method isn’t perfect (especially as it splits up pods), and there are many logistics I haven’t brought up here (like creating a MS7Online Google Classroom so teachers can post material to all online students at once), but it has changed burned-out, exhausted teachers into teachers who are ready to come to work for another day! Possibly the TA Interface idea will help another school; it has tremendously transformed ours.

    Again, thank you for your reporting.

    Sincerely,
    Valerie

  2. Turning the COVID Moment into a Movement for Reform:
    A conversation between a mother and daughter

    Author Information:
    ● Patrice McMahon, Director of the Honors Program, Professor, Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, pmcmahon2@unl.edu
    ● Hana McMahon-Cole, Graduate of Minerva University, hanalee@uni.minerva.edu

    Covid pushed us back together. One house, nowhere to go, and lots of time to talk. After four years of globetrotting, my college senior returned to the United States in the spring of 2020. Her unique college experience, attending an online global university, provided her with more than just international experiences. As her university required, she had mastered certain “habits of mind,” pushing her to grapple with complex issues through the lens of systems thinking. Other than threatening to ground her in Lincoln, Nebraska, she was ready for the hybrid world that COVID-19 created.

    I was not. After teaching at a public land grant university for 20 years and as the new director of the university’s honors program, my anxiety turned to dread, and then to exhaustion as we moved online. Hana’s and my evening conversations on the purpose, future, and change needed in higher education were lively but unexpectedly difficult.

    We did agree on a lot: American colleges were too expensive; they needed to leverage, rather than reject, technology; and students craved experiences that were interactive and relevant. Although Hana believes that college can be a good place to develop critical thinking skills and improve one’s life, she is not convinced that most colleges are embracing the changes needed to provide young people with the skills and experiences they need for success. We also had different priorities and solutions for how the COVID moment could improve higher education, particularly at 4-year, land grant public universities. These differences stemmed from initial disagreement around three questions: How do we learn? What should we learn?; and Where could we learn?

    As we embark on our fourth Covid-dominated semester, we wanted to share our ideas on how the pandemic provides pathways to improve learning in our public, land grant universities. We are interested in land grant universities because of their unique and important mission: to provide working-class individuals with a liberal arts, practical education through teaching, research, and extension. These universities may not be affordable to everyone, but their purpose is clear and goals unassailable. Adapting the argument made by James Lang in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, we focus on ways that faculty and students can start reimagining the land-grant university experience. COVID-19 provided a pause for everyone involved in education; we hope that it will be an inflection point for better teaching and more learning.

    What is at stake?

    A lot. We used different examples, but we agree that there is a serious misalignment of purpose among stakeholders at land-grant universities: most students go to college to have fun and get credentialed while faculty are rewarded largely for their research. The institutions have three priorities (teaching, research, and engagement), but they often compete and rarely are there discussions of how they intersect. All universities, moreover, operate on the outdated and disproven assumption that the content expert is always the best teacher. This means that land grant universities not only force teachers to do research, but we often require researchers to teach. Few are happy or successful navigating both skill sets and most feel overworked. Separating these two jobs and creating team approaches could reduce the competition between teaching and research and allow teachers to better focus on students.

    Even before COVID-19, American universities were dealing with an ominous trifecta – declining faith in the value of college; a rise in interesting and affordable alternatives to traditional, residential universities; and changing demographics and international politics that amounted to fewer college-age students (Pandemic magnifies pre‐COVID‐19 U.S. higher education challenges). The pandemic accelerated these challenges while amplifying other, longstanding problems related to student learning, particularly how poorly universities prepare students for the world. Students, employers, and the world need students who are educated in a holistic, integrated fashion that is both intentional and purposeful, providing students with knowledge, skills, and experiences.

    If America’s youth lose faith in the value of college (which is already happening), our country is accelerating our fall from global leadership. Coined by Joseph Nye, soft power is the ability to attract rather than coerce. At one time, the United States had a seemingly endless supply of soft power, attracting the brightest minds globally to the United States as students. And for decades, American universities dominated the rankings of the world’s best universities. Yet, every year, there are fewer American institutions on these lists, providing evidence of the decline of crucial soft power. Without smart young people to solve complex global problems, the United States is increasingly vulnerable and unable to compete.

    The diversity of American higher education has been key to its success, and this should not change, but the pandemic reminds us of the importance of flexibility and innovation. Most universities, unfortunately, “subscribe to planning models that were built for a different time and a different competitive market” (The Transformation-Ready Higher Education Institution). Meanwhile, countries like China and India, which together send more than a half a million students to the United States, are making significant investments in higher education to retain the best and brightest at home (Chinese & Indians Accounted for 47% of US International Students in 2020, Figures Show).Put differently, if American universities do not adapt and innovate, we will lose an important component of power.

    What my daughter and I agreed on is that faculty and students, as well as other stakeholders like staff and administrators, should use the COVID-19 pause to consider the purpose of higher education. If public, land grant universities want to ensure that they are fulfilling their ambitious mission, they need to spend time honing their 21st-century purpose, leveraging technology and knowledge to create better mechanisms to teach, advance knowledge, and engage the community.

    How do we learn?

    In different ways. Despite my resistance, my daughter explained how learning looks for students who grew up with constant access to technology — lots of Googling, and lots of watching YouTube how-to videos and entertaining TED talks. So, even before COVID-19, teaching and learning was happening online and through a growing number of interactive platforms. Many faculty simply dismissed this growing reality, relying largely on the use of lectures to teach and deliver information. It is hard to know how much lecturing happens at universities, but one study found that despite the known shortcomings of lectures on learning about science, technology, and math, more than 80% of STEM classes rely on this passive pedagogy (Study finds the lecture remains the dominant form of teaching in STEM). Students in lecture classes not only learn less, but they are more likely to fail than students in classes that utilize more active teaching methods (Lectures aren’t just boring, they’re Ineffective, too, study finds).

    The pandemic catalyzed a movement of online teaching, with professors moving their already pedagogically questionable lectures onto massive Zoom calls. What a deadly combination for students, especially with so much uncertainty and isolation. The shortcomings of lectures are not surprising, and we understand the financial constraints and the need for them — occasionally and supported by interactive approaches. A reliance on lectures is just disappointing, especially when we consider new research focused on learning, the growth of online content, and a range of interactive techniques. Thanks to cognitive scientists who study the brain, we have a better understanding of how people best acquire and retain information. As Stephen Kossyln in The Science of Learning explains, this does not mean the end of faculty or lectures, but it should encourage faculty and students to think about how they can improve the acquisition, retention, and application of knowledge. Although we criticize faculty for using dated and even questionable teaching methods, it is still the case that the average professor has received little or no training in teaching. Still, universities must take responsibility for poor teaching, as they have not historically hired teachers to teach. Further changes in hiring practices are also necessary.

    Faculty must acknowledge that the effects of well-crafted lectures on student learning are minimal at best. Lectures can deliver lots of information to a large number of people, providing the foundation needed for inspiration and organization, but if lectures are not interactive, responsive, and feed off student cues, they should be recorded and class time can be used for something else (Effectiveness of teaching education in business). Land grant universities became widespread in the early 19th century. Since then, there have been seismic changes in our culture and technology. Yet, the main teaching method — across different institutions of higher learning — are one-way lectures.

    Within the last decade, the world’s knowledge is suddenly at anyone’s fingertips, at any time. As content experts, faculty should continue to design brief, inspiring lectures that transfer information to large numbers, but they should also experiment with individualized learning opportunities, having students co-create their learning. Simple techniques abound: pair and share activities; teach backs where students explain what they learn; simulations, and problem- and project-based learning. Instead of delivering pieces of knowledge that can be found online, faculty should introduce students to theories, frameworks, and tools that explain how systems like governments, climate, and education fit together. Since access is less of a challenge today, faculty should help students develop their capacity to discriminate information to determine what is most useful, legitimate, and actionable. Faculty should help students discern facts, think critically, and connect information through discussion, debate, and simulations. These approaches teach students how to ask good questions and to solve problems

    At a meta-level, universities can introduce incoming students to systems thinking, requiring that they develop critical thinking by inviting students to reflect on why they are attending university, how they are advancing their education, and what they are passionate about with videos, testimonials, stories, or presentations. Some universities, including my own, have realized the importance of infusing purpose in student learning. We know that teachers gain buy-in by communicating the ‘why’ for teaching methods and assignments. Universities that integrate a macro ‘why’ in a clear view for each student at the beginning of their college career and into their majors and minors will help students focus their studies, become more motivated learners, and provide them transferable skills that will help them become adaptable, lifelong learners.

    Faculty, staff, and administrators can regularly remind students that learning is not a spectator sport, but students must engage and take ownership. Attending lectures and showing up is not enough; they need to seek out opportunities on campuses and in the community that push them to practice and apply what they are learning. However, instead of telling students what they ought to do, faculty could incorporate such opportunities within the curriculum. We agree that institutions do matter and faculty, and staff are crucial, but students must also be honest with themselves about why they are attending college, what they should be doing, and how much they learn.

    What should we teach and learn?

    Lots of different topics and how they relate to each other, a key takeaway from COVID-19. The invention of the printing press and the scientific revolution in the 15th and 17th centuries respectively had a profound impact on universities and their emphasis on research and the education of each student (Interdisciplinarity and the 21st Century Research University). The growth of knowledge ever since pushed specialization, leading to the current structure which is rigidly divided into departments and colleges. Academic institutions evolved from communities of peers into disciplines with unique criteria for evaluation and advancement. COVID-19 demonstrates the need to break down these artificial distinctions and to create 21st century institutions that educate students in different topics, but in a holistic, integrative way that helps them understand the connections between disciplines and topics.

    Technological changes in the last decade alone have changed the quantity of information available and who has access. These internal dynamics of knowledge creation have evolved alongside changing external demands from society to manage problems that are complex and where there is no single solution. “Wicked problems,” like climate change, inequality, and pandemics, are the result of interdependencies that require familiarity with different information and relationships. To prepare students to solve these problems, our universities must move beyond disciplinary silos and integrate information and methodologies, navigating between disciplines and between academia and the world.

    A commitment to increasing interdisciplinarity has been nearly universal within higher education for decades, but in practice it has proven difficult to implement (Enhancing and promoting interdisciplinarity in higher education). Institutions must be more intentional about the knowledge they seek to advance, and faculty, staff, and students can be partners in the process, advocating for the problems they want to solve and the enduring questions that require reflection and debate. We know that students who can make connections across a diverse array of knowledge and skills will embark on a path to more rewarding lives as well as employment opportunities (The World Needs Students With Interdisciplinary Education)

    Although most faculty are trained in specific disciplines, many realize that there are times when we must take off the disciplinary blinders. As content experts, we should teach our students how our area of specialization fits within broader societal structures and theoretical frameworks. On a regular basis, for example, a Political Science department should ensure that their classes are integrated and address real-world issues. For example, students could identify key domestic problems and require that students probe the interconnectedness of government and these challenges.

    Faculty and administrators can advance integrative learning in our classes and in our regular interactions with students. Integrative learning is about connecting and synthesizing ideas, knowledge, and skills across different contexts. Faculty can elevate this kind of learning by requiring different assignments, some that emphasize the retention of facts while others their application. Departments, moreover, could push for more interdisciplinarity and skill acquisition by regularly revisiting their courses and deciding the big questions their classes seek to address. Universities support interdisciplinarity, but it is up to faculty to advocate for increased interdisciplinary research and teaching, to create more sustainable structures to reward and expand interdisciplinarity in our institutions.

    Today’s college students are full of passion. Universities must encourage them to think of themselves as problem solvers, with majors or minors as secondary. We should regularly encourage students to view their undergrad degree as a time to identify which problem(s) they are interested in tackling, identifying the skills they need to learn. Rather than drilling home the acquisition of facts — something Google can do better– we should focus on skills that allow students to discern facts, use scientific formulas, and create compelling narratives that inspire action. With a systems thinking framework in mind, students will come to see each class as a chance to become more aware, understand why problems exist, and to acquire the tools to affect change.

    Unfortunately, my daughter tells me, most students feel stifled and bored by college; they just want the piece of paper. In what we teach, we need to embrace their creativity and let their passions guide them. As newcomers to academia, they are uniquely able to explore the intersections between diverse fields and to cross-pollinate. These will be the spaces where solutions to wicked problems are found.

    Where could we learn?

    Everywhere and anywhere. The explosion of COVID-prompted online classes Zoomed faculty into dorm halls, bedrooms, and to outdoor patios. Hybrid classes were still using physical classrooms, but we were learning online, in our community, in real time, and asynchronously. By accepting that the geography of learning has changed forever, we need to make the most of both in-person and online opportunities.

    In-person classes have been rare since March 2020; this pause gives us time to reconsider their unique purpose and importance, especially since new technologies, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality allow for immersive and personalized education that can be provided at a lower cost. In-person classes and campus-based activities should use their infrastructures and resources to intentionally amplify in-person activities, ensuring that classrooms are spaces and places for sharing, reflecting, and experimenting. Rather than using classes for passive learning, they should be dynamic laboratories for innovating, collaborating, and co-creating.

    Faculty must make the most of their “home court advantage” by envisioning a campus that seamlessly blends with the surrounding community and the countless opportunities it provides for real-world problem solving and learning. We appreciate that the classroom might be suitable for some kinds of learning, but just as we now realize that online learning can work, especially to connect experts and people from faraway places, COVID opened the doors wide to other environments and places for learning. Service-learning is a popular pedagogy at American universities because it promotes the retention of students by supporting community involvement. This is a well-documented high impact practice. Service-learning offers an effective and efficient way of incorporating real-world learning into courses, as do internships and cooperative education (P. C. Godfrey & E. T. Grasso, 2000). In a post-COVID world, every student should participate in service, work-based learning, or community-based research.

    The key to 21st century learning is not where it happens but how it happens, and intentionality is key. This could mean optimizing the benefits of online learning by flipping the classroom experience and having students watch lectures and do readings before class starts. It could include zooming in experts working in the field. Class time then becomes a unique opportunity to interact with students, asking questions, leading discussions, teaching others, and engaging in simulations. Larger classes could utilize students who would help implement activities that push students to apply what they have learned. Residential universities should be laser focused on engaging, inspiring, and building relationships. This could result in more flexibility with class topics, responding to current events or new problems, but it will also mean more experiential learning and working with campus and community partners to ensure that learning in different settings is respected and supported.

    Students also need to envision the classroom and campus differently, as places to engage, practice, and interact with people, resources, and experiences. Classes should not be seen as a separate realm of reality with little to no applicability to the real-world, but as a foundation for exploring society outside the ivory towers. If the previous model of college was built around large lecture classes with midterm and final exams made up largely of multiple-choice questions, the new model should treat students as participants in ongoing conversations, with problem- and project-based assignments, and classroom time should be reserved for sharing knowledge, piloting ideas, and experimentation.

    Students must accept that to succeed in a rapidly changing environment, they must cultivate intellectual flexibility, incorporate different sources of information, and prioritize skill-building. They should also realize that “as consumers” of higher education, they express their interests and preferences by the choices they make, whether it is the institution they attend, the classes they choose, or their intended major. They should not, however, merely accept what is offered but should weigh in on what they want and need. In national surveys, employers consistently identify the need for college graduates to have both depth of understanding in a major field and a broad range of skills. Indeed, to succeed in the workplace of the future, skills such as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving will be crucial. If colleges are not demonstrating an ability to teach knowledge and skills while providing meaningful experiences, students will look elsewhere. In fact, some already have. Even before Covid, fewer students were choosing to go to college (https://www.npr.org/2019/12/16/787909495/fewer-students-are-going-to-college-heres-why-that-matters).

    There are many reasons to maintain land grant universities, as well as other residential educational institutions, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the other places and ways that we learn. As Chris Gallagher argues in College Made Whole, we should not necessarily unbundle what we do at universities in favor of creating learning opportunities that might be cheaper but are not better (College Made Whole). However, for land grant universities to survive, we must learn from the COVID pause and make intentional, blended learning experiences on campus and in the community the default moving forward.

    There is no time to wait

    My daughter and I identified the problems with higher education and land grant universities quickly. The much harder part was developing actionable ways that faculty, staff, and students could take advantage of the COVID moment to reform the residential university experience. The good news is that while access to knowledge was once limited and doled out based on geography and socioeconomic background, this is no longer the case. Soon almost everyone will have an infinite amount of information, with technology that can fit in their hand. Universal access to facts, however, does not equate to integrative learning or to skills that can solve complex problems like COVID-19. Tomorrow’s wicked problems require knowledge of different disciplines and a mastery of various skills. This, we concluded, will require a movement within higher education, and an intentional shift away from a system based on knowledge acquisition to one of knowledge engagement. This will mean that we will all need to change how, what, and where we teach and learn.

  3. China has dealt with four-five significant epidemics in the past decade. The USA education department should be looking to the successes returning to school during COVID-19 in Chinese public schools. Their methodology includes prioritizing the graduating classes as the first full-time classes to return once the danger is averted. This process leads to a cadre of well-informed teachers and students committed to getting to the next grade level and learning to live with the adjustments. The rest of the classes remained at home online during the Covid-19 outbreak. As other grades re-entered the school environment over several months, administrators strictly and carefully monitored grade levels to avoid spreading the disease. I had been in a pivotal role working in Chinese public schools for ten years as a Senior Advisor on the Internationalization of the K-12 curriculum in Shenzhen, a modern coastal city. I came home on 1-18-2020 for a three-week break when the pandemic started and worked remotely for two years. I watched in horror as our USA pandemic department, decommissioned in 2017, proved useless against the onslaught of the pandemic. Suppose Americans look to some of the primary measures taken by countries used to significant diseases. In that case, we can learn how to balance our schools’ mental and emotional well-being.

  4. Our district is currently experiencing a semi pro-active approach to remote learning and distance learning.
    What they did was slip the students up. If they need to learn from home because they are quarantined, they are given a hotspot, which they use to access their classwork from our learning management system(Google Classroom), and they have e-learning teachers available that are ready to assist with any questions or clarification on work, that they might have. Those teachers are there to help guide them , or to answer any questions they might have. They don’t have any classes that they teach or anything, they are strictly there to help.
    It seems to be working out for the most part , but it’s not a solution to rely on long term.

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