Lee County schools welcomes hundreds of new teachers in drive-thru celebration

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Fort Myers News-Press | by Pamela McCabe | July 27, 2020

Colorful balloon towers, chart-topping dance music and dozens of friendly — albeit masked — faces greeted a couple of hundred new Lee County school teachers Monday as they took part in a drive-thru welcome party at the district office.

The event served as the official kickoff to new teacher orientation, a three-day onboarding process that introduces new hires to district and school policies.

The orientation, which is nearly all virtual this year, helps train new hires for the challenges of the classroom from learning to use new technology to how to manage a classroom. A least one day will involve school-based activities.

District staff estimated there were about 350 hires made to date but could not confirm an exact number or speak to known vacancies in the classroom.

Last week, when the Lee school board voted to delay the start of school by three weeks, human resource chief Angela Pruitt said starting school on Aug. 31 gives the district added time to make additional hires should employees not feel comfortable coming back to work during the pandemic.

Traditionally, new teacher orientation is staged in a packed auditorium at Dunbar High School, where teachers pick up swag bags of donated items from community supporters and hear from district leadership.

But with health concerns and social distancing a top priority, the celebration shifted outside to a grab-and-go format in the parking lot of the Lee County Public Education Center on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers.

“It’s a party for sure,” said Haley Houchin, 24, who was among the new hires in the parade of teachers. “It’s nice. It’s very welcoming.”

Houchin is a career-changer who started off in the marketing field. She will be transitioning her skills to teach seventh-grade English at The Alva School.

“I’m excited to get my kids back in the class and be able to have some structure and hopefully meet their learning goals and just make a difference,” she said.

While teaching during a pandemic will present some challenges she is comforted to “know that even the veteran teachers are going to be going through the same thing at the same time.”

Kaila Heitter, left, a soon-to-be third-grade teacher at Veterans Park Academy for the Arts, joins fellow classroom newbie Haley Houchin for a photo. Houchin is set to teach severnth-grade English at the Alva School. New teacher orientation in Lee County started off with a drive-through celebration at the district on Monday. Pamela McCabe, Pmccabe@newspress.com

“It’s all a new experience for everybody, and I’m excited to have that face-to-face time with my students as a first-year teacher,” Houchin said.

Kaila Heitter, 25, is also eager to get to work. The recent transplant from Illinois will be teaching third grade at Veterans Park Academy for the Arts — her first solo teaching experience.

“When I was in college I did student-teaching, but I had a cooperating teacher with me,” she said. 

While it will be “nerve-wracking” to be on her own, she is eager to try out teaching methods, see what works and “be able to achieve students’ goals.”

The latter is a big concern, considering the great disruption students felt across the nation after a sudden pivot to distance learning due to the coronavirus.

“Unfortunately, with this year, they’re definitely going to be behind,” she said, adding that she is driven “to bring them back up.” She is also eager to create a “community feeling in the classroom since it’s been so long since they’ve been there.”

After this initial welcome period, new hires will experience a pause before reporting to duty on Aug. 18.

Teachers have nine days to prepare for the arrival of the new school year — and its various modes of instructional delivery — with children due back in school Aug. 31.

Families have until July 30 to make a decision on how they want their children to learn this fall, be it in-person five days a week, through one of two virtual models or via parent-led homsechool. To do this, visit leeschools.net.

New teacher orientation in Lee County started off with a drive-through celebration at the District office Monday. Pamela McCabe

This drive-thru was planned by the district’s professional development team, who held up signs and handed out T-shirts to the new hires. Superintendent Greg Adkins, academic chief Jeff Spiro and several school board members joined district staff along the parade route to wave on the new teachers.

Kevin Daly, the president of the Teachers Association of Lee County, handed out information packets to passing educators. He is hopeful this will be the first and only virtual orientation needed due to a pandemic.

New teacher orientation in Lee County started off with a drive-through celebration at the District office Monday. Pamela McCabe

“We would rather be at Dunbar High with all 350 of them in the same room and get to meet and interact with them in real time and have more people to help. But given the circumstances, this is kind of a good way to welcome the new people onboard,” Daly said.

This week, the labor union will sit at the bargaining table with the district to hammer out employment issues for teachers during a pandemic. The hope is for employees to have answers to many of their questions by the end of the week.