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Ayers Institute part of partnership to support educational innovation in rural districts

Lipscomb's Ayers Institute is leading the way in providing educational resources to Tennessee's rural communities.

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Teacher in classroom assisting student

The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation, an extension of Lipscomb’s College of Education, is part of a partnership that is supporting rural school districts in Tennessee.  
This school year, the Ayers Institute, along with the Ayers Foundation, the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) recently announced that they are partnering to support 15 Tennessee rural school districts as they address the unique challenges of teaching and learning during COVID-19. This partnership – the Tennessee Rural Acceleration and Innovation Network (TRAIN) – was established to support rural districts in particular as they design and implement comprehensive  plans and professional learning for supporting the continuity and acceleration of learning throughout 2020-21  – including for both virtual and in-person school settings. 

Starting this summer, TRAIN districts have engaged in weekly collaboration to develop continuous learning  plans, design and provide professional development, and problem solve key issues. The network includes the five districts supported by The Ayers Foundation – Decatur, Henderson, Lawrence, Perry, and Unicoi County  Schools – and 10 others that were selected to further the efforts of the Ayers Foundation and Governor Bill Lee to support and prioritize those in rural Tennessee. Those districts include Benton, Chester, Gibson Special School District, Hardin, Haywood, Henry, Hickman, Lauderdale, Paris Special School District, and Wayne county schools. Of the 15 TRAIN districts, eight are considered economically distressed or at-risk by the Appalachian Regional Commission. 

Deborah Boyd

Deborah Boyd

"The Ayers Institute and Lipscomb's College of Education have a history and a heart for working with rural districts to grow the skills and knowledge within their teams,” said Deborah Boyd, dean of Lipscomb’s College of Education. “This opportunity to partner with The Ayers Foundation, SCORE, and NIET in supporting rural districts is both exciting and timely as we work together to strengthen instruction, both in-person and virtual, through professional learning.”

“"It has been an honor to work alongside the TRAIN districts over the past few months as they engage in the difficult and essential work of problem-solving and innovating through these extraordinary times,” said Rachael Milligan, Ayers Institute managing director and assistant dean in the College of Education. “Tennessee educators are incredible individuals who work tirelessly to create the best educational experience possible for their students. I am thankful for the opportunity to be part of this network and I know that we will see great outcomes."

TRAIN districts are utilizing guidance and tools from the Tennessee Department of Education, NIET and the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation. Districts focused first on meeting foundational needs – purchasing more devices and increasing internet access – to be able to deliver virtual instruction. As  purchasing, funding, and planning came together, attention shifted to delivering successful virtual instruction. Now, districts are working with NIET and Ayers Institute consultants to finalize Continuous Learning Plans and  design and execute on ongoing professional learning and instructional support for 2020-21. Based on the experiences of these rural districts, five key trends have emerged that provide a foundation for strengthening  learning and future policy recommendations: 

Rachael Milligan

Rachael Milligan

Provide instructionally focused support and training for virtual teaching and learning. While the TRAIN districts vary in approach, they have all prioritized teacher support. Districts that have  established formalized lead teacher roles – positions with clear expectations and additional pay, often  supported by CARES Act funding – have elevated those educators to lead their virtual transition, which has  built capacity. Teacher leaders have gone first to show their peers what virtual instruction can look like, and  they are developing and sharing common lessons and videos for their grade or subject so other teachers don’t  have to start from scratch. Many came back to school early to support the transition and collaborate with their  principals around a virtual or hybrid approach, and some will continue to lead virtual professional learning  communities throughout the year to support collaboration and sharing of best practices.  

Set clear expectations and connect technology tools to instructional practices. It is more than just learning a new platform – it’s about learning new strategies. Being intentional and  consistent when introducing technology tools and platforms helped teachers use the tools effectively and  connect the new tool to how they would actually use it. In TRAIN districts, leaders asked teachers to use the  new tool or platform like a student would, and the leaders modeled the role of the virtual teacher, showing  how lessons and strategies can transform into the virtual space. This highlights how professional development can be embedded in everyday context to provide educators with more focus and clarity, building their  confidence instead of their fears.  

Extend support for virtual instruction throughout the year. While the classroom may look different, the principles of effective teaching are the same whether learning is  happening in-person or online. As teachers get to know their students, they can learn where to modify assignments, enhance or adjust visuals, or step in with 1:1 support – just as they would in a physical classroom.  And in a virtual environment, they have learned that it can be seamless to accommodate some aspects of a  student’s IEP, such as read-aloud or contrasting text. TRAIN districts are planning now for how they can provide ongoing support and coaching to help educators understand how to leverage virtual tools within the  context of holding a high bar for all students. 

Provide networking opportunities, common tools, for rural leaders. Rural leaders typically wear many hats, with the same handful of leaders tasked with every district office job. The simple task of setting aside weekly, scheduled time to think has given district leaders permission to step back and take the time to think bigger picture during a moment when there is a rush to  solve every challenge. Checking thinking and researching ideas together has been a primary part of the  network as we introduce templates, tools, and resources that can assist with planning and implementation.  

Two women doing lesson plans

For example, TRAIN network consultants all used the Tennessee Department of Education’s Continuity of  Learning Plan rubric and NIET’s 2020-21 Planning Guide to discuss scenarios, expectations, and ideas to ensure  district plans had considered this year from every angle – unfinished learning from the spring, support for  virtual instruction and feedback, curriculum expectations for each modality, staffing ideas and scheduling,  equity for all students, and family communication. Many templates and tools that resulted from these discussions have helped the entire network, and they have also built districts’ capacity to efficiently problem solve and communicate throughout the year.  

Recognize that virtual learning offers potential benefits for rural communities over the long term. TRAIN districts have realized the importance of all teachers gaining confidence with virtual instruction,  including those who are starting the year in-person. Districts are also working to use virtual tools to increase  collaboration across their district so teachers can share resources. Many mapped out lessons with teacher  leaders during the summer so they had a bank of virtual resources for the first several weeks of school.  Additionally, many are coaching their teachers to embed virtual learning into in-person teaching as much as possible, so both teachers and students will be more comfortable with making a transition – whether due to  the virus or an inclement weather day. This can only continue to happen if there are meaningful investments  by internet providers and government officials to ensure connectivity in rural America. Many TRAIN districts  now have devices and educators equipped to teach online but are limited by the lack of bandwidth in rural  Tennessee. 

“For students to be successful, equipping rural educators with what they need to accelerate learning this  school year will be critical,” said Candice McQueen, CEO of NIET. “We are proactively supporting districts to  be ready for a variety of scenarios in 2020-21 and helping their teachers to strengthen instruction – regardless  of in-person or virtual teaching – while building relationships and growing learning with a new group of  students this fall.” 

In addition to ongoing collaboration with members of the Ayers Institute and NIET, TRAIN districts will gather for regular network meetings throughout the year to problem-solve common trends and challenges. They will  also receive professional learning tailored to their district needs both now and throughout the year as they  learn and talk with teachers about what they most need. In addition to these direct supports, SCORE will  provide support in learning along with the network and in sharing best practices that can benefit other Tennessee districts. 
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The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation

The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation is a strategic catalyst for the transformational reform efforts being led by the state of Tennessee. By recognizing the vital role of the teacher and leader in every classroom, in every school and in every region of the state, the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation exists to support teachers and school leaders in improving student outcomes. Using knowledge of best practices matched with the understanding of unique needs of various individuals and organizations, the Ayers Institute creates individualized educational opportunities to train and embed professional learning that supports positive student outcomes. For more information,

College of Education

Since 2013, the National Council for Teacher Quality has consistently ranked Lipscomb’s College of Education programs among the top in the nation. For the last nine years, Lipscomb’s College of Education has been ranked among the top-rated teacher preparation programs baked on data compiled by the Tennessee State Board of Education. The College of Education offers a variety of of undergraduate and graduate programs, an Education Specialist program and a Doctorate of Education degree. Visit for more information.