The uncertainty that comes with navigating a pandemic is frightening enough, and even more overwhelming for teachers who found themselves wanting to provide the best classroom experience for their students in the safest environment possible.

Last year about this time, teachers had to pivot—moving to online and distance instruction, as well as in-person teaching. April Moore, fourth-grade teacher at Annunciation Catholic School, in Columbus was one of the highly creative teachers ready to accept the challenge and help her colleagues chart a path forward.

Moore developed courses to help teachers organize their “classroom chaos,” following her experience with Mississippi University for Women’s Professional Learning Academy under Outreach and Innovation (O&I).

She said, “The virtual classroom is a new adventure for most educators. Distance learning can bring on many new unknowns. Taking the time to learn about what resources we can use and how to make true connections with our students and parents can be overwhelming. Building relationships should be one of our first goals in this ever-changing classroom setting.”

The first course she developed, “Zoom, Loom and Google Classroom,” was written to help teachers with the overwhelming resources that became available after the pandemic. In this course, participants learn how to use the resources in different ways and are given the tools needed to explore what will work best for them and their students. The second class, “Virtual Learning Crash Course,” is set up to help teachers with all things virtual-learning.

Moore said teaching teachers is always an adventurous learning experience, but she always encourages them to remember why they started teaching in the first place.

“Teaching other teachers is one of my passions. Sharing ideas to keep students engaged and help them find a true love for learning is important to me,” Moore said. “When educators are involved in interactive Professional Development's like Outreach & Innovation, teachers leave energized and are provided with skills to help all students reach their full potential.”

She added that one of the biggest challenges is encouraging educators to remember their “Why?” Why do you teach? Educators have responsibilities that go far beyond their classrooms”, Moore said.

“The part of teaching that keeps teachers at school late, working through most weekends and planning throughout the summers; is sometimes unavoidable,” she said. “The pressures that go along with teaching can cause them to forget the reasons they became teachers–reminding them to take time for themselves and keep their ‘Why’ at the forefront of their teaching so that they can continue to make a positive difference.”

Moore, who is in her 16th year of teaching, has built an impressive resume through O&I. In addition to developing courses, she has advised and planned conferences, presented and participated in conferences and taken part in summer institutes and gifted instructional forums over the past five years.

“Being involved in these programs inspires me to do more. Whether I’m involved in a course or presenting at an event, when other educators collaborate through O & I programs there is a motivating factor that you just can’t describe,” Moore said.

Melinda Lowe, Outreach & Innovation director, said, “April enthusiastically pursues every opportunity possible to grow professionally. Due to this love for learning and growing as an educator, she loves having the opportunity to share innovative and exciting ideas that have proven successful in her classroom with others. Educators love participating in April’s trainings because she makes everything not only relatable and fun, but every strategy and resource she shares can be implemented quickly. Collaborating with April continues to be a motivating experience for all involved.”

Last year, 813 PLA courses were sold with more than 400 new registered participants. Some of its partners include the Columbus Municipal School District, Lowndes County School District, Mississippi Association of Gifted Children and East Mississippi Center for Educational Development.

Other professional opportunities include Teachers of the Gifted Instructional Forum, established in 1994 for gifted teachers across the state. The yearly forum focuses on current issues and strategies related to the field of gifted studies.

The Educator Enrichment Program is dedicated to professional development for teachers, enabling them to improve student achievement and teacher quality throughout the year.

One program educators look forward to is ECET2-Golden Triangle (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching). This gathering is an opportunity for instructors to collaborate and improve teaching practices to better serve students. Participants are empowered to discover and enhance their voices as leaders and advocates in their classrooms, schools, districts and communities.

Not only do O&I’s programs and services provide participants with professional development and career opportunities, they also help develop youth and adolescents through creative and academic experiences.

One of its most influential programs is Mississippi Governor’s School (MGS), a tuition-free residential honors program for rising high school juniors and seniors. MGS, established by Gov. William Winter and the administration of The W, is celebrating its 40th year.

Lowe said, “MGS offers some of our brightest students in the state a place where they can be challenged and exposed to new ideas, new friends and new experiences.”

Muneebah Umar, a senior at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, was a 2019 MGS scholar. She attended MGS after learning about it from her counselor at Starkville High School.

Umar studied a range of courses, including “Speak Out, Step Up, and Run for Office” with Emily Liner and “History of the Walt Disney Company: The Man Behind the Ears”with April Clayton.

“They covered really different topics, but I loved both of them,” she said, adding, “MGS was such a great introduction to the world of academics. Before MGS I had only taken standard classes. However, at MGS I took classes on really unique subjects. I started to explore my interest more at MGS and after too.”

Umar added, the best part about the program was the people.

“I still keep in touch with a few people I met at MGS. The environment is so collaborative and there is a strong emphasis on teamwork and community.”

Another O&I program for youth is Lowndes Young Leaders, which identifies future leaders of Columbus and Lowndes County. In addition to developing skills in teamwork, collaboration and problem-solving, this program provides personal, cultural and social skills for high school sophomores over a 10-month leadership program.

This program is sponsored by the Columbus- Lowndes Chamber of Commerce, the Columbus Rotary Club and O&I. One can see that O&I’s tentacles reach far into the community. Chances are, if you are a resident of Columbus, Lowndes County or the surrounding area, you have been touched by one of its many programs or services.