UK College of Education Leading in the midst of COVID-19: Creating Opportunities for Newest Teachers
Sydney Harper was on her final leg of student teaching when the semester was turned upside down. Kentucky schools, like most across the nation, were closing their doors to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It didn’t seem real. I kept telling myself that we’d be back in no time, that this wasn’t going to last that long,” said Harper, a senior STEM education-mathematics major.
In early March, faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Education were called into emergency meetings. Students in the midst of required field experiences, such as student teaching, could be left in limbo if schools shuttered indefinitely. The novel coronavirus still felt like a distant threat, but faculty quickly created back-up plans, just in case.
As the reality of the situation set in and closings were announced, Harper was only slightly stressed about completing her requirements to graduate. She knew professors would walk students through the uncharted territory. More worrisome to Harper was the possibility of not seeing her students again.
“I’ve become so attached to them and couldn’t fathom potentially not seeing them for a long period of time, or not at all,” she said.
Learning by doing is an important aspect of teacher training. Like all education majors at UK, Harper had a variety of field experiences in schools. Prior to student teaching at Woodford County High School, she had stints at Southern Middle School (8th grade mathematics), Frederick Douglass High School (freshman mathematics), Lafayette High School (Algebra 2 and 3), and Tates Creek High School (Calculus 1 AB).
Gertie Sercus, who is in the Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary STEM Education program, said texting and using Facetime is helping the five student teachers in their cohort keep up with each other and their professor, Lisa Amick. They have become close, she said, and lean on each other often, especially now.
“We keep in contact multiple times a day,” Sercus said. “We talk about how much we miss each other and miss our students.”
Pivoting to Non-Traditional Instruction
Gabrielle Lonnemann is student teaching at Fayette County’s Picadome Elementary in a K-3 special education setting for students with learning and behavior disorders.
The school has now been closed for weeks, but UK student teachers are partnering with their mentor teachers, called cooperating teachers, to keep instruction going for students through Kentucky’s non-traditional instruction program.
Lonnemann works with her cooperating teacher through text, email, Google Drive, YouTube, Zoom, and Google Meet. They have developed materials to send in packets to students and have recorded videos with instructions. They meet online with the students and other Picadome faculty.
“There is no better feeling than seeing those little faces on the screen and knowing that the materials you developed are being used to help your students learn and stay connected,” Lonnemann said. “It is also awesome to see how much fun they are having exploring the technology they are using. When my cooperating teacher and I met with a student the other day, he thought it was funny to see his face through the computer screen and that he was doing homework in his pajamas.”
Channon Horn, a special education clinical associate professor, said although teaching remotely has its challenges, it provides students with valuable opportunities to demonstrate their ability to differentiate instruction using various forms of technology. They are taking whatever resources are available and developing instruction aligned with the individual needs of their students.
“Special education teacher candidates have been trained to be flexible and accommodating,” Horn said. “The pandemic has provided an abundance of evidence that they can do both effectively and efficiently.”
Elementary education major Jhana French is doing her student teaching at Wellington Elementary. She was surprised by the abrupt change to the semester but knows that quick pivots will be necessary as a teacher.
“Nothing can really prepare you for what we are doing right now during the pandemic,” she said. “But things are going to be thrown at you every day as a teacher, without you being prepared for it. It probably will not be to this extreme, but it’s good to practice being able to adapt in every situation. That’s what teaching is. It will make us stronger teachers.”
Teachers in all specialties are transforming their lessons to be offered online. On the YouTube channel Mr. Noble’s Fitness World, UK College of Education alum Billy Noble morphs into characters in his fictional “Noble family.” The light-hearted fun helps put kids’ minds at ease while staying active. Noble is the P.E. teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary and frequently supervises the UK Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion’s physical education and health student teachers.
Teaching the Arts Online
“It’s Mr. White here,” he said into the camera during his first video. “I know it’s been a long time and I’m really glad to spend this time with you. One of the things I have just kind of been doing with all this stuff going on is playing music.”
With drumsticks in hand, he taps out a groove on a white bucket he found at Lowes. It has a UK blue logo emblazoned on its side. He tells the students they don’t need a bucket, or even to have drumsticks. Two pencils and a bowl would be fine.
“The rhythm I am going to teach you sounds like this,” he said, smiling into the camera. “I know it seems kind of fast, kind of hard. Listen one more time.”
He slowly breaks down the groove, showing the right hand’s beat and then the left. As he speeds back up, he presses play on music and tells the kids the beat will make more sense when they hear the song it accompanies. It is “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s the Jungle Book, a play the students had been rehearsing before the pandemic.
His professor in the College of Fine Arts, Martina Vasil, has been impressed by how student teachers have jumped into exploring and creating resources for teaching music online.
“They are seamlessly adapting the content and their tone of voice and pacing for a variety of age groups—from kindergarten students to fifth graders. Their energy and creativity have inspired me,” Vasil said.
White said as soon as he sends an idea to his cooperating teacher, she responds, offering encouragement and working with him to refine the idea. He credits Reynolds and Vasil for supporting him through this unexpected learning experience.
“I think we all have it tough,” White said. “This is unique, but I refuse to let it stop me from learning all I can to help show students music is everywhere. Now is a better time than ever to look for it.”
Overseas Student Teaching
Bea Randolph had been student teaching in Spain for two weeks when she woke up to messages from UK Education Abroad and her parents saying the U.S. had announced a travel ban. She needed to return to the U.S. within 48 hours. She has written about her experience in a blog for the UK College of Education.
“Finding a flight was intense and difficult. There was misinformation circulating about whether the travel ban affected U.S. citizens or not, and thousands of travelers were booking flights and crashing travel websites,” Randolph said. “I was able to buy a ticket with an overnight layover in Frankfurt, Germany that would get me to Detroit, the closest airport to my parents’ house, by Friday afternoon. Many hours of travel later, I was home safely and ready to quarantine for 14 days. Having to change plans that quickly was a test of my adaptability, but it’s been my experience that teachers are some of the most adaptable professionals out there.”
Randolph opted to complete a portion of her student teaching overseas through a special program offered by the UK College of Education. Since the 1970s, hundreds of UK’s student teachers have been seeing the world by completing their final semester abroad. They work with the college’s Office of Clinical Practices and School Partnerships. Dr. Sharon Brennan has directed the office since 1984.
“The whole idea is you come out and you’re a different kind of teacher,” Brennan said. “We created the program because we felt students needed a chance to see the world and bring it back to their classrooms.”
Randolph is still experiencing teaching students in Spain, from a distance.
“My cooperating teacher and I have been communicating via Zoom, email, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and others as we design lessons, gather cool ideas from other teachers, and keep up with our students,” she said. “He has been wonderful about embracing virtual learning. We try to model healthy responses to the COVID-19 situation. People in Spain are confined to their homes except to get food or health care, so we encourage them to be as active as possible. He likes to tell them jokes and ask how their day is going as a way to lighten the mood and bring a smile to their faces.”
Finding Silver Linings
As student teachers set their focus on graduating, they are thinking about job interviews, which may happen virtually. To help students prepare, 15 principals and school leaders from Fayette County Public Schools volunteered to provide an interviewing and hiring seminar via Zoom. The seminar is an annual rite of passage for student teachers, but this was the first time it did not take place in a face-to-face setting. After an initial chat, they broke into smaller Zoom groups for mock interviews.
“The school leaders said it was good for them to practice doing interviews virtually, in addition to it being good for the students,” said Joni Meade, a clinical instructor who works with elementary education student teachers.
Virtual interview practice is among several examples of silver linings that have emerged.While schools were transitioning to at-home instruction, UK faculty quickly created online learning modules for student teachers so they could continue learning. Some have been so successful that faculty plan to continue using them even after the pandemic is no longer a threat.
Student teachers like Claire Lawrence, who was in a special education placement at Picadome Elementary, are getting more comfortable with a variety of virtual learning platforms and earning credentials like Google level one and two certifications. Lawrence said she felt eager to add extra certifications to her resume, and also to use the online modules to dive into topics important to her, such as supporting students in foster care and students whose parents struggle with addiction or are coping with incarceration.
“The modules are allowing our students to spend time with quality content that is research based,” Meade said. “They have had a lot of time to tackle issues such as emotional health, cultural competency, growth mindset and bias. These are topics they encountered in the classroom, and now have had time to read more research and apply it to their classrooms. They have a variety of interests. Some have spent a lot of time on coding, while others have spent more time on literacy, math and use of music in the classroom. The flexibility to work through modules that they see as growth areas has been nice for them.”
In future semesters, Meade plans to encourage students to complete the Google certifications before the start of student teaching.
Despite the challenges created by teaching and learning virtually, it has made student teachers appreciative of what they had. Riley Aguiar, an elementary education senior, said the ability to attend school every day can be easily taken for granted.
“That schedule just abruptly stopped,” she said. “I think the students definitely miss us and we miss them. You know, teachers can be a really good support system for kids.”
In the meantime, teachers are doing everything they can to continue making a difference in students’ lives.
“Sometimes those Zoom calls are so good for students, particularly ones who have difficult home lives,” Aguiar said. “It could be the highlight of their day.”