Student teachers at the University of Kentucky College of Education are facing new challenges and opportunities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The education majors doing part of their student teaching overseas had to make quick pivots to their plans. In this blog Bea Randolph, a senior studying STEM Education, opens up about her experience.
Like all other College of Ed seniors, this semester is my student teaching experience. In January and February, I was student teaching at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington (teaching Algebra 1 and Advanced Pre-calculus). For two weeks at the beginning of March, I was student teaching at the American School of Barcelona in Spain (teaching 9th graders) as part of the Overseas Student Teaching program. This program requires a prerequisite course, a lengthy application process, and months of pre-planning. I was absolutely ecstatic to be chosen for this opportunity. In just a few short weeks, I bonded with my host family, my fellow teachers, and my students.
On the morning of Thursday, March 12, I woke up to messages from UK Education Abroad and my parents saying that President Trump had announced a travel ban, and I needed to return to the U.S. within the next 48 hours. The atmosphere surrounding COVID-19 had been getting increasingly more serious in Spain during my time there, and the school was already planning to take that Friday as a trial run of virtual learning with the students still at school (teachers would prepare virtual lessons, and students would complete them in school in the hope of troubleshooting any problems then and there). The enormity of this pandemic was dawning on me more and more quickly. The definition of “normal” was shifting so fast it was hard to keep up. I was able to teach a lesson I had prepared on Thursday before flying out of Barcelona later that afternoon.
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. 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 at home.
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. Channeling my inner teacher, I accepted the situation in front of me and made the most of it. Saying goodbye to my students and coworkers who I had only met two weeks earlier was difficult. Even in such a short amount of time, they had managed to welcome me so thoroughly that I felt at home. However, safety has to come first.
Returning to the U.S. from Europe was an out-of-body experience at first, not least because of the jetlag. The average person in Spain had already realized COVID-19 was impacting their community and had accepted the idea that social distancing orders were fast approaching. In the U.S., many universities were releasing students for spring break. The vast majority of K-12 schools were still open. The average American was not thinking of COVID-19 being in their back yard yet. Within my first week of being home, however, universities and schools had transitioned to virtual school, and states were beginning to impose “stay at home” orders.
I was initially worried about how my student teaching would be impacted by being stuck at home. Proving once again how welcoming they are, the teachers in Spain agreed to continue being my mentors in this experience. My cooperating teacher Steve has been wonderful about embracing virtual learning! Our school gave everyone a few days off to allow teachers time to start preparing virtual content, but then we jumped into virtual instruction headfirst. We have been communicating via Zoom, email, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, etc. as we design lessons, gather cool ideas from other teachers, and keep up with our students.
We have been using a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. We’ve found that many of our students enjoy the synchronous instruction because they can see us and their classmates, talking and laughing with one another like they would in a physical classroom. I love being able to see their faces – especially since we teach 9th grade. These students are still very much looking to their teachers as role models for how they should be responding to this uncertainty. Steve and I are honest with them, check in on their well-being during class sessions, and try to keep their math workload very manageable. 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. Steve likes to tell them jokes, ask how their day is going, etc. as ways to lighten the mood and bring a smile to their faces.
The CPM math curriculum that we teach from emphasizes group work, which was an initial challenge presented by virtual instruction. Using Zoom, we’ve had a lot of success utilizing Breakout rooms to facilitate collaboration between students. They are able to click “ask for help,” and Steve or I can pop into their room to assist them. The students have been fantastic – they genuinely want to learn, try their best to focus on the task at hand, and are acting quite mature in the face of an unprecedented situation.
I was initially hesitant to commit to attending our synchronous class sessions due to the time difference, but I realized that (1) I wanted that personal, face-to-face connection with my students, and (2) nothing was tying me to Eastern Standard Time…I’m home all the time anyway! And my students get a kick out of asking me what time it is where I am…1st period starts at 3:10am EST. 🙂 Their smiles, dedication, and effort make it all worth it!
This experience has already taught me to have grace under pressure and to revert to calm as a coping mechanism for being in uncharted personal and professional territory. Getting to work with Steve, who is an AMAZING teacher, even though we’re on different continents has been fantastic. He has shared so many teaching resources and teaching tips as well as admitting when he’s unsure how best to proceed. In those situations, he treats me as a true co-teacher and asks for my input. That level of professional collaboration is something I may not have gotten in an in-person student teaching experience, funnily enough.
I am diversifying my interpersonal communication skills because in-person communication is no longer a possibility – video conferencing, emails, and recorded videos are the new norm. These skills are not going to disappear after this crisis is over, and every work experience I have in the future will demand these skills. As teachers, our cohort will be more prepared than many active educators to teach virtually.
My cohort of Math STEM Ed student teachers (and Dr. Lisa Amick!) are some of my best pals, and we stay in communication on a daily basis! We discuss what’s working and not working, but more than anything we check in to see how we’re all doing. Social distancing affects people differently, and we try to support each other with an “it’s okay to not be okay” attitude. Dr. Amick is fantastic about prioritizing self-care within our cohort and modeling that to our students, as well.
I’ve been exposed to so many new websites, widgets, and activities that it becomes slightly overwhelming to think of them all. I’m sad that Zoom has had security concerns because I enjoy its features so much more than Google Meet and other video conferencing platforms. My personal preferences aside, having to adapt to new platforms on a dime has become an expectation of virtual teaching. Like I said, teachers are so used to being adaptable that it becomes second nature. We don’t always like it, but we will do what needs to be done for the good of our students.
I definitely haven’t been able to implement all the new resources I’ve learned yet, but I love the fact that I’ll have all these resources assembled for future reference. I’ve been trying to surround myself with small, but impactful teaching strategies that I’ll be able to use in both virtual and in-person instruction. For example, I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion while also keeping up with their blog posts about virtual teaching. The book describes 49 teaching techniques used by highly successful teachers, while the blog highlights real teachers’ current techniques in the face of COVID-19. The combination of these two sources has (so far) given me a balanced set of tips for all kinds of teaching.
COVID-19 is something I definitely didn’t see coming this semester, and I think we are far from understanding the extent of its impact on everyday life. That being said, I’m trying to embrace the positive outcomes alongside the negatives. As a student teacher, I am getting experience in a much wider variety of teaching strategies than would have been plausible in a traditional, face-to-face model. Groupings of student teachers, active K-12 teachers, teacher education program faculty, university-level educators, creators of educational curricula, and educational policymakers are engaging in rich conversations as we attempt to provide meaningful learning experiences for our students. We’re finding innovative ways to address physical, mental, and emotional well-being as well as academic achievement. I’m proud to call myself an educator.