As a parent who is helping to manage the remote learning of his three young children, Jim Ressler sees firsthand how teachers in the Kaneland School District are shifting their instruction for COVID-19.
Ressler, an associate professor of Physical Education Teacher Education, also has a front-row seat this fall for the challenges faced by his teacher-licensure candidates who are expected to complete clinical requirements in a world gone virtual.
They ask questions – “Are we still expected to follow the same lesson plan template? When are the seminars?” – and request patience and flexibility from faculty as they juggle unexpected commitments regarding family and work during the pandemic.
“In many cases, the same questions come up from those who are teaching completely remote and those who are working with teachers who have adjusted their own plans: ‘How do I make this work for my own readiness to be a full-time teacher?’ ” Ressler says.
“Usually, the response is that we’re just emphasizing different skills that we already possess,” he adds. “It’s just a different format in which to practice.”
NIU students throughout the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education are confronting similar issues this fall as COVID-19 rages on and, ironically, serves as a good teacher with valuable lessons.
Yet faculty in all programs are providing their majors engaging and meaningful ways to overcome the obstacles of gaining hands-on experience when travel and in-person interactions are often unavailable.
Looking back toward summer, when most non-licensure students are practicing in the field, furnishes a dose of that confidence.
“We’ve been really fortunate to have these close partnerships with these organizations,” Howell says.
“For example, with NIU Athletics, we had a number of students who were working over the summer on a marketing plan for the football game at SeatGeek Stadium at BYU before they made the announcement that the fall sports schedule was postponed,” he adds. “Even though it got canceled halfway-through, they were still able to continue with, ‘Let’s assume the game is going to be played. How would you go about that?’ They had to present that to marketing staff at NIU Athletics at the end of the summer.”
David Serowka, an instructor in Sport Management, also has capitalized on his myriad connections.
“One of our close relationships is with a team called the Chicago Dogs; they’re in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, and they still had a season with a limited capacity of fans,” Serowka says. “When I attended games, I would bump into some of my interns, and they could come up and talk to me. They were still getting hands-on experience.”
Conversely, there was no baseball for the Schaumburg Boomers – but NIU interns placed there had plenty to do as Boomers management found other ways to generate needed revenue from their facility.
“They were having Chicago Blackhawks watch parties in their parking lot, or a drive-in concert series, or tailgating parties, again for the Blackhawks during the playoffs. Jim Cornelison is there in big cherry picker, and he’s signing the National Anthem,” Serowka says. “It was a big-time kind of thing.”
Players on the Chicago White Sox’s “Taxi Squad,” meanwhile, worked out at Boomers Stadium to stay ready.
“These are all guys who might get called up to jump into a White Sox game if needed,” he says. “They’re playing baseball there at that facility, and so they do have staff members that need help, and they’ve been utilizing interns for that.”
Shaine Henert, associate professor and Kinesiology Program director, Sport and Exercise Psychology, enrolled nearly three dozen interns over the summer.
Of those, some were able to complete all their required hours on-site. Others found hosts but were limited in hours and could not meet the minimum number of hours, while the rest were unable to find places to practice.
Henert and instructor Brandon Male “got creative” to develop “alternative assignments and supplemental experiences,” especially for those students in the second and third categories who then could substitute the homework for missed hours.
“It might be a major job search – a deep dive into a job search,” Henert says. “They’re not just looking for a job. They have to do a profile on the company; a profile on what the position is; what the qualifications and requirements are; and they have to put together an application and a cover letter. Sometimes, in the past, that’s actually led them to applying for those jobs.”
Another assignment asked students to explore professional organization memberships and professional certifications that would enhance their marketability to prospective employers and prove beneficial later in their careers.
“This fall, we have a smaller number of students – about nine – and most of them are on-site,” Henert says. “It’s helped that we’ve had a smaller group and are able to find places they can go to have real-life, in-person experiences.”
Meanwhile, Henert and Male also are trying to arrange access for their students to attend professional conferences this fall that are going online.
“One of the conferences in particular – the American College of Sports Medicine – has an International Health & Fitness Summit, an annual conference with more hands-on types of sessions for attendees,” Henert says. “It’s something they normal wouldn’t be able to attend because of the costs of traveling to the conference, paying for a hotel and paying for a registration.”
Virtual connections are readily available, Howell adds.
“The sport industry, in general, has been really good and really intentional about hosting speaker series and webinar series,” he says, “and we’ve done our best to supplement hands-on experiences by having our students participate in these.”
For example, Boston-based sport marketing firm Fenway Sports Management is offering a 12-week free, online seminar series this fall.
“As of right now, 15 to 20 of our students are planning to participate. It’s every Wednesday night from 5:30 to 7; one of their professionals in a given area will give a 30- to 45-minute lecture as a guest speaker, and students will have the opportunity to ask questions and network,” Howell says. “I, along with some of our other faculty, am actually going to participate in it as well to stay current on the trends in the industry.”
Ressler’s future P.E. teachers who are in placements this fall are following the operational procedures of their districts.
“Some of our students are doing live teaching in actual gymnasiums with less people, following guidance from their districts as well as our state P.E. association,” Ressler says. “We also have some students who are student-teaching from home in virtual spaces. It creates a really interesting dynamic working with the mentor-teacher.”
Local districts also are detailing their expectations on the types and duration of physical activity they want from their K-12 students, he adds. If it’s about getting someone up off the couch and moving, the challenge is to accomplish that from “the other side of the screen.”
Early anecdotes from student-teachers in the field, however, are revealing learner results for which NIU Physical Education majors are well-prepped thanks to the program’s emphasis on building strong relationships with students.
“It’s been more of a shift to social and emotional outcomes that are tied to the affective domain in our content area, which is also very explicit in our state goals and national standards,” Ressler says.
“These are things our students have done and have done well, but they’ve just become front-burner items and, because of the circumstances, may be most of the formal P.E. curriculum for now.”
For NIU students, the faculty members say, these challenging months are not completely without benefit.
The abrupt shutdown in March forced people in all sectors to shift direction quickly, an excellent skill for career success. The lingering uncertainty might convince some to stay in school for graduate degrees that enhance their preparation.
Meanwhile, Howell says, older workers who decided to retire are laying the groundwork for their employers “to hire new, young, eager professionals once the ship gets righted.”
And, he says, just the mere navigation of life during the coronavirus is sure to become questions in job interviews: “How did you react to COVID?”
“Things happen at a moment’s notice in sports, whether it’s weather-related, whether it’s pandemic-related. You’ve got to be prepared to pivot and change course,” Howell says. “This has taught them to how to manage on the fly and be able to adjust when things change.”
Serowka has heard from students “frustrated that they haven’t been able to work real games,” but reassures them their unusual internships were not in vain.
“Just having that experience when stuff hits the fan – being able to think their feet, being able to pivot – puts them in a unique position where that can become a marketable piece for them when they get into job force when they can relate their experiences of how their internships were different and some of those different things they did that were not traditional sport management,” he says.
“The silver lining with this chaos,” he adds, “is being able to adapt.”
Henert calls it “good life experience preparing for situations that didn’t go the way you hoped they would or how you had planned for them to go.” Those “alternative assignments” related to looking for jobs teach something that previous students have mentioned during exit interviews as something they would have appreciated learning during school, he adds.
But perhaps Ressler has discovered the greatest benefit of COVID, something he is sharing with his licensure-candidates who are not leading multiple classes hour after hour and day after day in the gym.
“The message I’m sharing during our student-teacher seminars over Zoom and over Teams is to embrace the extra time, and to pour that into your planning and your rest,” Ressler says. “This is a time to take care of yourself, not just your professional well-being but also your personal well-being.”