For future teachers, the professional semesters of their higher education provide the classroom immersion and real-life, hands-on experience that apply the icing to the cake.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, most schools simply aren’t operating as usual.
Some are all face-to-face, some are exclusively online, some are a hybrid of both – and NIU teacher-licensure candidates are working in whatever structure their cooperating districts are implementing.
Yet the continued disruption that began in March and continues into a new school year doesn’t mean that NIU College of Education students aren’t having engaged, meaningful and even extraordinary training in their craft.
“When we hear the words ‘engaged’ and ‘meaningful,’ it’s going to look different in every classroom and with their students,” says Lisa Liberty, an assistant professor of Special Education, “but I anticipate that it’s going to be a very rich experience for our student-teacher candidates to be able to practice delivering instruction with the service delivery model that the school district is using.”
Liberty sees an added benefit of the technology, which allows licensure candidates to make themselves available remotely via Zoom and Google Classroom to teach their P-12 students.
Indeed, she adds, her student-teachers can use the technology for co-teaching and to assemble small groups of children for re-modeling of skills or guided practice.
“This is a really great learning experience for them,” Liberty says. “I told my student-teachers, ‘Embrace the opportunity. You can use the teaching methods and strategies that you learned in your coursework. Know that you’re going to learn a lot, even though it’s different than how you thought you were going to student-teach back when you entered into your preprofessional course.”
Tammy Scheibe, an instructor and Early Clinical Placement coordinator in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, is supervising teacher-candidates in their first and third professional semesters.
Now in her 12th year at NIU, the former middle school English teacher has entered new territory along with her candidates and their cooperating teachers.
“Right now, it’s a learning curve for everybody,” Scheibe says. “Hopefully, we never have a pandemic again – but now they can put this on their résumés, because if we ever have that March situation happen again, they are going to be prepared. We know what to expect now.”
She has adapted her supervision to require weekly reflections from the candidates on what they’re thinking “in the moment” about the situation and how they are working with their cooperating teachers.
And, because many of her candidates are not in physical classrooms from morning through afternoon, she is trying to make sure no time is misspent.
“I did create weekly assignments for them so that we can keep them focused. I want to make sure that they’re not just using those Tuesday and Thursday morning to sit back and relax and do nothing,” Scheibe says. “I want them to be thinking about teaching. They’re going to have a lot of things that they have to do, even if they’re teaching in front of their stuffed animals.”
Jim Ressler, a parent who is helping to manage the remote learning of his three young children, 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 in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical 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. It’s just a different format in which to practice,” he adds.
“Some of our candidates are doing live teaching in actual gymnasiums with less people, following guidance from their districts as well as our state P.E. association. We also have some candidates 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 durations 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.”
Moving into the realm of the unusual also fosters, as elementary school teachers might say, coloring outside the lines.
Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development for the NIU College of Education, has pointed students, faculty and field instructors to electronic tools such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards-produced ATLAS (Accomplished Teaching, Learning and Schools), and Sanford Inspire.
Candidates from the Department of Special and Early Education, meanwhile, continue to participate in the innovative “Cross-Teach” program that provides additional and authentic experiences for teacher-candidates to teach, observe and reflect on their instruction.
In the first professional methods courses, teacher-candidates create videos and identify three professional goals related to elements of effective instruction. The candidates comment on videos of their classmates’ goals; they also practice teaching a lesson with peers.
And, Liberty says, it’s demonstrating proof-of-concept for the college’s new “coaching” model and a resounding endorsement of the value of “reflective practice.”
“We are embracing this coaching model that the College of Education has worked on so hard,” Liberty says. “I have a unique opportunity to see where teacher-candidates are right now and then look back to see where we can not only help our candidates but to look at our preprofessional courses and think, along the way, how we can build content into our courses.”
Piloted last year, in its second year of development, the coaching model pushes faculty and staff to become more intentional in preparing teachers with the philosophy of “progress toward proficiency.”
Rather than being told, “Here’s the target and here’s why you’re not there yet,” Johnson says, candidates will hear, “Here is what I saw during your instruction, which shows progress toward your shared objective. How can or will this inform next steps? We always should be working to improve our craft.”
“We’re hoping that the coaching and mentoring model will be less intimidating to the candidates,” Johnson says. “We want to shift from a focus on earning a score or rating to focus on what we’re seeing in the classroom. We want to use that time and space in the classroom to help our teacher-candidates to develop their skills and grow in their craft.”
That includes reflective practice, which is neither a “recap” nor a “diary of what happened,” but an honest assessment.
“It’s a critical component in all points of the observation cycle, and we’re finding that’s an area many of our candidates struggle with,” she says, adding that the college hopes to make reflective practice “a little more intuitive or natural. It’s not an easy skill to learn. It’s not an easy skill to teach. It’s the ‘how’ and ‘why’ what we do impacts the teaching and learning in our classooms.”
COVID-19 is unintentionally advancing that, Liberty says.
“As hard as it is to be in a pandemic right now, I think we can use this virtual environment to get more comfortable with turning on the camera and recording ourselves,” Liberty says. “If we think about a ballet dancer watching themselves dance in front of a mirror, they can see what they’re doing and make those in-the-moment changes. When we’re teaching, we don’t always get to see what we’re doing, yet using technology is allowing us to see some of our own teacher behaviors.”
Confidence is also happening, Scheibe says, and growing.
“This group of candidates honestly is going to have the most experience of, ‘We can do this.’ They won’t be petrified. They’ll say, ‘I remember doing this. I know how to do this. We can do this. We’ve got this under control,’ ” she says.
“Some of our cooperating teachers might be actually very appreciative of having our candidates because, during this day and age, our students are not afraid. They’re saying, ‘I can figure out Teams,’ ” she adds. “I would’ve been panicked at their age, but they’re comfortable with this.”
“We have so many wonderful cooperating teachers, and we’ve partnered with great school districts, and I think that the cooperating teachers want to see our teacher-candidates be successful and become colleagues,” she says.
“At the end of the day, I think whatever environment they’re working in, it’s going to be a learning opportunity,” she adds, “and for us at NIU as well. Now we can say, ‘We’re able to mentor our teacher-candidates how to deliver instruction in multiple, different platforms.”
She also sees opportunities for early and enhanced engagement with parents, many of whom are serving as at-home teachers.
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.”