Megan Gerken had Monday, March 16, circled on her calendar.
That was the day the clinical supervisor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction expected to welcome representatives from Deans for Impact, who were coming to observe a pilot round of their “coaching” model at the NIU College of Education.
COVID-19 arrived instead.
But had those visitors reached their destinations in NIU’s cooperating school districts, Gerken says, they would have seen her engaging in pre-conferences with TLEE 485 student-teachers to discuss the lessons they were soon to deliver. They would have seen Gerken observe those lessons. They would have seen post-conferences where Gerken helped them to reflect.
And, technically, the Deans for Impact team still can witness those things: Gerken continues to pilot the coaching model in her pandemic-shifted virtual operations – and it’s proving successful.
“We have transitioned into still doing it in this online format,” Gerken says.
“I have students who are fully remote, some who are hybrid and some now who are back fully in person, so I have observed live via Zoom, where I log in and see their class; or I’ve had some where they just send me a recording since I’m not allowed to go out,” she adds. “Twenty-four to 48 hours in advance, we have a 30-minute pre-conference where we talk about their lesson, and I coach them through to anticipate what the challenges might be.”
Gerken then watches the lessons, types her notes and conducts her post-conferences around 24 hours later. “It’s more of a coaching rather than an evaluation: ‘What’s the next thing you could do?’ We are a team in helping them to develop to be better educators.”
Observations are not the only aspect of her job disrupted and altered by the coronavirus, of course.
She’s helping to plan the Dec. 2 team-building event between Middle Level Teaching and Learning majors and students from DeKalb’s Clinton Rosette Middle School. That program, coordinated with Clinton Rosette seventh-grade teacher Amanda Baum, typically takes place on campus but will occur online this year.
“Jenny Johnson, Donna Werderich, Amanda and I met in early September – socially distant at Starbucks – to figure out how to make this work in an online format,” Gerken says. “We wanted to still offer it to students, so we worked with Amanda, who said, ‘We can make this happen.’ ”
NIU teacher-licensure candidates currently enrolled in the MLTL 302 early clinical course are now participating in online seminars to learn their roles.
“We’re preparing them for what the project is and what professionalism and etiquette look like in an online format,” Gerken says. “There are a lot of differences in doing a team-builder in person versus doing a team-builder online. You have to assume that parents are within earshot, or that the students won’t have their video cameras on because the district does not require that.”
The 18 NIU students then were divided into two groups of nine to develop potential team-building exercises for the Clinton Rosette youth.
“They had to submit a lesson plan. They had to differentiate it for both an in-person model – ‘If you were in-person, and you had to maintain social distance, what kind of team-builder would you do?’ – and a remote model,” she says.
“Each group of nine came up with one together, so now we have two team-builders. We’re taking one student from each group, pairing them up, and they’re going to be put into breakout rooms with eight students to actually implement these with the Clinton Rosette seventh-graders,” she adds. “They get to teach their lessons twice, to two different groups.”
Feedback for the NIU students will come from not only the middle-schoolers but also from NIU faculty and Clinton-Rosette teachers who will monitor the virtual breakout rooms. That will help the Huskies to complete their assigned reflections on the event.
Gerken, who holds a teaching degree and has substitute-taught and is an instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, also is engaging in reflection about her practice.
She’s also keeping her mind open to learning new ways while making sure that her students also consider the pandemic as a teachable moment of sorts.
“We’re learning a lot of really cool things. We’re getting some great opportunities. We talk a lot about how there are challenges, but with challenges opportunities to learn and how this translates to education,” she says.
“I think that a lot of them recognize that this pandemic has taught the education system a new way of teaching. There aren’t snow days anymore, and if something like this happens again, or if there’s a flu outbreak, guess what: ‘We can go remote.’ This is not going to go away. Aspects of this are going to stick around.”
Also likely to remain is something Gerken added this semester: one-on-one introductions with the TLEE 485 students she supervises.
“We teach how important it is for student-teachers to get to know their students, and then I started to reflect on what I can do better as an educator,” she says, “and I began thinking, ‘I’m teaching them that they need to spend the time to get to know their students, and I’m not doing that myself.’ I want to know who they are.”
Meanwhile, she adds, it’s important for the NIU licensure candidates to view her as more than a clinical supervisor.
“I don’t want them to see me as an evaluator because we switched to coaching. You’re going to be more willing to take feedback from, and to be coached by, someone you know,” she says.
“Before I ever observed them, I had them set up 20-minute virtual meetings so I could get to know then. It was just literally, ‘Who are you? Let’s just talk,’ which was really nice and not something that I necessarily did in person, but something that I will take with me going forward,” she adds. “Even when we go back to in-person, I will do that.”
Gerken also wants to adopt a similar policy with her Middle Level Teaching and Learning majors: “I can tell the difference in not having done that, especially because they need the connection. Everyone is missing that.”
And what is Gerken missing?
The solution to how to accomplish the one piece of her usual practice with new student-teachers that she was unable to adjust for COVID.
“One thing I haven’t gotten to do this semester, because I couldn’t figure out the logistics, is that at my first meeting with them, I have them write a letter to themselves about why they want to be a teacher. Then, right about now, when they’re turning in their edTPA, and they’re stressed out, I would mail it to them,” Gerken says.
“But I didn’t ever see them in person – some of them I’ve never met in person – and the letters are private. I don’t ever read them, and so I didn’t want them to use any format where I could read them,” she adds. “That’s one big thing I miss, because students like getting those letters – those notes of encouragement to themselves.”