Special Ed major’s honors project offers advice for teachers with COVID burnout

Lindsey Comeau
Lindsey Comeau

Lindsey Comeau was only 6 when she began volunteering for the National Association for Down Syndrome’s annual Bowl-A-Thon.

The senior Special Education major from Romeoville drew her motivation from a family friend with Down Syndrome, eventually becoming a counselor at a Northern Will County Special Recreation Association summer camp and then determining a career path.

Comeau pushes herself to “see things from their perspective,” that optimistic worldview of people with special needs who appreciate whatever goodness surrounds them and always find ways to laugh, even in difficult situations.

“I have so many reasons,” she says. “Most importantly, I’m just super-excited for the students to impact my life more than I will be impacting theirs.”

But Comeau knows that the road isn’t always easy.

“Teacher burnout, or educator burnout in general, is so high,” she says. “And since the pandemic began, so many teachers have quit or dropped out. It’s so hard to teach in a virtual environment if you’re not familiar with it, and it’s become more difficult to provide those special services and additional resources to those who need them.”

She decided to focus her University Honors Program capstone project on studying the causes and prevention of that stress in “Implications of Teaching Virtually: Special Education Teacher Burnout.”

And, after submitting a proposal to present her research to the Illinois Council for Exceptional Children Annual Fall Conference, she was chosen to give a Pecha Kucha presentation during the Nov. 6 virtual event.

“I was quite surprised,” she says of her selection to participate. “I wasn’t expecting it, so it was a nice, positive thing to hear.”

Lydia Gerzel-Short
Lydia Gerzel-Short

Lydia Gerzel-Short, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education, wasn’t as surprised: Comeau, she says, is “a fantastic teacher-candidate who is focused, intentional and strives to learn in each of the courses and clinical experiences she takes.”

“Lindsey is self-reflective and consistently considers her students. The lessons she plans and delivers are engaging and challenging,” says Gerzel-Short, who happily accepted Comeau’s invitation to serve as her mentor through the capstone process.

“Like all teacher candidates at NIU, Lindsey had to shift to a different learning environment rapidly. She looked at this experience as a challenge and an opportunity to learn. This is a characteristic that I appreciate most in Lindsey because her honors capstone was developed out of her curiosity to learn and explore,” she adds. “She is a caring candidate, and I am excited for the future students and families she will serve.”

Comeau mostly conducted a literature review, looking at previously published articles and data sets available online, but also gained firsthand insights from conversations with a few teachers she knows personally.

She also integrated her own reflections from her clinical placement this fall at Tinley Park High School, where the students are working on multiplication, writing in complete sentences and reading the book, “Holes.”

Lindsey Comeau
Lindsey Comeau

“Because I’m virtual this semester, it’s just my observations. Some of the students are in the classroom, and some are learning from home, so it’s a complicated situation,” she says.

“It’s been interesting to see how the teacher handles interruptions of students speaking out, and to see the struggles of ‘microphone on’ and ‘microphone off,’ ” she adds. “He asks the students to turn their cameras on at least once a day, for one of the class periods, so that he knows they’re there. He also encourages participation so that they all do their best to interact – some, obviously, interact a little bit more than others – and continuously asks if they have any questions.”

For teachers currently navigating the pandemic via remote learning platforms, Comeau recommends “trying your best to stay engaging, even though it’s virtual. Be available and flexible with your timing. Offer your assistance and office hours for students to come to you when they need help.”

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