Best of both worlds: Educate U.S. takes virtual trip to Houston during pandemic

COVID-19 could not cancel the NIU College of Education’s January 2021 edition of Educate U.S. with the Houston Independent School District.

Even as the pandemic did prevent travel to Texas for the 14 teacher-licensure candidates chosen to participate in the real-world learning, the students still received a robust yet different experience than those Huskies who proceeded them.

Much of the credit goes to technology, of course, as well as to determined planning by both sides committed to keeping the partnership active.

“It’s great to provide NIU students the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students in an urban setting that maybe they wouldn’t get elsewhere,” says Adam Harrer, teacher recruiter-talent acquisition for the Houston Independent School District.

“Our team knew with COVID that we couldn’t do the traditional face-to-face of years past, but still wanted to provide this year’s group with a culturally rich urban experience,” Harrer adds. “I knew, initially, that we could connect students in a virtual classroom setting thanks to Microsoft Teams – so I thought, ‘What can be done to enhance their experience beyond the classroom while still keeping that culturally rich urban experience?’ ”

NIU students were on board, adds Jenny Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development in the College of Education.

“Our students were really eager to have an opportunity to engage in additional classrooms. Their entire focus is on broadening their experience and knowledge base, and growing in their craft,” Johnson says.

“The culture of another space is a big part of teaching and learning, and they’re able to see that here,” she adds. “The culture is still impacting what’s going on in these spaces, even though it’s on a remote platform.”

Adam Harrer
Adam Harrer

First, Harrer says, was to consider the possibilities of moving online.

Rather than assigning each NIU student to work exclusively with one teacher in one building, the virtual linkup enabled Harrer to multiply those connections and locations.

“That was Step One. From there, our team looked to enhance the experience in a way that we could not in the traditional face to face experience,” he says.

“We decided, ‘What better way to showcase what an urban school district has to offer outside the classroom setting than providing high-quality professional development with the support of our instructional teams across the district?’ From that point, the schedule was set for morning classroom experiences and engaging afternoon professional development.”

Afternoon workshops led by those teams – Academies; Career Pathways; Multilingual; Social-Emotional Learning – covered topics such as checking for understanding, cultural proficiency, instructional technology and data for instruction.

Thursday afternoon brought together this month’s Educate U.S. students with NIU College of Education alumni currently teaching in Houston. Friday’s scheduled included a debriefing.

While Harrer and Johnson agree that the remote delivery cannot replace the typical face-to-face immersion, the introduction of professional development with multiple schools and classrooms is something they don’t want to lose in future editions.

“By the end of the week, NIU students were able experience more of what an urban school district, like Houston ISD, has to offer educators coming out of college,” Harrer says, “and the NIU College of Education produces some of the best teachers in the country.”

His colleagues who hire teachers agree, he adds.

“It’s something special when I know I can send an NIU candidate to any HISD campus, and the reputation has been already built across the district. Our HISD principals know that if they’re going to interview someone from Northern Illinois, they will be engaging with a high-quality teaching candidate who is prepared to begin working in a classroom setting on Day One,” he says.

“That really speaks to the university and the work being done to develop that teacher talent. Usually, it’s multiple campuses competing for a teacher-candidate from Northern Illinois. The teacher-preparation program at NIU produces high-quality teacher-candidates who are sought-after by our campus principals.”

He puts Gail McGee, senior manager of Teacher Career Development for the Houston Independent School District, on the list of teammates who are impressed.

Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

“She’s the guru of gurus who hunts and develops teach teacher talent,” Harrer says. “She said, ‘They know what they’re doing. They get it. They understand it, and they process and apply quickly the things that they’re learning. That really speaks to what is happening at Northern Illinois.’ ”

Johnson smiles at those words.

“Our candidates are eager to become as proficient as they possibly can so, when they graduate, they’re ready to meet the needs of students and to make a difference in classrooms wherever they are: urban, suburban or rural,” she says. “They’re seeking out opportunities to be that teacher who makes a difference.”

Lizett Cervantes, a junior Special Education major, has that mission.

“I want to teach because I come from the northwest side of Chicago, and the schools I went to weren’t the best. Now that I’m getting older, I’m realizing I wasn’t taught the way I should have been,” she says. “I want to give back to my community, love what I do and wake up every morning to change a student’s life.”

Lizett Cervantes
Lizett Cervantes

Cervantes says her own teachers lectured her rather than engaging her. They didn’t prompt her to question but to memorize.

Watching HISD teachers in action offered a different picture of what is possible.

She saw teachers who built relationships with students, “which I think is very important to understand where they come from,” and who incorporate and celebrate diversity and culture throughout their classrooms so that children “feel safe and heard.”

During out-of-class conversations with her cooperating teachers, she also received good advice on classroom management and dealing with unwanted behavior.

Allie Greene, a junior Elementary Education major from Pecatonica, observed second- and fifth-grade classrooms led by veterans of Houston’s Mentors of Instruction for New Teachers (MINT) program.

“One of the teachers was good at knowing his students well, and knowing about their home life, and was able to put that into his teaching,” Greene says. “I learned about great platforms to use in the classroom like Pear Deck, and all these different games and interactive things.”

Allie Greene
Allie Greene

Greene, inspired to join the profession by her own second-grade teacher from years ago, hopes she can work in Houston someday.

“I just love working with kids – their attitudes are great, their willingness to learn new things,” she says. “Being in that school environment is a great feeling, and whenever I leave a school, I leave feeling very accomplished.”

Physical Education major Kevin Burke, a junior from Palatine, got more than he bargained for when he applied to Educate U.S.

“I just thought it would be cool to get another chance to observe. The last time I did observation, I didn’t know much about teaching,” says Burke, who’s also studying Kinesiology. “I observed a couple P.E. classes and a couple health classes, and it was fun to see the teachers implement and show us things we’re learning now.”

But Burke also became the instructor: One of the Houston teachers he was joining via Teams was delivering the same lesson over three consecutive class periods.

“The third time, he asked me if I wanted to teach it,” Burke says. “I said sure, because I’d seen it twice, and I knew what was coming up in the PowerPoint. It was on eating disorders – signs of eating disorders, why they’re bad, what to do.”

Kevin Burke
Kevin Burke

His plunge into the teacher’s role went “really well,” he says. “I had one kid in the class who was pretty active and asking a lot of questions, which was something I hadn’t expected,” he says with a laugh. “I had to think about those for a little bit. I had to answer carefully.”

Burke’s cooperating teachers in Houston demonstrated excellent “classroom” leadership skills, he says, speaking with confidence, dealing with disruptions and keeping all students on task.

He also appreciated the afternoon professional development and its components on Common Core standards and instructional technology.

“We also talked about inclusion, how you can include everyone in your class and make sure that everyone’s getting enough out of the discussion so that it’s OK to move onto the next lesson,” Burke says. “Instead of looking at that as a student, when we’re in our Zoom classes, it was fun to see it from the other side where we’re the teacher.”

Other NIU licensure-candidates participating in Educate U.S. were Kathryn Augustyn, Hannah Fernandez, Emily Halik, Bryanna Howard, Cassandre Juste, Mikala Kurzbuch, Danielle Lauritzen, Jessica Morrow, Emily Saulnier, Dana Scott and Rebekah Shearer.

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