Being in charge of a classroom for the first time is a daunting responsibility—the intellectual and social development of so many students in your hands. Leading a class during a pandemic has taken that challenge to a new level. In spite of the additional hurdles and frustrations that have comprised 2020, three secondary education seniors have shown they are up to the challenge: inspiring students and honing their skills as student teachers.
While Union education majors start observing and teaching in real classrooms in their first year of college, student teaching in their final semester is the capstone experience that puts theory in action under the mentorship of an experienced cooperating teacher.
“It’s a rich and rewarding experience to apply what they have learned, collaborate with practiced professionals, and grow into their calling,” said Susan Byers, an education professor at Union College who coordinates the semester-long initiation to the teaching profession.
“During a regular semester, this takes courage and stamina,” Byers said. “During a pandemic, it takes even more.”
Alexis Reid, an elementary education major, spent the first quarter teaching music to kindergarten through fifth grade students at Holmes Elementary School in Lincoln. She worked with cooperating teacher Jenna Brookens to keep both in-person and online students engaged and learning.
To avoid sharing germs, she and Brookens traveled from room to room with a shopping cart overflowing with hand drums, maracas, wood blocks, Ukuleles, a sound system, and other materials needed for creating a lively educational environment for every class.
With desks in the way, limited space, and 18 different classroom layouts, the teachers had to be even more creative with their teaching. “We came up with an outdoor classroom as a solution … weather permitting,” Reid said. “Even though masks were still worn, students seemed to enjoy going outside and moving around during music classes.”
When it came to Reid’s high school teaching experience at Lincoln Southwest with cooperating teacher Alyssa Wilhelm, other unique challenges presented themselves. “We had to keep all students caught up with each other in rehearsals,” said Reid. “Since the group B kids were Zooming while the A group was in person and vice versa, it was difficult to keep pushing forward in rehearsals. For every two steps forward, we took one step back.”
This was not how Reid originally imagined teaching. While she says the students at the high school level seemed “unbothered by this altered style of teaching,” the constant changes put extra strain on both the teachers and students.
“The most important thing I learned from this student teaching experience is that flexibility is key,” Reid said. “There were so many adjustments that had to be made whether it was to accommodate for social distancing, weather or technology. I think the most important skill a teacher can have is flexibility. I always imagined that student teaching would be a glimpse of what real everyday teaching looks like. I think student teaching during a pandemic gave me exactly that, but also a lot more.”
“Despite only being able to recognize the top half of my students’ faces because of masks, I still got to know them as the wonderful human beings they are,” she said. “Through forming connections and relationships with students, teachers are able to help them reach their full potential.”
Despite all of the challenges, Reid managed to keep a positive attitude and successfully teach music during a pandemic confirming that she is “more than adequately prepared for the teaching field.”
Derek Baker, a secondary education senior, taught physical education with Jeff Pappas at Lefler Middle School. Baker’s experience was also anything but normal. “Typically curriculum is already laid out, but for the first time they didn’t have a curriculum,” said Baker. “Nobody knew what PE was going to look like with social distancing.” But in a year with few options other than screen time, getting students physically active was more important than ever.
Baker had to come up with activities and games that could accommodate social distancing, district expectations, and sanitizing for in-person students. Online students in quarantine were given assignments they could do at home, but learned the content through online classes as well as a few special in-person sessions. While planning for two teaching modalities was often frustrating, “there is no time to complain,” Baker said. “You have to bring the energy so the students buy into what you are teaching. When you see them embrace the enthusiasm, it’s all worth it.”
The first month and a half was a whirlwind according to Baker. However, after having time to gain experience and set expectations, he found his groove. With his creativity and enthusiasm for teaching, what started as a simple plan to give students safe, unmasked outdoor time turned into a much more robust curriculum that included lawn games such as re-invented soccer, bocce ball, and ladder golf.
Baker built eight ladder golf sets in his free time: assembling, spray painting, and even making “How-To” guides for students wanting to recreate the sets at home. Baker knew it would be challenging to keep students engaged and excited about learning and wanted to implement activities the students had never experienced before. “About 80 percent of my classes had never played ladder golf or bocce ball before.” To measure the students’ growth and understanding of the subject matter, he included questions online pertaining to the activity at the end of each unit.
Baker also went the extra mile for his online students. He created activity journals and home workouts. He planned and modified lessons for five in-person sessions and accompanying online Zoom classes, and had to catch up with students who switched back and forth between online and in-person courses. With changes to classes daily, flexibility and adaptability were vital to Baker’s success.
He constantly re-evaluated his teaching methods and asked himself “are they actually prepared for the next step?” He chose to implement technology into his lessons to reinforce subject matter. Apps such as Gimkit allowed students to test their knowledge while earning rewards and competing with classmates. The app has different versions including “The Avengers” and the popular video game, “Among Us,” which makes learning entertaining to students.
“The way we communicate has changed,” said Baker. Using technology and finding new ways to engage students forces teachers to adapt. “If the students did not understand, it is not their fault. You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do better?’” Helping students navigate through technological issues, learning how to use Zoom, or even uploading something online added layers of stress to teaching, but Baker took it with stride.
When it comes to grades, Baker summed up his philosophy for this year, saying, “There was a lot of grace involved. I’ve looked more at effort than mastery.”
For Baker, this year revealed just how essential teachers are. “Kids need someone to challenge and teach them everyday. They need that stability in life.” They also sometimes just need someone to listen.
Instead of ending the Zoom meeting immediately after class, Baker now stays online longer in case any students need extra help or have questions. “Sometimes they just want to stay on and talk. They need someone to hear them.” Simple acts such as staying on after Zoom class to talk with students, replying to their work online, and encouraging them created a wholesome, positive learning environment the students craved.
Since his success at Lefler, Derek moved to his second placement in Southeast High School in Lincoln.
Owen Uhrmacher taught at Maplewood Academy in Hutchinson, Minnesota, where he worked with Linda Vigil in the religion, government and Campus Ministries departments. At Maplewood, Owen, too, planned hybrid lessons and worked to create a warm, engaging classroom experience for all learners.
Teaching this semester was not what Uhrmacher had prepared for, but he discovered flexibility and adaptability were essential to being a teacher. As he put it, “The one word I would use to describe this year is unprecedented.” With the help of his cooperating teacher he experienced the importance of “learning on the spot,” he said.
With a variety of disciplines to teach, Uhrmacher was pushed to be creative, especially since teaching online restricted his lesson plans. “You have to have all of your content available online and make it accessible to students,” he said. “You have to plan activities that students can do from anywhere and adapt them in ways that make sense and are still valuable.”
Having students both Zooming in to class, and simultaneously in person was taxing on the teachers. “It takes double the planning to teach online. You also can’t neglect that the students are there, and you have to make sure they have what they need,” Uhrmacher said.
Teaching religion also comes with added pressure. “It is a serious responsibility to be a religion teacher. The students look up to you and see you as a mentor,” Uhrmacher said. “You have to learn to validate their feelings and be real with them because they take their faith seriously.”
Uhrmacher’s outreach to students went beyond the classroom. He originally started teaching on campus, and lived in the dorms before the campus closed due to increased COVID restrictions. “Living in the dorms was rewarding,” he said. “A lot of the students appreciated being able to come and talk to me. I enjoyed being able to listen.”
With safety precautions such as masks, limited social gatherings, social distancing, or teaching online “You lose some of the nuances of conversation, and it was harder to get to know the students,” Uhrmacher said. “It was also frustrating for the students because we had limited social activities, and they look forward to those.”
Uhrmacher explained that being closer in age to the students helped him serve as a bridge between staff and students and helped when explaining why strict safety measures had to be in place. “There were a lot of things we couldn’t do like sports, go into the city, or have a banquet,” said Uhrmacher. “Yet, involving the students in the tough decisions taught them problem solving. It is heartbreaking though, especially for the seniors.”
Even with all of the barriers, Uhrmacher was determined to prepare students for ministry and plan safe outreach activities. In October, the school held a COVID-safe canned food drive and gave bags on a Monday night to more than 25 neighborhoods, asking residents to fill the bags with non-perishable food items. Then on Wednesday they picked up over 6,000 pounds of food for local shelters according to Urhmacher.
Uhrmacher explained that his success in navigating the difficulties of this year mainly came from his supportive cooperating teacher, Vigil, and her kindness and willingness to mentor him along the way. “She did a great job preparing me for teaching in a classroom.”
Through creative solutions like a shopping cart full of instruments, an app for PE, and a canned food drive, student teachers have made 2020 an opportunity to create new and engaging learning environments. And while everyone hopes this year will be unique in their lifetimes, the skill of adaptability will serve these teachers whatever 2021 and beyond brings.
“They are becoming experts in re-thinking education!” said Byers. “We are proud of their ingenuity and determination to teach well even when challenges abound. They are finding the relationships with the students and supporting teachers rewards them in ways they could not have anticipated. They see God’s hand in equipping them to give their all to the ministry at hand.”