When schools across Michigan moved education online in response to COVID-19, both educators and learners were affected, but the change was doubly disruptive to student teachers who wear both of those hats. Many senior education majors at Calvin have seen significant changes to their student teaching experience due to the novel coronavirus, and while they still feel prepared to enter classrooms next year thanks to the other hands-on learning opportunities Calvin provides, they regret that they’ve lost their last opportunity to apply their learning in a physical classroom before becoming certified teachers themselves.
“It’s our last chance to make mistakes,” senior Shin Kim said about student teaching. “You can try out new things. I was really excited to do that.”
Now, Kim has returned to his home in Korea, but he’s still student teaching at Legacy Christian Middle School in Cutlerville, MI. To manage the 13-hour time difference, Kim has had to wake up at 10 p.m. to teach his lesson plans. He’s usually able to return to sleep by 1 a.m., but gets up again early in the morning to respond to his students’ questions and concerns before they go to bed.
Kim said that online teaching and the time difference have been stressful and tiring at times, but excitedly added that he’s confident in his choice of career because he’s been enjoying student teaching so much — even online. “It just refreshes me every single time I see my students,” he said.
Normally, the state of Michigan requires teachers to have at least 600 hours of a mix of observational and “student contact” experience to become certified, at least 300 of which must be student teaching hours. Gwen Buteyn, field placement administrative assistant for Calvin’s education department, said that the Michigan Department of Education has shortened the total weeks of experience required to become a licensed teacher and allowed universities to “provide alternative evidence of candidates’ readiness for the field.” “This was a smart move by MDE, since a one size fits all approach would not have worked,” Buteyn commended the state’s actions in response to COVID-19.
Abby Vedders, an English secondary education major with a minor in ESL, was teaching sixth graders at Hudsonville Christian Middle School prior to the school’s move to online learning. Now, she’s fulfilling her licensing requirements by teaching her students and doing one-on-one check-ins twice a week on Zoom. She misses being able to hear about her students’ lives before class or at the lunch table, and expressed that online learning has made teaching much more difficult.
“I am grateful for the technology that makes remote learning possible, but it poses extra challenges to keep students engaged and focused. We also cannot cover nearly the amount of content that we would be able to in the classroom,” she said.
Though COVID-19 may have reduced the amount of time she’ll spend training in the classroom, Vedders still feels confident in her ability to lead her own classroom next year. She said this is largely due to her mentor teacher, who put her in a teaching role as soon as she arrived and helped her to plan lessons.
Not all students have been as lucky as Vedders or Kim, however. Some student teachers have had much less opportunity to be involved with their placements’ distance education.
Elementary education major and psychology minor Anna Quist received word one night after teaching that she wouldn’t be able to return to her placement the next day because of the coronavirus. She said, “Student teachers all have different situations with how involved they are allowed to be with their students online,” but noted that the university has sought to connect student teachers with educators who may be able to utilize them more if they’re unable to assist in their current placement.
Nicole Hellinga is a senior education major who was student teaching English language arts at Excel Charter Academy in Grand Rapids before the shutdowns began. Now, she’s moved back in with her family in Chicago. She worked online using Google Classrooms to continue teaching for a few weeks after shutdowns began, but since her students’ semester ended, she’s only been able to help out with grading for a teacher in her area.
This summer, Hellinga plans to move to Jakarta, Indonesia to begin a position as a sixth-grade teacher at an international school, and although she believes more experience teaching in a physical classroom before graduating could be beneficial to her, she feels ready to enter the workforce thanks to years of education classes, her mentor teacher, and the support Calvin has offered her.
Because student teaching expectations have now changed significantly based on individual placements and mentor teachers, students like Hellinga and Quist might not be able to complete their student teaching requirements in the classroom.
Calvin has developed alternatives to ensure that education majors are still prepared to meet certification requirements and enter the workforce. “We’re working to honor the many different ways that students are gaining valuable experience,” Buteyn said.
All student teachers still participate in the senior seminar course that normally goes with student teaching, but the education department has also created other tasks and assignments for seniors to work towards certification like creating lesson plans to teach to other student teachers instead of a class. “It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing,” Kim noted optimistically. He added that he’s glad student teachers are still able to use the lesson plans they’ve created, even if it’s not in the classroom.
Cassidy Scholten, who’s majoring in early childhood, elementary and language arts education, was preparing to begin full-time student teaching in a first-grade classroom at Dutton Christian School when they made their shift to distance education. Since then, she’s only seen her students during all-class Zoom meetings.
Unable to interact one-on-one with her students anymore, she’s participated in education department activities including a professional development course and a “mini conference” involving research and presentations. She’s also devoted some of her extra time to searching for jobs. If Scholten is able to complete the certification requirements this semester, she’ll be able to become certified to teach young children ages 0-5, English through the eighth-grade level, and special education through the second-grade level.
While most student teachers haven’t enjoyed having to leave their classrooms in exchange for Zoom calls and Google Classrooms, many have relished the opportunity to be home with family and to sleep in. And although Kim doesn’t sleep much because of the time difference, he’s found a few good things to appreciate about his current situation as well. One major benefit of his location is how different it is from many of the places his students have lived. “Since I’m teaching geography to my eighth graders and teaching about Korea, the best part is that I can actually show them Korea.”
Kim isn’t the only one teaching from a location far from Calvin’s campus. Emma Johnson, an elementary education and integrated science major with an urban studies minor, has been student teaching at Rehoboth Christian School in New Mexico. Before distance learning began, she was slowly gaining more and more teaching responsibilities and implementing many of the educational practices she learned at Calvin.
She’s decided to stay in Rehoboth with other student teachers at her placement, and the teaching methods she’s had to use have been unique because of how unique her placement is.
A number of her students are members of the Navajo nation and come from the Native American reservation near the school. Others of her students come from hours away in Arizona or hours in the opposite direction, deeper into New Mexico.
Her students have diverse backgrounds, and their levels of access to educational tools, the internet and basic amenities vary widely. To ensure that all of her students are still getting the education they need, she’s been using Google Classrooms and sending out flash drives with lessons on them to those who don’t have access to reliable internet.
“I feel in some ways I’m a lot more prepared because I am able to plan more well-rounded lessons and I’m able to think more deeply about assignments and things that we’re doing,” Johnson explained. Additionally, she noted that distance education has caused her to have to think more about how to get students to take ownership of and interest in their work because she can’t be there in person to help them.
Other student teachers felt similarly, expressing how much they miss their students, but that they feel this experience has prepared them for challenges they never expected to face. Vedders said, “This is a crazy time that nobody saw coming. So many people have had to make significant changes in how their work is done, and I have been so impressed with how both Hudsonville Christian Middle School and the Calvin Education Department have handled this.” For Quist, university support has made all the difference. “All of the Calvin leaders have been so encouraging, assuring us that we are still prepared and equipped to face this challenge of entering teaching after having had this experience.”