Learning To Teach In A Distant Learning World. It’s The New Reality For Student Teachers.

April 26, 2020

University of West Florida student teachers have made the transition to online classrooms alongside their cooperating teachers, implementing new technologies and learning invaluable lessons in agility that will serve them well in their future teaching careers.

The printer whirred in the background as University of West Florida senior, Kate Powers, answered the phone.

“Hello! I’m so sorry for getting back to you so late—I got busy! And now I’m just trying to print off a few assignments, actually they’re time capsules, for students to record living through COVID-19.”

Talking to Powers, who is finishing up her last semester as a student teacher at an elementary school, it’s evident that the work hasn’t stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s simply changed. These sudden, unprecedented changes are met with gumption by educators and student teachers like Powers.

Argos are resilient. When the waters get rough, they don’t turn back; they raise their sails. The student teachers at UWF will continue on—joining Zoom calls, helping teachers with remote lesson plans and thinking of their students from afar.

Student teaching is the capstone experience for students in the elementary education and ESE/elementary education degrees. During the semester-long experience, teacher candidates gradually assume full teaching responsibilities in a classroom with the guidance and support of an experienced teacher. They, along with the rest of class of 2020, will graduate with an unexpected skill set that will shine throughout their professional lives.

Following the lead of many other school districts, the Santa Rosa County School District, which includes Powers’ assigned school, made the decision to close schools in March. This meant that students wouldn’t return to the classroom following spring break. Teachers were left distraught, wondering how they would adapt to this “new normal.”

“It’s just been so sad for everyone,” Powers said. “I told all of my students on the Thursday before spring break, ‘have a great week’ without knowing it was the last time I would see them.”

In November, the UWF student teaching program began the national accreditation process, and they determined one of their opportunities for improvement was incorporating more technology into the program.

“The changes that came with COVID-19 have accelerated the introduction of technology, which is a good thing for many of our student teachers because they can adopt these skills into their own classrooms someday,” said Kelly Aeppli-Campbell, assistant director of field placement at UWF who works with student teachers as a professor of senior seminar. “Different counties utilize different learning platforms and technologies. This situation allows our students to work with their cooperating teachers and learn the practical application of designing a lot of the coursework for online.”

Aeppli-Campbell says that this shift has jump-started how they will change the program long-term, requiring their student teachers to design Google classrooms as a part of their coursework, among other virtual assignments.

Alongside their cooperating teachers, they’re adapting all facets of their lives, including learning new and utilizing familiar technologies and communication methods, to best serve their classrooms.

For Powers, she’s using this opportunity to help create lesson plans that can be sent home or accessed entirely online.

“It’s been challenging because I work alongside my cooperating teacher in a fifth grade exceptional student education inclusion classroom,” she said. “Prior to COVID-19, I had the experience of learning how to cater to every child’s individual learning needs. Now we’re adapting those practices into work that can be sent home or accessed online.”

In addition to completing her final semester remotely, she’s also been working alongside her mom, who is a fourth grade teacher at Berryhill Elementary School in Milton.

“My mom, grandmother and aunt are all teachers,” she said. “When I was in the second grade, I used to envision how I would set up my own classroom someday. While my on-site student teaching experience has ended, I’m able to work alongside my mom and see the behind-the-scenes action of continuing to teach during this crisis.”

Like Powers, teaching runs in the family for UWF senior Ashtyn Kaunitz, who will also graduate in May. Kaunitz’s love for teaching was born in her grandmother’s first grade classroom, where she was an assistant. She says now that she’s close to completing her degree and student teaching assignment, education has become her passion.

Kaunitz is engaging with her students at Bagdad Elementary school in Milton using Zoom, an interface which allows online video conferencing. She says the response has been positive.

“I’m able to lead Zoom meetings with the students to help them catch up on new concepts and ask questions,” Kaunitz said. “The students are excited to talk to me and eager to turn in their work, despite missing the classroom experience. I think it is an exciting and new way to learn, and it may never need to happen again on this scale.”

Annie Buck is a UWF student who plans to graduate this Spring. She is interning at Montclair Elementary School in the Escambia County School District and like her fellow education students, she notes the challenges of shifting to online learning.

“As teachers, we can only do so much when we are not in the classroom with our students,” Buck said. “Making sure that they do not walk away from their computer during the day is a challenge because there is only so much we can do over the computer.”

Over a short period of time she has been working tirelessly; from keeping students on task to assisting her cooperating teacher with making tote bags to help students ease into distance learning. Despite the challenges, she says an unanticipated positive reaction has emerged from the crisis: a newfound gratitude from her students.

“I think that this situation has changed the way that some of the students view school,” Buck said. “I believe that a big part of the students’ work ethic, while we are out of school, is because of the relationships we have built with the students and also their parents. It has made the process of switching to distance learning easier. The students that I have in my class are making the teacher that I work with, and me, very proud.”

The physical classrooms may be empty, but the compassion from teachers to help their students is as present as ever.

“We want your children to succeed just as much as you do,” Buck said. “They have a special place in our heart, and just because things are tough right now does not mean we have given up, we just work harder.”

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