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Student Teaching Struggles: COVID-19 Puts a Damper on Experiences, but Educators in the Making Forge Ahead

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Education majors at colleges and universities throughout Northeast Ohio have been schooled on just how much the COVID-19 pandemic has changed education.

For education majors, student teaching is the capstone, the time when they step into the classroom and immerse themselves in their subjects and their students. Only last year … many didn’t. For our education project, Learning Curve, we report on efforts by professors, mentor teachers, college administrators, and the student teachers themselves to overcome the limits of the pandemic—and to learn to teach.

COVID-19 upended how student teachers were assigned, how they taught, and how they were evaluated. And it accelerated a change already underway: the use of technology.

“We have certainly had to pivot, often, and in ways that a year-and-a-half ago we would have never imagined,” said Roxanne Sorrick, head of teacher education at Hiram College.

That was mirrored throughout the state.

The Ohio Department of Education requires about 100 hours of fieldwork before student teaching as part of the licensure process.

Most education programs embed fieldwork in at least three semesters. But during the pandemic, some, such as Kent State University’s Early Childhood Education, limited field placements to senior students. For the others, there’s remote observation, journals, peer teaching assignments, and the review of recorded interviews with K-12 students.

The field experience portion of Kent State University's Early Childhood Education Program has been revised to accommodate changes to in-person and online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elizabeth Kenyon, a social studies professor at Kent State, says it has required creativity.

“We are all teachers so we know how to make fast changes and all of that and refocus the learning in ways that were still powerful and impactful," she said. "A lot of the earlier semesters in our program really focus on the content and on student learning and development.”

Jennifer Walton-Fisette, Kent State’s director of teacher education, says these types of assignments prepare students to plan, adapt, and instruct. But they have limitations.

“The thing that they are missing is working with kids. I teach middle school so I can relay as much as possible of what works best for that context and their peers. But, they are not learning developmentally where kids are at,” she said.

The Middle Childhood Education programs at Baldwin Wallace University and Hiram College have maintained field placements for all students, though some partner schools opted out of hosting student teachers for now. But the definition of being in the classroom has changed

Zoё Bagal is a Bowling Green State University music education major placed in an urban high school in Lucas County. She spent the first half of the semester teaching online. Her school relies heavily on web-based tools such as SmartMusic, which allows students to learn and practice their assigned parts on their own time.

“Personally, I think the fact that I have gone online and I’ve had experience finding the resources to be able to function online have made me a stronger educator,” she said.

Katie Petredis, a Kent State early childhood education major, did most of her fieldwork at an elementary school in Portage County at a distance, with her third-grade class meeting in-person just twice a week for a total of a 1.5 hours.

“It was frustrating in the sense of I felt like I wasn’t getting the experience I needed," she said, noting she appreciates the flexibility. "And since I wasn’t getting for me, how can I provide it for them [the K-12 students]?”

The pandemic forced other changes. Evaluations of many teachers-to-be have relied on more than a half dozen visits from supervisors observing them in their classrooms. Now the evaluations are done remotely. David Swope, a retired social studies teacher who oversees evaluations for the University of Akron, says that came at a cost.

“I think the limitation was classroom management. You couldn’t really see how well a class was being managed,” he said.

Walton-Fisette says her program slightly modified the rubrics it uses to measure student teachers to include all teaching modalities.

"It was very much about being in the classroom, and of course, many of our student teachers only taught remotely. I think that language will stay,” she said.

The pandemic also accelerated the use of technology. Kent State professor Katie Anderson Knapp says the focus used to be using technology within the classroom, and now it's about connecting beyond the classroom, as well as redefining what a classroom is.

“It’s so important to me that our students experience classrooms that are something different from where they grew up,” she said.

But the educators, both current and future, say one attribute of a good teacher remains a constant: compassion. Macy Lautenshleger, who is finishing her student teaching in rural Stark County, says that’s something her Kent professors have modeled over the past year.

“It’s also kind of molded us to be more compassionate teachers, too, because we know what it's like to be students during a pandemic,” she said.

Now, she and the others will find out how well prepared they are to be teachers post-pandemic.

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Nahla Bendefaa is a journalist and multimedia storyteller from Akron, Ohio by way of Kenitra, Morocco. She holds an MA in Communication Studies from Kent State University and a BA in Communication Studies from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. She enjoys a great cup of tea, walking around the Summit Metroparks and re-discovering television drama shows from the early 2000s.