For WSU Education majors, student teaching marks the final semester when pedagogy becomes practice and their career becomes real. Exhilarating and all-encompassing, the experience takes everything a college senior has and more.
This spring, the COVID-19 pandemic added a new layer to an already rigorous challenge – shifting everything from the traditional in-classroom delivery to a remote one – in a matter of days. WSU student teachers, and 2020 graduating seniors, Elise Arnas and Jessica Houghton – both Early Childhood and Elementary Education majors – rose to the challenge.
Arnas, a native of New Berlin, WI, began student teaching at her hometown Elmwood Elementary School, delivering course content to three kindergarten classes with 21 students each. She experienced teaching every subject, providing one-on-one feedback, progress assessments, and read-aloud sessions for each student. Arnas shared that her classroom cooperating teacher was “very supportive, gave me control, let me try new ideas, and gave me excellent, constructive feedback.”
Then, what began as a normal Friday, was flipped with a noon announcement instructing staff to take home all teaching materials and prepare for online delivery by Monday morning. Staff scrambled to get as many materials ready to send home with students by end-of-day.
Over the weekend, the overhaul began, starting with the creation of a Power School Page where parents could access teachers, lessons and other updates online. Arnas described this as difficult at first, requiring her to self-record online lessons for families to playback at their convenience.
The main foci for Arnas, her cooperating teacher, and the kindergarten team included engagement of each child through content delivery that was standards-based and workable through remote instruction. Each teacher took control of one topic. Arnas was assigned reading, for which she was responsible for creating lessons and posting them a full week ahead of time.
Arnas fully engaged with her team and her students, figuring out how to present a book online, ask critical questions, present concepts, and meet standards. As one of her goals was finding new ways to engage her learners, Arnas created weekly themes, included her dog in her videos, and donned costumes and acted to teach poetry and nursery rhymes. Of her students, she said, “It was so cool to see their smiling faces and see their personalities shine through.”
Meanwhile, in the Rushford Peterson school district, Jessica Houghton (a native of Plainview, MN) was also student teaching in a kindergarten classroom.
Welcomed from the very first day, Houghton shared that she felt comfortable and at home in the classroom. She easily connected with her 16 students, jumping right into teaching by the second day. She was fully supported by her cooperating teacher who made it clear that they were partners in teaching – a team.
As soon as COVID-19 began entering the U.S., Rushford Peterson Schools were holding critical conversations about how faculty could be prepared for a smooth, non-stressful transition to remote learning when and if school buildings would be closed. “This was able to keep a sense of ease within the school community even during the difficult transition,” Houghton observed.
In the weeks and days leading up to school going online, Houghton’s kindergarten team stayed positive and kept students calm while also collaborating on curriculum packets and teaching videos. “Worrying the students was the last thing we wanted to do,” she said, “so having fun together was all we focused on during our last days together.”
Houghton and her team now Zoom with students once weekly, implement pre-made teaching videos, and promote social-emotional skills for learning at home with family. Although the shift to remote learning requires extraordinary motivation to stay strong, patience while everyone learns the technology, and grace through mistakes, she said hearing a student yell, “Good Morning Ms. Houghton!” makes it all worthwhile.
“It is all about the students,” she said, “and it is so worth putting in the extra work to make sure they know they are loved and missed. Everyone reacts differently to these changes in life, and everyone deserves the respect and benefit of the doubt that they are truly doing their best.”
Reflecting back, both Houghton and Arnas express gratitude for Winona State and their professors who prepared them for student teaching amid COVID-19.
Arnas said that making the shift required finding different technological access points, strong teamwork, flexible planning, and research. Houghton echoed that sentiment, adding that, “Although we were taught how to utilize technology throughout the educational courses, I think we were more importantly taught how to always keep the students at heart.”
Student teaching during the pandemic was a great learning experience for them, as well. While neither expected to spend their student teaching semester in this manner, both have been able to make the most of it and have been able to see value in what they are learning.
“All of us were helping our students learn to their own abilities,” Arnas shared, “while also learning along our own way, pushing through to help the kids be ready for first grade next year.”
Additionally, Houghton notes that throughout it all, she remained flexible and focused on students, sharing that “Winona State taught me to put my students first, and that is what matters most.”