Bethel student teachers lost the in-classroom experience, and even though many are still finding ways to teach, nothing feels the same.
By Zach Walker
On the bad days, students threw books at Grace Nichols’ head. She had to raise her voice when they did that. Sometimes, she pulled the well-behaved kids to the side of the classroom to say she needed them to be leaders.
Nichols, a senior elementary education student at Bethel, started student teaching at a school in a Minneapolis suburb in September. She spent four- to eight-hour days teaching word families and comprehension strategies to 20 students labeled with “high needs,” the specialty of the school. Some students were first-year immigrants. Some had experienced homelessness. Nichols says, to her, they were just kids.
Nichols is one of 37 Bethel student teachers who were forced to transition to online instruction due to COVID-19. Nichols and others like her can’t see their students’ faces without a screen. Many won’t graduate with the recommended amount of in-person experience. And after their studies are done, they’ll pursue jobs that have looked the same for years but are now rapidly transforming. With the help of state-driven regulation changes, shifting educational methods and the desire to keep going, they’re still teaching. But it’s not the same.
“We care deeply about the well being of all of our students,” Bethel education department chair Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco said. “[We] are working toward solutions that would provide the best experiences for them”
Nichols says she was just starting to gain control in the classroom. After a semester of mostly observing her cooperating teacher, she took the lead in December and taught by herself. But when her school moved all classes online March 18, she returned to a supporting role.
Her cooperating teacher, Tammy Prindle, hadn’t taught online before either. Instead of designating Nichols to reading and writing lessons, she put her in charge of making learning boards for students living without internet access. Nichols creates low-tech tasks for students, such as collecting sticks outside and using them to craft art projects. She also helps Prindle build online lessons on Google Classroom, talks with students via text-based chat during morning meetings and reaches out to parents and families to check on students.
“She has stepped up in this uncertain time to support students and myself in our needs,” Prindle said. “She had already been a huge blessing to our class and is now more than ever before.”
Nichols used to play cat’s cradle with a group of girls during indoor recess. The first time they played, Nichols showed the girls how to weave the string between their fingers, and every day when the weather was too harsh to have recess outside, the girls would ask her to show them again.
Every Friday at lunch, her students would eat mini corn dogs and pizza bites and ask if she had a boyfriend. They looked at her grown-up lunch, a meal such as a salad with carrot sticks and quinoa, and wondered aloud what it was.
“I could sit down with them and see them as kids,” Nichols said. “We had so much fun.”
When she was still teaching in the classroom, she knew bits of students’ lives outside of school. She saw the effects of language barriers and anger issues and parents who worked until 2 a.m. Now, she doesn’t see anything past what students post in the Google Classroom chat. Some haven’t signed on since school went virtual.
For student teachers, students not showing up to class is one of many worries as they approach graduation and continue meeting state license requirements.
After COVID-19 caused traditional student teaching experiences to halt, student teachers were unsure if they could reach the teaching hours required for state licensure. They didn’t know if they would have to take the EdTPA and MTLE exams, which are required for graduation, in the same manner as they would have before. But the Bethel education department applied for several variances, or modifications to licensing requirements made available to all Minnesota universities by the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, or PELSB, to try to ensure the virus would not upend the future plans of student teachers.
Nadine Johnson, the Education Licensing and Advising Specialist at Bethel, applied for variances on behalf of the department after PELSB notified all Minnesota institutions of the option in March.
“Simply put, our teaching candidates would not meet the program requirements set through the state of Minnesota for a teaching license without variances,” Johnson said. “Due to the issues surrounding COVID-19 and the … transition of K-12 schools to distant learning, we needed a variance stating that our [students] would still qualify if the weeks were not continuous [and if] the face-to-face requirement was no longer met.”
On April 3, the department received answers to its variance requests. The state board approved the request to only require 10 weeks of face-to-face teaching experience rather than 12 for all Minnesota universities that applied for that variance. It also allowed the additional teaching weeks required for endorsements like middle-level education to be completed online. The only denial came with the request to cancel the EdTPA exam, a senior-level exam required for graduation. Bethel will move forward with the regular version of that exam, although most every senior has already completed it.
“Even [on] the hard days [in the classroom], there is always a silver lining. I would take that every single day over being online.”
– Grace Nichols
The department is also trying to support students in their online education and job search. Assistant Professor Becky Carlson discusses unions and salaries with a group of students during a Google Hangouts class that she regards as “the best part of [her] week.”
On March 30, Carlson and other department colleagues organized an online job fair for education students. Eighteen administrators from across the Twin Cities held six interviews each with students. Four students were invited to second and third interviews, and one student received two job offers.
“[I want] to be with them, calm their fears, tell them that we are here for them,” Carlson said. “That’s what drives me.”
But Nichols didn’t feel as supported when the transition began. She said the only communication she received from Bethel during the week before the university’s spring break was that she was to follow the guidelines of her student-teaching school. And she received little information about the status of the EdTPA exam, which had an upcoming due date, so she worked four to five hours every day for 10 days to finish it.
“When we’re student teaching, we’re on our own,” Nichols said. “When we went online, we felt so out of the loop and not communicated with.”
Some junior students, such as Anna Dickman, had to stop teaching completely. An English education major, Dickman was in the middle of her field experience, a period of pre-student teaching observation, at Highview Middle School in New Brighton when Bethel decided to transition to online learning.
Her cooperating teacher, whom Dickman had helped five hours each week by supervising free writing time and asking her sixth grade students what they thought of the books they were reading, told Dickman she was welcome to come back and help with the class, but Bethel policy said the opposite.
“Our policy is that student teaching follows the same rules and contract hours as the district. Field experiences do not,” Carlson said. “[Student teachers] take over full time in the classroom. Field experience is just a couple of hours a week.”
Dickman moved back home to Richland Center, Wisconsin, and lived with a family friend because the internet at her own house didn’t work. She sat at the kitchen table and completed projects, such as a year-long lesson plan overview, while a fourth-grader named Mara, the daughter of the family friend, watched science videos. Whenever she was asked, Dickman would help teach.
After a week and a half doing online homework at her family friend’s kitchen table, she decided to move in with her aunt and uncle in Shakopee because they needed someone to watch their two children during work days.
She set up at a desk inside a spare bedroom. When she’s not doing Bethel homework, she teaches her younger cousins, Macie and Kate. She spends an average of two to three hours with them, studying math by doing algebra problems and playing cribbage, drawing with sidewalk chalk and sewing a quilt with airline blankets.
“It gives me an inside view of what goes on when kids are at home,” Dickman said. “[But] I won’t be as prepared [for a job] as others.”
Next fall, Dickman will student teach at Centennial High School in Circle Pines. Nichols has received multiple job offers, but has turned them down. She says she is currently “looking to find a school that fits [her] well.”
Nichols doesn’t lead in-person lessons or play cat’s cradle or answer questions about her quinoa-and-carrot-sticks lunch, but she still educates. Bethel professors tell her to put this experience on her resume. Carlson said that “there are changes that will happen to education,” and Bethel students “would come in prepared for digital learning.” But Nichols still says that she’s sad.
Wedged between the pages of a journal on her bedside table, there’s a card with a blue heart in the middle drawn with crayon. Nichols’ name is misspelled in the top left corner. On the inside, it says “Sorry for throwing the book at you.”
“Even [on] the hard days [in the classroom], there is always a silver lining,” Nichols said. “I would take that every single day over being online.”
The kids think so, too.
During a Google Classroom meeting in March, Nichols posed a question in the chat. “What is your favorite candy?” she asked.
One student typed “My favorite candy is Skittles and I’m eating some right now and I love the flavor.”
Another said “I love Milky Way because I LOVE caramel.”
But some didn’t mention candy. Some just typed “I miss you.”