After four months of teaching together, Tracy Warnecke knew a lot about Will Mitchell.
The veteran O’Keeffe Middle School teacher and her student teacher had spent hours over four months reflecting on an unprecedented year together and discussing how each other was doing through a worldwide pandemic.
But with only a Zoom square on a computer screen connecting them, she missed those small details that further revealed his personality — like his fondness for wearing high-top Converse sneakers.
So it goes in a pandemic year of teaching and learning, when small elements of a person remain unknown, even as the conversations about what’s going on around them become more serious.
Student-teachers have had to navigate that balance, with many of them only recently returning to in-person classrooms.
For Warnecke, who often has a student teacher in her classroom, it changed the experience into one she was “really apprehensive” about given her own lack of experience in a virtual classroom.
“I think virtual learning is exceptionally challenging for veteran teachers,” Warnecke said earlier this spring. “I’m used to doing things a certain way and I’ve had to completely turn that 180 degrees.”
Then, she had to help someone who hopes to have his own classroom in the near future prepare. In Mitchell’s case, he wasn’t even living in Madison at the time, remaining at home in Michigan until recently.
For his part, he’s “extremely, extremely, extremely thankful” that he had an in-person student-teaching experience previously, but knows there was a lot to learn from how vulnerable he had to be during this period of virtual teaching.
“This might be the closest definition to a rude awakening in education you could ever imagine,” Mitchell said. “It’s been horrendous, I don’t want to ever do this again, but this rude awakening (had) us wake up and realize some things that we need to talk about and address in education.”
As the Madison Metropolitan School District continues its phased return, Mitchell — at Memorial High School this semester and now in-person — and others are returning to the classrooms to get an experience closer to normal.
“Being in-person is the best experience and it reminded me why I went into teaching,” said Claire Anderson, who is student teaching at Chavez Elementary School. “Kids everyday make me smile, make me laugh and they are the future of our world and just that reminder everyday that I get to be a part of shaping that is so cool.”
While it hasn’t been the year any of them would’ve expected a year-and-a-half ago, Anderson said they’ve all had to make the best of it and take advantage of the lessons they may not have learned otherwise — from online tools to seeing how students adapt.
“I don’t know how else being a student teacher would feel,” Anderson said. “This is just the world we’re living in right now. I’ve had to be flexible, we’ve had to change.”
Everyone learning together
While virtual learning presented veteran teachers with a new challenge, it created an opportunity for student teachers to play a larger role.
“I think I probably leaned on Will more than I would’ve leaned on a pre-service teacher if we were live,” Warnecke said. “I’m learning with him at the same time.”
It’s an extra level of responsibility that they’ve noticed and appreciated. Liz Kielley, who is also student teaching at O’Keeffe Middle School, said the change “almost equalized you with the teachers” as everyone was looking for the best resources and tools to use for virtual learning.
“(Classroom teachers) really were more proactive about, how can we involve our student teachers, how can we help these teachers-in-training, what roles and responsibilities can we give?” Kielley said.
The cohorts of student teachers are also continuing to learn together in their university classrooms, albeit with the difficulties that come with online conversations in big groups. Each Friday, the cohort gathers over Zoom and discusses their week, and all said they’ve found it valuable even as it’s difficult.
“It’s hard when you have like 40 people on a Zoom and everyone has things to share,” Kielley said. “There is a bit of that connection that’s lost, you’re not sitting next to one another, you can’t have those little side conversations.
“It’s still there, we’re all still talking — just Zoom and FaceTime talking.”
Their own classrooms in fall
The final semesters of student teaching are the last chance for future teachers to hone their practice before they’re in charge of their own classrooms.
Having part of that experience virtually, when fall is likely to be somewhat in-person in most districts, means they’re missing part of the key lessons they would normally receive.
“Anyone who is a pre-service teacher in this environment is going to need some serious mentoring and coaching on classroom management and classroom environment and structure,” Warnecke said. “We’re not dealing with behaviors in the way we’d be dealing with them in the classroom.”
All of the student teachers who spoke with the Cap Times acknowledged that challenge and are aware they’ll need to learn more as they go. Some also had their semester focused on special education interrupted last spring, leaving another area that will require further development.
But many expressed confidence that after dealing with sudden classroom closures last spring and the uncertainty throughout much of this year, they’ll find their way.
“You can really build strong relationships through any mode of instruction,” said Megan Mullen, who is student teaching third grade at Allis Elementary. “I’ll be ready for whatever’s thrown at me in the future.”
‘It makes me seem more normal to them’
Seeing a teacher out shopping or at a restaurant could be a surreal experience for students in the past. Now, they’re seeing their teachers’ homes, pets and families on a daily basis.
That familiarity creates a new way to connect, said Kielley, who moved back in with her parents here in Madison. She recalled the times a blender made noise in the background as her dad made a smoothie, with instances like that making her “seem more normal to them.”
“The practice has become very human,” she said. “You see things like little siblings … and you get to see different components of their families and their backgrounds that you don’t get to see in the classroom, that doesn’t normally come to school with them.”
Making those connections with families, even when in-person instruction becomes the norm, is another lesson some of the student teachers will take from this time. Kielley is excited to be in a classroom again “and not sit in my childhood bedroom when I teach.” For Mitchell, it will be important to recall what he heard from parents this year.
“I’d want to be remembering and sort of mentally logging all of the communication and all of the requests or questions or concerns that were coming from parents in a virtual space and considering them for the in-person environment,” he said.
Anderson, who will take over a first-grade classroom in Arizona this fall, said one of the biggest lessons she’s learned is “realizing how much our students do know and how capable they are.”
“I really got to experience how capable our students are of utilizing technology as well as being leaders within their own classroom,” she said. “I got to see how even during these unprecedented times, students can really rise to the occasion of being strong and well-spoken learners and leaders.”
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