This semester was supposed to be the opportunity to demonstrate readiness for the classroom for many seniors in Wisconsin schools of education.
Instead, those student teachers in their final semesters before applying for licensure and the chance to have their own classrooms next year are adjusting to the new reality of school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For a lot of my cohort members and I, it sucked, because we didn’t realize on that Friday (March 13) it was going to be the last time we’d see our students face-to-face,” said Emily Strehlow, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student who is student teaching at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison. “It all happened so fast that we were in a state of shock and confusion.”
On March 21, Gov. Tony Evers issued an order suspending the state’s administrative code requirement that prospective teachers submit a body of work and receive a passing grade on an assessment called the edTPA, which includes submitting things like lesson plans, instructional materials and teaching videos from lessons in their classrooms.
“The student-teaching requirement will still be interpreted as having been met,” Department of Public Instruction spokesperson Chris Bucher wrote in an email to the Cap Times.
For Tom Owenby, a faculty associate in elementary and secondary education at UW-Madison, that suspension was welcome news, as it offered him and his colleagues in the School of Education “flexibility” in assessing student success.
Quickly, though, they had to determine their own way of analyzing their student teachers’ performance. And they are doing it in an environment no one has experienced before.
“We’re trying to kind of cobble it together as we go,” Owenby said. “It’s far from an ideal situation for all parties involved, but (we are) trying to use what we have at our disposal in terms of technology and in terms of the relationships we’ve already built with our school-based partners as well as with the teacher candidates.”
Strehlow said the school has offered her cohort three options: submit the edTPA to Pearson as they would normally; submit the edTPA to UW and receive approval from the school; or come up with an alternative self-assessment with the UW staff to demonstrate their fitness for licensure. She is planning to submit her edTPA to Pearson as she would have anyway, because she’s heard that will be necessary if she ever plans to teach outside of Wisconsin.
Owenby said students are working with their partner teacher on the transition to online learning, and Strehlow said she and her partner teacher at Lincoln are doing their best to collaborate as they work in an unfamiliar setting.
“Still trying to navigate a place where we can slowly start to become those lead teachers, but also at the same time this is brand new territory for everybody,” Strehlow said. “It’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, we just need to figure out what’s going to happen Monday.’”
With student teachers placed in districts around the area, some of which have already started virtual learning and others that are building toward it, the UW had to keep in close contact with its students to help them navigate the changes, Owenby said.
“We hit the pause button for a bit while the districts were figuring out what to do,” Owenby said. “Obviously the focus is on the learning for the PK-12 students.”
While virtual learning will “certainly shift” some of how they assess their student teachers, Owenby said he thinks “at the core a lot will be similar,” with a focus on the same five general areas.
“We’re thinking about understanding the learner and the learning environment, planning, instruction, assessment and professionalism and ethics,” Owenby said. “The criteria are the same, but the characteristics are going to be very different.”
At Edgewood College, School of Education dean Tim Slekar said he’s hoping to receive more guidance from DPI on how to best assess their student teachers. Specifically, he said, they need help to know how to work with those that they have concerns about and might choose not to recommend for licensure.
“Any of the students that aren’t having problems, we really don’t need to be worried about,” Slekar said. “I’m more concerned on the other side of students who we might have real concerns about, but they may interpret some of these rules as, ‘Well you can’t fail me.’
“If there are students out there right now struggling who might be interpreting some of what the governor put forward as, ‘I’ve passed now.’ Well, the governor didn’t say you passed.”
He said he’s encouraging his staff to write down any concerns so that they can refer back to them if needed, while awaiting more guidance.
“Make sure if there’s anybody out there right now that we have any thoughts about, that we’re documenting those concerns so that if it comes time for licensure and we say, ‘We’re not going to recommend this person,’ I want to be able to say why we didn’t,” he said.
Owenby said observing their student teachers will likely not be possible, given some of the strict rules districts have in place for how teachers and students interact.
“We’ll have to get a bit creative in that respect,” he said.
Instead, they’ll focus on finding ways to help their UW students reflect on their instruction and have “meaningful conversations” around planning and assessments.
DPI's Bucher wrote that, “Schools of education have been incredibly innovative and responsive during the COVID-19 health emergency,” and that some programs had already completed some observation of students.
“It's important to note that though student teaching is the culminating experience, candidates have had many experiences in classrooms, teaching students and interacting with educational professionals and systems throughout their program,” Bucher wrote. “Their practice and pedagogical content knowledge is assessed over time. The DPI has complete trust in our preparation programs, and will continue to work with candidates and endorse those who are fully prepared to be excellent educators.”
Meanwhile, Owenby said they’re also focusing on the personal well-being of their UW students, including access to necessities like food and internet, in addition to the technical changes to their student teaching semester.
“For some folks, it’s this real sense of displacement,” he said. “They really dive in to this experience, so in terms of thinking about that relationship and that routine with their cooperating teacher, missing out on that and those conversations and that co-planning, worrying about their students with uncertainty in terms of how they’re doing and are they going to have access to what they need to learn but also living healthy and balanced lives?
“Those pieces have been a source of concern for our student teachers.”
Strehlow said the last few weeks have “been really stressful and a lot of confusion,” but she’s “excited to do all that virtual stuff” and learn some tools that she otherwise might not have.
“The schools, from what I’ve heard from all my cohort, are doing their absolute best to keep us involved just as much as if we were regular staff members at the school,” she said. “I think UW is trying their best to keep us as informed as they can with how much is changing 24/7.”
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