Ana Christine Conde is a Secondary English Education major at the university. She entered her junior year this September, prepared to further her education through student teaching at St. Georges Technical High School, but a stay at home order prevented her from the experience — one that is usually a critical milestone for aspiring educators.
“The pandemic has thrown a wrench in my teaching program,” Conde said. “It makes me feel like I’m stepping into the unknown.”
The pandemic has dramatically altered the teaching profession, impacting the lives of both education students and experienced teachers.
Betsy Villiger is a learning specialist working with students in kindergarten to fifth grade in Baltimore City, Maryland. She said that they have been following COVID-19 protocols in person since August, including COVID-19 screening questions, mask wearing and social distancing. She shared what a normal day looks like for her and what soon-to-be teachers like Conde are stepping into.
“Crates with everything they need are in their designated area, no shared supplies of any kind,” Villiger said. “Six foot beach towels are taken outside for lunch so they have a defined area. There are students who have opted to learn virtually even though they have the option to be in-person, so I manage teaching students in-person and virtually simultaneously.”
Villiger also described how the pandemic created a dramatic shift in class participation and attendance.
“There were many students that just disappeared,” Villiger said. “You couldn’t make them come to the Zoom sessions, and even when they did, school rules were gone. Kids would have movies blaring in the background, be in their pjs [pajamas], or just turn off the screen or leave after a few minutes. For most students, learning really did stop last March.”
Villiger acknowledges that every student is experiencing different home situations. The community between school, friends and teachers is gone. Students receive way more screen time and may do whatever they want to do because their parents may get sick, go to work or have to take care of other family members.
Considering how the class environment has changed over the past year, teachers in training such as Conde have their concerns. She mentioned feeling worried about burnout in students due to the altered learning conditions and long term screen exposure that Villiger described.
“Students are tired and worn out from the pandemic taking a whole year away from their lives, so I know that whatever effort they have left to expend on school is the bare minimum,” Conde said.
Despite these struggles, some have found there are positive takeaways from virtual classes too. Virginia Henderson is a senior Elementary Teacher Education major with a concentration in special education. She has been able to experience some student teaching virtually.
“I am able to better see the home life of my students,” Henderson said. “Virtual school is really exposing some of the hardships that students have to go through while attempting to get an education.”
Henderson believes that online learning platforms created a space that makes it easier for students in need to reach out for help and ultimately has improved their ability to focus on school.
“Some [students] live with sick family members, face homelessness or experience domestic conflict,” Henderson said.
Because online classes allow teachers a better look at their students’ home lives, they can identify hardships and get these students the assistance they need.
Looking ahead to the Fall 2021 semester, teachers such as Villiger are expecting some improvements, but not a return to complete normalcy.
“Most teachers have gotten the vaccine, but children at this time are unable to get one,” Villiger said. “Masks and social distancing will probably be with us for quite some time.”
Contemplating the fact that schools will be following COVID-19 protocols for the unforeseeable future, some teachers are not entering the job that they originally chose to pursue. The pandemic might just change the profession of teaching for good, embracing more technological features used today like Zoom. Conde shared that she is worried about becoming a teacher in a technologically dependent setting.
“Teachers are already asked to do so much with and for their students,” Conde said. “I have seen teachers shelling out thousands of dollars to buy a new computer setup in order to run their online classrooms more smoothly … There are so many more factors I have to consider now that we don’t even discuss in my [education] classes.”
While people are worried about transitioning into a teaching position in a world dominated by COVID-19, teaching students still need to focus on the rest of their own education. Henderson spoke about the need for human interaction to successfully learn.
“You cannot learn how to be an awesome teacher and how to run a successful classroom from a textbook,” Henderson said. “I am sad that I haven’t been able to be in-person.“
Villiger’s experiences over the past year sums up the challenges that teachers have been enduring day after day and also emphasizes just how important educators are. The pandemic has enhanced the need for community, social interaction and personal relationships in a classroom, all of which are fueled by teachers’ work.
“The role of educators is much more than simply translating knowledge from one brain to the next,” Conde said. “If that were the case, we would have been replaced by automated computers a long time ago. Teachers fulfill a social role as well as an academic one; we connect with our students on interests outside of the purely educational.”