“It’s great, but it’s not nearly the same amount of learning experience that we would have… Can you hear me with the rain?”
She’s driving through a storm on the way from her house to one of her jobs and the connection on the phone call isn’t great.
“It’s getting louder here too,” I say. “You’re not that far from home yet,” I add with a quiet laugh to myself. I live next door to Rivka so I’m tempted to remind her of the obvious (that it’s raining here too), but I know she’s focused on driving safely so I don’t say anything.
Weather might seem like a silly conversation for two friends who grew up next door to one another, but it was the topic of many enthusiastic texts when we were younger. Whenever The Weather Channel mentioned snow, she would get texts from me saying “snow day tomorrow?” Rivka always found out about snow days before anyone else because her dad was the superintendent of the neighboring school district. She’s the one who told me about the secret superintendent group chat that they used to decide on snow days together.
As a daughter of two educators, Rivka’s behind-the-scenes look at what happens in the school system goes much deeper than just snow days. She grew up spending summer days helping set up classrooms and libraries in school buildings that were empty of any children besides her and her two siblings. Since pre-school she’s known she wanted to be a teacher, and now, as a college junior studying early education and special education, she’s well on her way. Because of her backstage access to schools while growing up, Rivka was probably more prepared for the reality of being a teacher than most of her peers – but any advantage she had went out the window when education as she knew it was shut down. The school buildings were empty again, but it wasn’t summer. The superintendents were all talking about closing the schools, but it wasn’t because of snow. Something much smaller than a snowflake was keeping everyone inside and the doors of the schools shut. And it wouldn’t just be for one day.
Over 82,600 students received bachelor’s degrees in education in 2017-2018. Under Pennsylvania law, students wanting to be eligible for teacher certification must complete at least a 12-week student teaching experience. Before they can student teach, they need to complete classroom observations, also known as field experience. Education certification programs require students to have a wealth of in-classroom experiences – and rightfully so, as they will soon be responsible for the education of our nation’s children. But in March of 2020, schools across the country closed their doors to students, teachers, and students who want to become teachers. The COVID-19 pandemic forced everything to pivot to digital spaces – well almost everything. What came next for our future teachers was different for each education program. But for all, it would be a hard departure from the logical and regimented structure that professors and students alike had become accustomed to.
Rivka was not the only future educator whose world was turned upside down by the pandemic. Gabriella is a graduate student in her last year of a theater education program through Temple University where she has already earned bachelors’ degrees in theater and english and will receive her masters in secondary english education in May of 2021. This program will certify her to teach high school English, a subject she could discuss for hours with ever-increasing enthusiasm. But the pandemic has her considering a big career pivot – attending law school and adding a J.D. after her name. But for now, she’s known as “Miss Gabbi, the pod teacher” to her group of six-year-old students. She facilitates these students’ pod, meaning that she’s the in-person adult providing supervision and academic support for a group of five students who are all doing digital learning. Gabbi is lucky to have a job where she can interact with students, even if they are far from the age she intends to work with. It’s experience she’s not currently getting through her master’s program.
This semester, Gabbi was supposed to be completing 25 hours of teaching observations in a high school english classroom in preparation for her student teaching experience next semester. Instead, her program replaced the 25 hours of observations and the accompanying reflection on the experience with a lesson plan analysis assignment. This five hour assignment is meant to take the place of 25 in-classroom hours.“I think it is a really nice and robust assignment, but I don’t think it can take the place of me sitting in a classroom, watching a teacher deliver instruction and watching students receive/react to it,” said Gabbi. The way she talks about being in a classroom is so filled with passion that it could make people who hated school actually miss being a student. Gabbi is willing to make a bold claim, because it’s obvious she believes this with her entire being – education has been fundamentally changed because of this pandemic. She knows the classrooms that she has observed will be nothing like the one she enters into after graduation. This truth led to a self-described existential crisis after graduating with her bachelors’ degrees (hence the potential career in law – education law – but still). Gabbi describes it as feeling like “the things that I’m being taught are being taught to prepare me for something that no longer exists.” And yet, there is no acknowledgement of this reality coming from her classes. “The content of the course was not altered and the assignments, of course, were not altered to even nod to the fact that there’s a pandemic going on.” She said this with a growing disbelief in her voice, as if she had realized the insanity of her situation as she was saying it. The disbelief is entirely understandable because her professors are “going along as if the situation that [she’s] going to be teaching in is exactly as it was last year.” What is she supposed to do with the fact that she knows that isn’t true?
For Rivka, fall of 2020 was supposed to bring a full day of field experience. She and her peers were supposed to be working in inclusive classrooms. “Because of COVID, what they decided to do at Arcadia [University] was just to straight up cancel that,” Rivka tells me. The one experience that is still happening for Rivka and her peers is the STEM-focused after school program that they run once a week, except now it’s being done virtually. She’s clearly eager for a chance to teach, but she’s worried that this is not going to be successful because it’s the students’ first time teaching and they are being asked to do so on Google Meet, a platform none of them have experience with. “If anything, that fieldwork situation they are putting us in is discouraging my ability to teach and I feel like almost setting me up for failure… I think that they know it too.” Her suspicions were further confirmed when the first grade teacher who’s supposed to help her and her peers run the program outright said, “this is a bad idea.”
“We’re just not working with students,” Rivka tells me. She says this with a mix of worry and frustration in her voice. This was the semester she was supposed to work with students with low-incidence disabilities. But now she and the other special education majors are supposed to learn about students with these types of disabilities via online modules and guest speakers. “Teaching is like your internship, that’s when you learn to do it. You can learn so much pedagogy, but you’re not going to know how to do it until you do it.” Rivka admits to me that she’s not even sure what teaching will look like in the future. She knows that the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on education will change teaching for her. But the way she describes her program makes you question whether they know a pandemic is occurring. Rivka has a hard time finding the words, but eventually describes the situation with a piercing honesty, “Right now we are pretending as if… Everything we are learning is for a classroom that would have been last year.”
Next fall, we may have over 82,600 newly graduated education students who haven’t been in a classroom for a year and a half. They will be stepping into positions that will either ask them to teach online (which they haven’t been educated on) or to teach in a classroom (a space they haven’t been in potentially since before the pandemic). They will be tasked with teaching students who may not have been in a classroom environment since before the COVID-19 outbreak. These are students who will likely be struggling with re-learning social and emotional skills and dealing with new-found separation anxiety from the months of being at home with their parents. There is no second shot at educating the future educators. There is no extra training after graduation. With the teacher shortage that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, there is no time for them to catch up on what they missed before being given control of their own classroom.
Next fall, we may realize that the focus placed on current students and teachers in the pandemic left behind a critical group.
Next fall, we may realize that the future teachers were left behind.
Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske from Pixabay