“Thrown to the wolves” – Teacher education during a pandemic

By Johanna Tigert, Christine Leider, and Michaela Colombo for the MATSOL Teacher Educator Special Interest Group.

Special thanks to Adrienne, Anastasia, Claudia, Helen, Irma, Ivone, Jocelyn, Joni, Josh, Laura, Marialuisa, Melissa, Moira, Paula, Peter, and Rachel, whose voices we drew on in writing this piece. 

The MATSOL Teacher Educator Special Interest Group (SIG) met on April 27 via Zoom to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our work. A record number of people attended – a testament to the desire of people to connect and be heard during these unprecedented times. In small groups, we shared both our recent challenges and triumphs as distance teacher educators. We’re not going to pretend challenges didn’t dominate our conversation – they were serious, multiple, and complex. People needed the space to voice their concerns. However, the resourceful group we are, we also shared strategies, resources, and tips for overcoming some of the challenges. 

Not in Kansas Anymore

As we moved our SEI courses, professional development sessions, and practicum supervision to a remote format, we noticed the differences between face-to-face teacher education right away. Overnight, we had to rethink everything. A whole-day PD session was now out of the question. Activities that would have worked well face to face had to be abandoned or completely redesigned to fit the new format. It’s been harder to read people or have in-depth conversations when teachers became squares on a screen, devoid of the usual body language. Many of us are using video conference apps for meeting with teacher candidates, but we’ve also begun suffering from Zoom Fatigue and worry about the privacy concerns related to teachers using similar tools with students. Proven teacher education methods that rely on social interaction such as team teaching approaches and one-on-one coaching have become near impossible. 

Of course, for us and teachers to successfully do our jobs also depend on everyone being able to access the resources they needed. Many of the teachers we work with had been using educational technologies for years, but suddenly, some of them were banned for safety concerns. Some teachers reported having to switch to a new technology on the fly, leaving everyone struggling to learn how to use new apps and user platforms. We also wonder if teachers and students have reliable access to technology and the Internet. Even if those are in place, how are teachers be able to access translation or interpretation services to communicate with families? 

Our gravest concern is educational equity: for our teacher candidates and also for the English learners they serve. Teachers had reported that even their previously successful students were now struggling. They foresee increasing achievement gaps, falling student motivation, and lower graduation rates for English Learners. Bridging access to language, content, technology, and even basic needs for students are on everyone’s mind. However, we have seen little of this reflected in the media. No one seems to care what will happen to English learners, one of the most vulnerable of student populations. 

Many of us have had to face these struggles alone. It seems that we had been “thrown to the wolves” with no guidance from anyone. The Massachusetts DESE has provided some resources for educating English Learners, but no guidance for teachers or teacher educators on how to incorporate the long lists of links and instructional activities into their instruction. The U.S. Department of Education has offered only general guidelines and resources but nothing specifically addressing teachers’ capacity to meet the needs of English Learners during the pandemic. We worry about addressing teacher education standards and subject matter knowledge – what can we leave out, how much will be enough? 

Even while grappling with these issues, we and the teachers we serve have faced further challenges at home. As university campuses closed, some teacher candidates had to move back home to a different time zone, and could no longer meet at the scheduled course times. Professional and personal responsibilities are no longer divided into different blocks during the day, as many of us had to take on teaching or caring for our own kids while also teaching our students. Some teacher candidates have faced medical, financial, and even legal barriers to finishing their coursework. 

All of this has taken a tremendous emotional toll on everyone, from teacher educators to students. Rather than teacher educators, many of us have become counselors for overwhelmed teachers. Even through video conferencing apps, the depression and anxiety teachers experience are palpable. They talk about the isolation felt by their students and the difficulty students have had adjusting to remote learning. 

Resourcefulness is Key

We wouldn’t be able to call ourselves educators if we weren’t also able to roll up our sleeves and spring to action when the pandemic closed our schools and universities. We evaluated the resources we could still rely on and the constraints we were now working under, and made many larger and smaller changes to our practice. 

Some of the changes we made were obviously technological. Instead of teaching students live, we now had to have teachers watch and analyze videos of teaching, evaluate lesson exemplars and strategies, and read English learner portraits online. We have observed teachers as they deliver lessons remotely, and have had them practice teaching via virtual role play and lesson scenarios. We’ve quickly become video conferencing wizards, utilizing features such as breakout rooms, chat boxes, and link sharing to facilitate the exchange of ideas. In some ways, it has even been easier to share online resources with teachers when everyone is already online. We’ve made greater use of the supplemental resources included in some electronic textbooks, and also considered ways teachers can go “low-tech” by giving out books and assignment packets. We’ve also learned that the harshness of a remote class can be softened by using students’ home language or having your pet appear on camera.

To keep some aspects of social interaction intact, we’ve had teachers work collaboratively with their cohorts or in teams. With some students, we’ve begun having more one-on-one conversations about their practice. At some institutions, teacher educators have formed student support teams to assist teacher candidates who struggle the most.

Some changes we made were purely dispositional. We had to evaluate what teachers and their students could realistically be expected to do, and then learn to let go of the things they couldn’t. For waiving certain educator preparation requirements, DESE offered us guidance. We have also shortened our online class time to ward off fatigue and assigned teachers small blocks of work to complete at their own pace. We have limited our focus to the most important aspects of our SEI courses, such as writing language and content objectives, introducing key supports like word banks, analyzing the linguistic and cultural demands of academic content, and identifying students’ cultural capital and funds of knowledge. 

We also see the silver linings in all this. We are able to give more personal support to students, and use more technology, more proficiently, than ever before. Because teachers have to post everything they do, we can easily see where support is needed. We also see an opportunity for English as a Second Language teachers to collaborate more with their mainstream colleagues than before, and work with their students one-on-one. We also recognize that school districts are responding to the crisis in humane ways, for example by relaxing their grading and completion policies. 

Into the Future

As we think about the future, many things still worry us. The uncertainty of not knowing whether schools and universities will even reopen in the traditional sense is disheartening. We wonder whether newly minted teachers will feel prepared to teach English Learners in the fall, or if they will enter classrooms feeling completely overwhelmed. But these concerns only serve to highlight the fact that in the future, we need to have a more flexible, robust plan in place for preparing teachers under any circumstances. This includes the need for us and others in the field to work even more closely together, put in place strong mentoring structures for new teachers, and address socio-emotional learning and remote learning strategies in our teacher education courses. Someday – hopefully soon – we will look back on this time and see how it made us all better as educators. 

The MATSOL Teacher Educator SIG meets via Zoom from 10:00-11:30 AM every third Monday of the month. More details here.