Meredith Stafford, staff writer
Due to COVID-19, the student teaching program at Berry has faced a series of obstacles since the closing of schools in 2020, but has found ways to adapt to pandemic regulations. Student teachers have been placed in schools that have corresponding regulations with Berry and most student teachers have been able to gain experience through online observing and teaching.
The program is typically a two semester sequence for most student teachers, according to Director of Field Experiences and Clinical Practice Frances Roe. It begins with preplanning in July before the schools open each fall semester, and placements for student teachers occur in the spring of each year. For the fall semester of 2020, Roe explained that Berry placed students with programs and schools that had COVID-19 regulations that required masks and social distancing, in coherence with Berry’s regulations.
“All the districts that I had already placed students with did not have policies that aligned with Berry’s,” Roe said. “So, last year I had to remove students from their original placements and find them placements with a district that had a policy that supported Berry’s.”
This semester, because of the numerous vaccination opportunities for school faculties, Roe was able to make the placements for student teachers at schools in the spring and, because of the corresponding policies, did not have to alter them. Roe explained that one school in particular has a three phase protocol in which the COVID-19 case numbers determine whether students wear masks, but Berry student teachers were already required to wear a mask, and remained unaffected.
According to Roe, there were no gaps in terms of student teaching experience because every student teacher had the opportunity at various points in the past year to teach or observe virtually. While some student teachers were able to observe a cooperating teacher virtually in the spring before the students taught, there were elementary school student teachers that were able to teach a lesson online.
“They did not lose any time in terms of instructional time,” Roe said. “They simply pivoted to virtual teaching.”
Some virtual learning days have happened this past week in Rome schools, according to Roe, and student teachers will have the opportunity to teach virtually and at least observe, or co-teach or assist in some manner this semester.
Roe believes that the students last year exhibited flexibility and rose to the challenge.
“Last year’s student teachers entered the job market with a unique skill set because all of them had an opportunity to do some teaching virtually, and so that just gave them another kind of experience that would distinguish them, perhaps, from other candidates,” Roe said.
Claire Rowan, senior, teaches at Elm Street Elementary and said that the schools are taking a number of COVID-19 precautions to protect students. Administration tracks seating charts in classrooms and during lunch in order to track the close contacts of students in case of quarantine. They also clean regularly and sanitize tables in between classes. Rowan is hopeful for this modified in-person teaching to continue.
“Thankfully, I don’t think it has impacted [the school year] really negatively thus far,” Rowan said. “We haven’t had to go online. We haven’t had to do classes on Zoom or Google Meet.”
According to Rowan, masks are sometimes a barrier in the classroom, especially with younger students.
“I do think the masks, as important as they are, it does make things hard, especially in a first grade classroom,” Rowan said. “We’re doing a lot of phonics and doing a lot of letter recognition and letter sound correspondence, and it’s hard when they can’t see your mouth.”
According to Rowan, unexpected things happen in the classroom even despite the pandemic. But she says the pandemic precautions are an opportunity to find new ways to teach and encourage students, both verbally and non-verbally.
Similarly, Carli Zeh is a senior teaching at East Central Elementary and had her first experience with the effects of COVID-19 on student teaching when schools closed in March of 2020. According to Zeh, she was unable to achieve the field experience hours that she needed her sophomore year. During Zeh’s junior year, she said she experienced challenges with delayed lessons, online learning and quarantines. Student teachers had to adapt their lesson plans to online teaching with very little turnaround.
“I think it’s always been a learning experience,” Zeh said. “You’re going to have to be adaptable. You’re going to have to change on the fly. You might have it all planned out for the week to teach in person and then in a minute, you’re going to have to change your lesson to online.”
Another challenge, according to Zeh, was fully engaging with young students virtually because of distractions. However, in-person learning also posed new problems as students were quarantined. Zeh said she experienced a full class of students being quarantined while her other two classes got ahead.
“When you’re trying to teach, especially now, the biggest thing is trying to fill those gaps for those students and so it’s very hard for all of us,” Zeh said. “Trying to fill those gaps of what kids are missing is a learning process because you’re seeing the difficulties of students and seeing this big range of where students are and where students should be.”
Zeh also believes that the experience of teaching during the pandemic has benefits and that Berry has done well providing students with field experience, despite setbacks.
“The benefit is just being able to see how to teach online,” Zeh said. “That’s something that is never done usually. And being able to know that you’re going to have to flip your lesson on the fly and seeing that process.”