UMD education majors adapt to virtual student teaching during pandemic

The Benjamin Building, which houses the University of Maryland's College of Education, on April 7, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Seniors in the University of Maryland’s education school usually get a look at their future careers through the last few months of their required student-teaching internships.

During this time, they’re charged with leading a classroom by themselves — the culmination of four years spent learning to design lesson plans, going through teaching assessments and sitting through classroom observations.

But after public schools were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, some of this semester’s nearly 200 student-teaching interns are uncertain how they’ll move forward and serve students in a digital environment — while others were left without students to serve at all.

“To be saying they’re anxious is an understatement,” said Kathy Angeletti, assistant dean of the education school.

Students in the college are required to complete 100 days of student teaching to graduate, she said, and the experience they gain is a required part of getting their state teaching certificate. For seniors — who just began student-teaching full time at the beginning of this semester — they still have about a month or so left to go, Angeletti said.

So, last week, the Maryland State Department of Education — which outlines the state’s teaching license requirements — set out four options from which Maryland universities could choose to enable education students to complete that requirement during the pandemic.

Of the detailed options, the university’s education school is allowing its students to resume their internships virtually and complete “creative initiatives” — online lesson plans, for example — that would aid teachers as they transition to an online curriculum.

[Read more: After move online, UMD students and professors struggle to replicate hands-on lab courses]

“Think of those children — they don’t understand what’s going on, some of them are very young,” Angeletti said. “So the sooner we can get back to some semblance of normalcy, even if that is through an online instructional environment, that connection is so important.”

But teaching elementary-aged students through video calls presents its own challenges, said Simran Kishore, who interns for a kindergarten class at Galway Elementary School in Silver Spring.

“It is hard for them to stay looking at a computer screen for so long,” said the early childhood and special education major. “Being five, the hands-on tactical experiences are way more meaningful than them just verbally listening to me talk.”

Quincy Rawson is also worried about whether all of her students’ needs will be met in an online environment. Many don’t have access to a computer at home, and others receive speech or occupational therapy from the elementary school.

“Just knowing that we can’t be there to support those needs, is really troubling for me,” she said. “That’s probably at this point my biggest concern.”

Ensuring students aren’t left behind in the learning process — by giving out laptops and restoring other essential school services, such as free breakfast — are priorities for the Maryland State Board of Education and the county school systems that the education college partners with, Angeletti said.

Earlier this month, Prince George’s County Public Schools, one of the college’s partner districts, distributed Google Chromebooks to families to keep their students connected during distance learning.

“There really has been a focus in trying to increase access, and make sure students are not disadvantaged,” Angeletti said.

Though senior education students will be able to finish their internships in some capacity, juniors who were just beginning to work alongside local school teachers are finding that their opportunities have been cut short.

[Read more: Some UMD seniors anxious about job search as unemployment soars amid pandemic]

Alysa Adams, an elementary education major with a focus on math, had been interning at Templeton Elementary School in Bladensburg for two days per week this semester. Before spring break, she was preparing for “immersion week” — a chance to create and independently teach multiple lessons during a weeklong, full-time stint at Templeton.

Adams is still planning those lessons, even though she won’t be able to give them to students. Without an immersion week experience, Adams worries how prepared she’ll be for next spring, when she’ll be expected to teach on her own all the time.

“I feel like I’m losing the experience and the opportunity to grow my teacher personality, and what I’m like in the classroom,” she said. “And it is a little bit concerning, because current seniors now had that opportunity this semester.”

Student-teaching programs within the education school, such as Adams’ program in elementary education, are working to ensure juniors now will get the same expertise their senior counterparts had, even without as much early field experience, Angeletti said.

This might include a more intensive fall semester next year, to adequately prepare students for their yearlong internships.

“The faculty are very cognizant of that, and looking at what do they need to do to make modifications for the upcoming year, for their senior year, to make sure they get those skills and abilities,” Angeletti said.

Emily Sherrick, a junior elementary and middle special education major, heard she would no longer be able to work with her first grade students at Berwyn Heights Elementary School a few days before spring break. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Sherrick visited the school once a week.

Now, instead of teaching 7-year-olds, she’ll be practicing lesson plans she’s designed with her college peers and professor over Zoom.

“It’s a little uncomfortable to talk like you’re teaching a first grader when you’re talking to your friends,” Sherrick said.

With in-person classroom instruction put on hold, seniors are looking to the future.

Kishore has already signed a contract to begin teaching in Montgomery County next year, increasing the pressure on her to get licensed on time — something that, just a few weeks ago, she never thought she’d have trouble with.

But that’s not what’s stressing her the most, she said.

“For a lot of students, especially from my school, home is not as safe as school,” Kishore said. “So, I think more than me actually teaching them science and reading and math, I want to see them, and I want to know that they’re doing okay at home.”

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