Source: The Teacher Educator, 56:3, 229-249
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
The purpose of this study was to describe student teaching experiences from a Midwest university elementary education program that were impacted by the phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused sudden and drastic changes to the student teaching experience and many decisions were not in the student teachers’ control.
This study sought to capture how student teachers and student teaching coordinators processed these sudden changes and how student teachers continued in their preparation to become an effective teacher and member of the school and classroom community.
The research question for this study was: What are the perceptions and lived experiences of elementary student teachers and coordinators related to the crisis and adaptation of the COVID-19 pandemic phenomenon?
In order to capture the shared experiences of student teachers and student teaching coordinators, due to the changes brought about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a qualitative, phenomenological design was selected. This study describes the student teaching experience during this unprecedented phenomenon, focusing on the commonality of student teachers’ and student teaching coordinators’ lived experiences. Creswell (2013) outlines the goal of phenomenology to conclude with a description of the experience.
This study provides a description of the student teaching experience but also includes the perceptions of student teachers and student teaching coordinators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patton (2002) describes phenomenology as a way to capture how individuals perceive and understand a phenomenon as the critical element of this type of research.
This design could also be classified as a case study of one teacher preparation program with two unique designs, but the focus was to emphasize the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This study included participants in two student teaching designs at a public four-year university located in a Midwest city. Undergraduate enrollment is approximately 20,000 with 740 undergraduates pursuing elementary education. This university offers a one-semester student teaching design and a yearlong student teaching design allowing students to make a choice in their culminating experience. Both designs are options for students in their final semesters prior to graduation.
This qualitative study invited all student teachers (n = 84) from one elementary teaching program with two student teaching designs to participate.
There was a response rate of 32%, resulting in 27 senior, preservice elementary education participants. Students were placed in either a one-semester student teaching experience or a yearlong student teaching experience. Of the twenty-seven student teachers (n = 27) who participated in the study, 13 of these students were in a one-semester student teaching placement, and 14 were in the second semester of a yearlong student teaching placement.
Student teaching coordinators
Both student teaching coordinators were participants and coauthors in this study. These coordinators collaborated with teacher certification and field placement offices, facilitated supervisor responsibilities and supported student teachers. Since they were teachers of record for both 16-credit hour culminating student teaching designs, dispositional and communication related issues were also part of their coordinating duties.
Student teachers and student teaching coordinators were in regular contact during the Spring 2020 semester. Student teaching coordinators kept notes, record of emails, and journaled during this time to keep track of changes, implications, and student teaching experience.
At the end of the semester (early May), student teachers were given a survey to capture their experience.
Student teachers completed a self-report survey consisting of three open-ended questions and one multiple choice response question pertaining to how their student teaching experience had been impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each survey question was open-ended to allow for descriptions about how these changes were both beneficial and disappointing to their student teaching experience. The coordinators for the two designs also completed the survey. After completing the survey individually, they compared their responses.
Yearlong student teaching design experience
Rather than fully co-teaching daily, yearlong student teachers shifted to a lesser role. Since each district varied in their approach, yearlong student teachers had vastly different experiences. Many yearlong student teachers focused on maintaining classroom community and connections with students through online activities and phone calls. Other yearlong student teachers helped distribute food and school packets to students. Often, mentor teachers were trying to process changes on their own, so this impacted their ability to release responsibilities to their student teacher. However, all yearlong student teachers continued regular communication with their mentor teacher and continued to work together, in spite of the rapidly changing situation.
One-semester student teaching design experience
The role of the student teacher in the one-semester design was also significantly altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One-semester student teachers had only completed two of the four months of student teaching when the pandemic began. Each of the 20+ districts varied their approaches to online teaching, including the role of student teachers. Many student teachers assisted their mentor teacher with organizing online activities, small group lesson planning, and technology platforms. However, the primary responsibility that one-semester student teachers held was as an aid or support for the educational needs of their mentor teacher. Most mentor teachers were still figuring out their role in this new online educational environment and did not have time or resources to clearly define their student teacher’s new role. As a result, most one-semester student teachers assisted with tasks requested by the mentor teacher but did not spend as much time with students in direct teaching, as they had prior to the pandemic.
Findings and Discussion
As a teacher, it is necessary to stay flexible, be willing to learn, and be resilient. As changes come, new learning is required.
This is a normal part of being a teacher.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these changes were swift, historic, and far-reaching. In normal conditions, these changes come more slowly, and are more predictable.
Regardless, teachers must be ready to face these changes, adapt, and meet the needs of their students. This is especially important for student teachers as they continue to learn and develop their craft for becoming their own classroom teacher.
In Spring 2020, student teachers felt the impact of the significant and sudden shift in their student teaching experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They were able to see that their mentor teachers were also in an entirely new educational environment and had to immediately learn to adapt.
As they were learning to adapt themselves, it was difficult for them to include student teachers in all aspects of remote learning.
For example, student teachers who were in full teaching responsibility, suddenly found themselves focusing on maintaining the classroom community with students in different locations.
They worked with their mentor teacher to create activities allowing students to interact with each other, participated in online community-building conversations with their students, and served as constant positive figures for their students who were experiencing a time of change, uncertainty, and stress.
Throughout this phenomenon, student teaching responsibilities most impacted were lesson planning, delivery, and assessment. Districts transitioned from teaching new skills to reviewing content already taught. Grades were no longer required, and state assessments were canceled. Student teaching responsibilities focused more on maintaining classroom community and keeping students connected, and academic-focused responsibilities fell more to the mentor teacher, making the role of the student teacher less important and in many instances, obsolete.
Impact of lived experiences on student teaching beliefs
The themes described in this article address both benefits and disappointments that occurred during the semester of student teaching.
But how did these experiences impact beliefs about teaching and learning? Based on the data, many student teachers reported their role changed from being a lead teacher in the classroom to one of support for students.
For example, their perception of differentiating and accommodating students shifted slightly to now include taking care of the “whole child.”
As a result of the pandemic, student teachers were put into more of a support role for maintaining student relationships and address nonacademic needs, such as mental health and environmental needs students experienced. With schools and districts support systems being limited by closures, teachers and student teachers became the resource to support students and families.
This included providing meals in backpacks, delivering coursework to homes, and monitoring mental health needs.
As a result, student teachers’ belief of what makes a “good” teacher was expanded to include differentiating other facets of student learning, such as ensuring students were fed, getting enough sleep, and having opportunities to talk and share stressful events happening in their lives. Teaching involves much more than providing academic instruction.
These altered educational experiences provided the opportunity for student teachers to become better aware of different roles and responsibilities teachers assume in their classroom.
The data also showed students had to rethink the structure of teaching in the classroom. Student teachers reported that they are better prepared to “just go with the flow when things are out of order or wacky.” Other data showed student teachers learned to be more patient and improve their problem-solving skills.
Their belief that teaching has to be organized and follow in a direct order of tasks throughout the day to be “effective teaching,” was challenged. Schools switched to online teaching, which was sometimes not planned and organized. Thus, student teachers learned that flexibility and patience are also characteristics of good teaching.
Focusing on feedback rather than grades also affected student teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning.
Feedback has always been a part of student teaching, but feedback began to drive student learning as grading practices were greatly impacted by the transition to remote learning. Feedback regarding student learning, misconceptions, progress, and achievements had to be timely, intentional, and effective because many schools were no longer issuing grades based on the accuracy of student work.
Student teachers indicated opportunities for student choice were created by focusing on feedback rather than grades. One student teacher said, “There are many different ways students can show their work and this can create for a more equitable experience … This has helped provide more opportunities for student voice.”
Due to the pandemic, schools and teacher education programs will be impacted for the foreseeable future. Based on our data, there are several recommendations for the future of teacher education. Lesson plan designs should now include both face-to-face and virtual teaching settings and include more accommodations for student learning.
Differentiation and response to intervention (RTI) best practice strategies should include more technology, virtual learning platforms, teaching software, and delivery methods for instruction. Allowing pre-service teachers to model and demonstrate their teaching development should be practiced in more than just a regular classroom setting.
Other classroom settings include teaching using Zoom, Canvas, and Google Classroom.
Additionally, pre-service teachers need to gain experience navigating a hybrid approach to teaching, balancing the needs of face-to-face students with online students, simultaneously.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Sage.
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Sage.