Teaching during the time of COVID: Learning from mentor teachers’ experiences

October 2021

Source: Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 37:4, 217-233

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The study described in this article identifies common themes emerging from 31 elementary mentor teachers’ experiences teaching with technology at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Analysis of the survey data suggests teachers were committed to providing equitable educational opportunities to students, and defined three main priorities to guide their online instruction.
The three priorities were:
(1) providing access to online instruction,
(2) considering families’ differing capacities for learning support, and
(3) fostering student engagement.
Critical to the realization of online education was the participation of families.
Mentor teachers relied on families to support students with devices, WIFI signals, managing schedules, and facilitating students’ completion of assignments; however, families were variably able to provide such support, potentially underlining issues of socioeconomic and resource inequality.

This qualitative survey-based study is designed to better understand a set of elementary mentor teachers’ experiences conducting classrooms with digital technology during the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A qualitative methodology is used to honor the participants’ lived experiences through their voices (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016).

Participants in the study were mentor teachers in an elementary teacher education program at a public university in the Pacific Northwest.
The teacher education program aims to prepare elementary-school teachers for socially just general education instruction.
In the 2019–2020 school year, the program employed 69 mentor teachers.
Each was assigned to mentor a preservice teacher in their classroom from August 2019 through June 2020.
All the mentor teachers were sent an email in June 2020, inviting them to participate in the study with a survey link.
Those who did not respond to the first request were sent a follow-up email in July.
31 mentor teachers responded to the survey: 28 general education teachers (ranging from kindergarten to fifth-grade instructors) and three dual-language teachers (Spanish or Mandarin).
The mentor teachers represent 15 schools across five districts in and around a major metro area of the Pacific Northwest.

Data sources
The data for this study came in the form of survey responses.
The electronic survey method was chosen because it could be quickly disseminated (Simsek & Veiga, 2001).
The author designed the Qualtrics survey with questions using nine categories generated after reflecting on her practice as a teacher educator, drawing on the topics discussed throughout her teacher education program faculty meetings.
She also shared draft versions of the survey with colleagues and practicing teachers.
She incorporated their feedback into the final version of the survey.

Findings and discussion
This study aims to offer teacher educators insight into how elementary mentor teachers experienced emergency remote teaching during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mentor teachers articulated three main priorities that guided their desire to deliver equitable online education:
increasing access to technology, considering families’ capacity to support students, and encouraging student engagement in online learning.
One key question remains unanswered:
Why did the group of mentor teachers surveyed in this study choose the priorities of equity, access, families, and student participation?
It may be the case that these priorities were selected because mentor teachers in this particular group have similar guiding philosophies of social-justice informed teaching.
All of the mentor teachers who participated in this study work with a teacher education program that is known for preparing future teachers to place equity at the forefront of their teaching, especially in ways that value families’ home languages and cultural knowledge.
It is plausible that the mentor teachers themselves advocate for similar equity-based teaching philosophies.

Concerns around equitable emergency remote teaching
Creating equitable learning opportunities for their students was the foundation of the mentor teachers’ pedagogical strategies.
This concern for student learning continuity was echoed by educators worldwide (Reimers & Schleicher, 2020).
The thread of equity seems to be woven through the mentor teachers’ tireless efforts to facilitate device and WIFI signal access and through their instructional design decisions.
Their focus on equity aligns with much of the emerging research about educators’ practices during the beginning of the pandemic.
From nationwide reports (Hamilton et al., 2020) to smaller groups of educators (Code et al., 2020; Kaden & Martin, 2020; Whittle et al., 2020), the theme of concern for creating equity in online learning is shared.
The findings for this study add a layer of nuance to this discussion around technology access.
For the teachers surveyed as part of this study, making digital devices and WIFI signals available was not enough to ensure equal access to online learning.
Instead, whose experiences can be best explained using the metaphor of a ladder.
The ladder allows us to envisage the sequential order of students’ steps to participate in digital learning.
In such a model, the first rung of the ladder is access to a functioning digital device.
The second rung is reliable WIFI, and the third is caregiver support for accessing, understanding and keeping track of students’ digital learning schedules and responsibilities.
The ladder comparison relates to the teacher presence category in Garrison et al. (2000) Community of Inquiry framework.
While it is true that teachers create opportunities to learn online, students must take up these learning opportunities for them to be effective.
The third rung of the ladder points to the critical role that caregivers play in online learning.
Thus, the discussion of students’ access to online education should include attention to technical devices and caregiver support.

The role of families in online learning
The third rung of the ladder, the role of caregivers in students’ online learning, was a guiding principle in the mentor teachers’ work.
Research in education has long demonstrated the importance of including families and their knowledge in children’s schooling (Clark-Louque & Latunde, 2014; Ishimaru & Takahashi, 2017; Zeichner et al., 2016); the COVID-19 pandemic has added crucial new emphasis on the school-family relationship.
This study suggests that teachers, especially in elementary schools, need to work with households in ways that attend to caregivers’ needs in order to enable equitable digital access and online education.
Aguliera and Nightengale-Lee (2020) stress the importance of learning about how families navigate the complexities of online learning, and considering their successes and struggles when making decisions about designing remote education.
However, this work should not fall on the shoulders of teachers alone.
We need to welcome and include various educational stakeholders, such as administrators, community members, parents, students, and teachers (Aguliera & Nightengale-Lee, 2020).
Broadening the scope of educators in this time of hybrid learning can provide teachers support to effectively design and implement effective education.
Assistance can come in the form of professional development for effective online learning, daily support in creating and employing digital lessons, and facilitating reflection on remote teaching.
Shifting who plays a role in creating and implementing digital learning is significant, as it attends to students’ social and academic needs and raises the level of social presence in virtual classrooms (Whittle et al., 2020).
Thus, centering students’ and families’ experiences is vital to designing remote education, and the efforts required to understand their lived experiences should be shared by a community of educators.

The upheaval of in-person schooling provides a much-needed opportunity for policymakers, teachers, and families to critically examine the inequities present in our education system, and avoid reproducing them in a digital context (Aguliera & Nightengale-Lee, 2020).
In this way, teacher educators, policymakers, and teachers can use this time of crisis and uncertainty to envision what education might look like moving forward (Darling-Hammond & Hyler, 2020).
We can reframe how digital technology is used in classrooms and leverage it to support preservice teachers, thereby expanding their sense of how to teach in the classrooms of our unknown futures (Fishman & Dede, 2016).
Teacher educators are vital to this response, and can play a pivotal role in creating spaces for preservice teachers to reflect on their experiences learning and teaching online.
This might allow them to imagine a new digital learning landscape for future generations of students.

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Updated: May. 11, 2022