Student Teaching through a Pandemic
I don’t think I would trade it. It taught me a lot about myself and it taught me how to work with others in a different way. I honestly think that after teaching in a pandemic, I’m prepared for anything.Nyomi Dottin
Nyomi Dottin, Ryan Oates, and Fiona Moynihan all graduated from the UMass Amherst College of Education in May of 2021 after student teaching experiences that would have seemed truly impossible eighteen months earlier. Dottin and Moynihan completed undergraduate degrees—Dottin in early childhood education (and Afro-American studies) and Moynihan in special education (and English), while Oates completed his master’s degree in the 180 Days in Springfield program. Their time in the classroom (both virtual and actual) were, not surprisingly, replete with challenges. But in spite of the difficulties, they found positive outcomes as well, and their experiences have only made them stronger and more passionate educators.
Ryan Oates, who came to UMass from Wilmington, Ohio, spent the year as a 6th grade English as a Second Language and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at STEM Middle Academy in Springfield. Oates’ roles in the classroom were similar to what they would have been in a typical year. In September he observed several different classrooms and teachers. Beginning in October, he began student teaching in a co-teaching model, sharing responsibilities with his teacher mentor. From February until the end of the year, he was in the pilot’s seat, taking the lead in the classroom. STEM Middle Academy was fully remote for most of the year, while for the final two months, some students were in the classroom and some were remote. Oates remained remote throughout while his mentor teacher was physically in the classroom.
Nyomi Dottin’s first student teaching experience was more typical, teaching in-person in a preschool in Medford, Massachusetts, near her hometown of Everett. In the winter semester, Dottin’s placement was at Springfield’s German Gerena Community School in a second grade classroom. The school was remote until the end of April, at which point she was in the classroom in person. Early on, her responsibilities included some classroom management—making sure students had their camera on and were engaged—as well as leading small reading groups. Over the course of the semester, she took over more groups, including math, reading, and science, and when students returned in person, she often led the entire class.
Special education major Fiona Moynihan did her student teaching in the Franklin, Massachusetts school she had attended as a child. As a special education teacher, Moynihan taught kindergarteners and first graders as well as a few second graders. When she began in January, the school was using a hybrid model with one cohort attending in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, one attending on Thursdays and Fridays, and all students remote on Wednesdays. Moynihan’s special ed students however, attended with both cohorts, to give them as much in-time class as possible, so she was in the classroom four days a week. In early April, all of the students returned to the classroom full time. Moynihan’s responsibilities included supporting students on IEPs, providing both push-in support, when students were included in the general education classroom, and pull-out services, where she’d work with them one-on-one and in small groups.
We know that students’ experiences when they leave school impact school, but when you’re actually in their home, you can understand their experiences in a deeper way. One thing I took away was to assume the best of students—if they’re being quiet or not responding, assuming there’s something else going on, and coming to a situation like that with compassion and curiosity.
Although there were many obvious challenges to teaching online and in a hybrid setup, a few in particular stood out for these educators. Working with very young students, Dottin found it hard to know if they were truly understanding a lesson, especially when teaching skills like measuring without being hands on. She also noted how difficult it was to work on behavior issues with distance learning. “If a student was not listening to you, it was hard through a camera to try to get their attention and try to let them know what they’re doing is wrong. In person, you can look at them, sit them down and be like, ‘Hey, your actions are not okay,’ and they understand it more, because your feelings are clear.”
Oates found the lack of connection very difficult, both missing out on the deep connections he would have otherwise built with his fellow teachers in the school, and the challenge of connecting with his students. In fact, because students were able to participate without their cameras on, he doesn’t even know what some of them looked like. He also noticed a difficult paradox in teaching remotely—that it was simultaneously isolating but also very invasive, because you’re virtually in someone’s home.
When Moynihan worked with students online, she found the biggest challenge was keeping the children’s attention, especially when there were distractions in their space. “I have students with attentional problems and deficits, and for them, it was a huge challenge, and really draining for them emotionally to have to navigate that,” she explains.
Problems with distance learning also arose when these very young students transitioned to the classroom. The kindergarteners had never met their classmates in person while the first graders barely knew theirs and many felt uncomfortable in the classroom. Being isolated, Moynihan’s students hadn’t had the opportunity to develop the social skills that most do in kindergarten and first grade, such as talking to their peers, sharing, and following a schedule. “I would say the most challenging part of this year was making sure that they felt supported and cared for and also working on those skills, so that when things return to semi normal, they have the skills to interact with their peers and build those relationships.”
Dottin was struck that the pandemic showed in stark relief how important students’ social interaction is to their mental health. “It was such a huge impact. I’ve seen students who were so bubbly in the beginning when I was teaching remotely. They had so much personality to them. But moving all the way through May, it wasn’t there anymore. They physically looked like they did not want to be there and they just never felt good. It was one of the biggest lessons for me to witness—I knew before, but now it’s very evident that social interaction is key.”
It changed some of the reactions I receive when I say I’m going into education. In the past, there were always those naive statements about teaching like, ‘You get to work with kids all day—So fun!’ Now there’s a lot more actual engagement and conversation about the education field. I feel like this experience has given some people more respect for the field of education and for the profession of teaching. Hopefully that will continue.”
In the process of teaching during the pandemic year, Dottin, Oates, and Moynihan relied on traditional and new strategies, both high and low tech, for delivering material and for connecting with their students.
All of the teachers took advantage of breakout rooms to work with students in small groups. Oates found that allowing students to choose who would be in the room with them helped them feel comfortable, and keeping these groups consistent helped students build relationships. He also observed that working in small groups made students more likely to take an academic risk. Oates liked using tools like Padlet and the screen annotating feature of Zoom to give every student a voice in the remote setting, and the chat function of Zoom, which allowed students to message him privately about things they might not be comfortable saying out loud.
Dottin and her mentor teacher found it particularly helpful to use the low tech approach of “cold calls” when teaching a lesson—randomly pulling popsicle sticks with students names to call on them. “It really brought to our attention who was paying attention, who was understanding the material, and who needed extra help,” she says.
Moynihan used “social stories” with her students. Utilizing images and small amounts of text, a social story would help them understand, step by step, what they should expect on a particular day. “So an example would be: ‘Starting on Monday, all of our classmates are going to be in the class, this will mean there will be 25 students in the classroom, and your teacher is going to be talking to more friends throughout the day. So you might have to have your hand raised a little bit longer,’” she explains.
They also made it a priority for students to socialize and relax with each other. They used ice breakers to get their students talking about anything they cared about, to open up and make connections. In Oates’ classrooms, he observed Mindful Mondays, letting students go into breakout rooms with friends to just talk. Together, the class also created a Spotify playlist of their favorite songs to play in the background while they worked.
When her students returned to class in person full time, Moynihan and her colleagues built in extensive opportunities for community building. “While we still got to those academic pieces, we tried to take as much time as we could to help the students build their relationships with their peers and understand their relationship with their teacher when all of the students are in there, especially because some of those students were used to there only being five other people in the classroom on some days.”
The support of the College of Education community was a key factor in Dottin, Moynihan, and Oates’ success through the year. They each cite faculty advisors who they were able to go to with any questions, concerns, or advice on approaching a teaching challenge, including 180 Days in Springfield program program advisor Daryl Essensa, early childhood education professors Camille Cammack and Ysaaca Axelrod, and student teacher supervisor Lesley Cogswell. “I think the College of Education did a really good job of checking in with us and supporting us through every single step,” Dottins says. “I never felt alone through this entire thing.”
They were also able to rely on their College of Education peers throughout the year—debriefing, brainstorming, suggesting tools and websites, offering solutions to teaching challenges, and comparing what worked and didn’t work.
In spite of the challenges, teaching during the pandemic gave Oates, Dottin, and Moynihan unique teaching and learning opportunities.
Moynihan appreciates the in-depth education she got in teaching technologies and the opportunity to see all of the creative ways her teaching colleagues used them. “We talk so much about using technology in education, but I feel like until we really had to use it to this extent, we didn’t know all the different tools available to us. And now I have the opportunity to go in and use it from day one.”
In Oates classes, inspired by Thanhhà Lai’s novel in verse Inside Out and Back Again, recounting the story of a young Vietnam War refugee, the students were able to use the experience of the pandemic to help them see their place in history. “As we were reading it, we wrote our own stories about our experience through this historic event—like moments of gratitude and moments when you connected with family in a unique way,” he recalls. “I really appreciated getting to read some of what students came up with for that, because they’re making sense of their experience of this whole historic event.
Teaching during the pandemic helped Oates see quite clearly how much a student’s life outside school affects their learning. “We know that students’ experiences when they leave school impact school, but when you’re actually in their home, you can understand their experiences in a deeper way. One thing I took away was to assume the best of students—if they’re being quiet or not responding, assuming there’s something else going on, and coming to a situation like that with compassion and curiosity.”
Moynihan also observed a positive change in the perspectives of people outside the field, after a year in which so much of the national conversation has focused on the profound challenges teachers faced in educating students. “It changed some of the reactions I receive when I say I’m going into education,” she explains. “In the past, there were always those naive statements about teaching like, ‘You get to work with kids all day—So fun!’ Now there’s a lot more actual engagement and conversation about the education field. I feel like this experience has given some people more respect for the field of education and for the profession of teaching. Hopefully that will continue.”
Fortunately, the challenges of teaching during the pandemic didn’t dampen Dottin, Oates, and Moynihan’s enthusiasm for careers in education. This fall, Dottin will start the UMass child study & early education master’s program and will work as a residence hall assistant resident director. Moynihan will spend the summer teaching in Franklin’s extended school year program, while running a small tutoring business. She is also in a fellowship program at Merrimack University to earn an additional license in elementary Ed. As part of that program, she will teach next year in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Having earned his master’s this year, Oates has taken a job at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he will teach 9th grade English.
While it remains to be seen what long-term effects the experiences of COVID-19 pandemic will have on Dottin, Oates, and Moynihan’s careers and on education as a whole, one aspect will likely affect them, no matter what path they take: They made it. They successfully completed their degrees, launched their careers, and made sure their students got the education and support they needed in an extraordinarily difficult teaching environment. “I don’t think I would trade it,” Dottin affirms. “It taught me a lot about myself and it taught me how to work with others in a different way. I honestly think that after teaching in a pandemic, I’m prepared for anything.”