Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the last year has demanded adaptability from us all. Work, learning, and social lives were all transitioned online in attempts to keep case counts down. While most, if not all, people - adults and students alike - have experienced hiccups during this period of transition and have shared frustration, fear, and isolation, one particular group can offer the unique perspective of both student and educator this year; teacher candidates. Arthur Newspaper had the opportunity to discuss the unique experiences of four of Trent’s Bachelor of Education teacher candidates as they navigated learning and teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the calendar for the Bachelor of Education teacher candidates varies from the rest of Trent students’, for the initial few months of the semester, the learning experience was quite similar - instructors provided synchronous and asynchronous learning (oftentimes a mix of both), with candidates attending synchronous classes virtually via Zoom. Teacher candidates echoed the sentiments of other students on the efficacy of online learning, with many expressing trouble with the delivery of information in an exclusively online format. First year teacher candidate Natalie Tomiczek described her online learning experience as “decent.” Elaborating on the efficacy of this delivery method, Tomiczek explained; “I feel like I am learning enough - not as much as I would in a regular classroom - but enough to understand the basics.” Fellow first year candidate Meghan Warwick expressed a similar sentiment, and feels that “courses have been well-adapted for the new online learning” but experiences some trouble focusing on a screen for extended periods of time. Focus was also an issue for first year teacher candidate David Selimović. When discussing his experience pre-practicum, he explained his preparedness;
When it comes to being prepared, no matter how well teachers have tried to adjust to COVID, Zoom learning has definitely hampered my ability to focus and retain everything learned in the sessions, and apart from a useful handout, I feel prepared enough to be a glorified secretary and one-on-one tutor, but not quite a teacher candidate...I can only hope that we will be given a wide margin for slack knowing how difficult it has been to adjust to our current learning environment.
The practicum experience varied greatly for each candidate. Due to the unprecedented times and many teachers navigating an inaugural online learning environment, it is understandable that there was a shortage of associate teachers willing to take on a teacher candidate. This left candidates with four possibilities; (1) to be assigned in a physical classroom (the traditional practicum experience), (2) to be assigned to a virtual classroom, (3) to defer their placement to a later date, or (4) if the administration could not secure a placement, candidates would be placed in the Trent Virtual School of Education (TVSoE). The coordinator of the TVSoE, Lloyd Schoenmaker explained the purpose of the program below;
The vision for the TVSoE placement was to provide [teacher candidates] with practical experiences in lesson planning and lesson delivery in an online, micro-teaching setting by creating the environment and structure for delivering lessons to peers. Because we anticipate that our teacher candidates will be teaching in-person post pandemic, the goal was that the skills and resources that were acquired, would be transferable between an online (synchronous and asynchronous) setting to an in-person, classroom setting.
This program divided teacher candidates into five teaching groups composed of seven to eight candidates, each being assigned teaching responsibilities reflected in the curricula of grades 3-8. During the four week practicum, candidates were tasked with preparing a combination of synchronous and asynchronous lessons; five literacy lessons, five mathematics lessons, and two lessons in their specialty subject area. These lessons were then presented to, and completed by, their peers. One teacher candidate enrolled in the TVSoE was second year Asa Reynolds. While initially skeptical of the efficacy of teaching online, Reynolds reflected positively on the experience;
[The Trent Virtual School of Education] was an experience unlike any of my other practicum placements thus far in my degree. While this placement was vastly different from the traditional placements I had grown accustomed to during my first year, it was still a rich learning experience as I was able to expose myself to a plethora of technological education supports and programs available that I had previously avoided. As a result, I feel much better prepared to take on a remote placement in my Block D placement, if necessary.
While the experience was certainly beneficial and made the best of the current situation, Reynolds emphasized the importance of interpersonal connection in education, which can be most successfully developed in sharing a physical space;
From a teaching perspective, however, I still greatly value the simple interpersonal and collaborative opportunities that only a brick-and-mortar classroom environment can offer. As a Drama Arts major, I have always believed that there is unparalleled deep learning interpersonal connection and relationships, and that is one area in remote learning, that, while not impossible, is much more difficult to achieve to the same degree.
Teacher candidate Meghan Warwick, who experienced a virtual practicum placement in a grade seven class, explained how she also feared being unable to foster a positive relationship with students and staff in a virtual environment. However, this wasn’t the case in Warwick’s experience. While she admitted being nervous for her first practicum placement, the experience was very positive once settled. “I felt very comfortable by the end of my placement and was still able to connect with the students even when I thought that wasn’t going to happen because of it being virtual...Because of my amazing A.T. [associate teacher], my experience was great and I can’t wait to get back to the classroom in March” she explained.
Teacher candidates Natalie Tomiczek and David Selimović, who were both placed in physical classrooms, also reported successful practicum placements. Both detailed their level of comfort in teaching during a pandemic. “I felt comfortable in the classroom,” explained Tomiczek, “I felt safe, all of the staff members also followed the rules diligently,” she continued. Selimović also felt comfortable in the classroom, and explained how the pandemic didn’t drastically impact the environment in the classroom;
Apart from creating proper accommodations to make space in the classes, and wearing a mask, teaching was exactly how I expected it...I loved the students, staff and general environment from my placement and I look forward to going again. My first experience really prepared me a great deal and for that I am eternally thankful. Teachers often see the best and worst life has to deal, and you could say I got a crash course of what that is like in my practicum experience.
While all of these teacher candidates had unique practicum placements and experiences, it is clear that in whatever situation, the practicum experience was effective. When asked if their practicum experience during the COVID-19 has changed how the candidates think about and approach teaching, responses varied. For Tomiczek, the answer was a resounding “yes.” “I feel like it has changed,” she explained. “I will definitely use a lot more technology in my teaching and try to make things accessible for online learning in case we go back and forth from online to in-person teaching for a while.” The technological aspects were also highlighted by Warwick, whose plans to incorporate technology into her future classroom have been solidified after her virtual practicum experience;
My high school was very technologically involved, so using tech while teaching has always been part of my plans. The pandemic has improved these plans as I have been introduced to more resources that students can benefit from. I do find it difficult sometimes to adapt the lessons to all learners since if I am sharing my screen it is difficult to conduct something else as well, but it is all part of the learning experience!
Second year teacher candidate Asa Reynolds also feels that his perception of teaching has been altered by this experience, and shares what he hopes others in the field of education have learned as well;
I believe that my perception of the teaching profession has changed as a result of the current circumstances. Despite the disorientation of this drastic transformation of the educational system, I believe that it should not be cause for discouragement, but rather a difficult hurdle that once overcome, will result in stronger, more resilient educators, and a foundationally more secure and accessible education system. That is my hope.
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