Learning to be a Teacher in a Pandemic
Virtual teaching is tough → biggest understatement of the year. But what about learning to be a teacher amidst a pandemic?
My name is Jess Moses, and I am a senior at Vanderbilt University, in the elementary education program. My teacher education has been upheaved by the pandemic. My student teaching placement got cancelled. In the semester where I expected to have the opportunity to teach more than I ever have, I haven’t worked with a single group of students., The secondary students in our program have been able to work with mentor teachers, so I was curious about what they are learning. I spoke with Maria Aguilera, also a senior at Vanderbilt, in the secondary education math program. We work together as research assistants on Project SIGMa (Supporting Instructional Growth in Mathematics), and we wanted to unpack some of her learnings from a semester in the online classroom. We sat down for a chat, and these are some of the key things we noticed.
Maria shared her experience applying her learning thus far about teaching in these unexpected times. Across our conversation, a theme emerged of pedagogical shift— transformation of all of her abstract knowledge about what an engaging, caring, conceptually-oriented mathematical classroom looks like.
Her first instinct when faced with the question of virtual teaching was to think about the different pedagogies she had been learning through her program and how to translate them exactly into virtual teaching. However, she soon realized that, instead of attempting to fit in-person teaching into this virtual space, she could embrace virtual teaching as something new. This was the first pedagogical shift. There would be some overlap, but this was an opportunity for all teachers, whether new or veteran, to be learners and collaboratively experiment with different pedagogies to discover what is effective, and when, in a virtual classroom.
So far this semester, Maria has felt supported by her professors, undergraduate cohort, and mentor teacher. Her mentor teacher has been a thought partner as they learn to navigate virtual learning together. Maria says that creativity is her strongest asset right now, as there is a lack of information about effective technologies and pedagogies for the virtual math classroom. With the resources that do exist, the overarching question about efficacy still applies: “effective for whom?” It can be easy to forget about all the non-content elements that make up teaching when you stare into a black screen every day talking to students’ floating profile pictures.
Building classroom community when you have never heard students’ voices or seen their faces requires another fundamental pedagogical shift regarding what community is and how it may be constructed. Maria has been thinking about the fact that her students still don’t know much about their classmates; some of them haven’t even seen their school yet or walked the hallways. She wonders what the impact of this is for the overall classroom community and what the transition to in-person teaching will mean for the community of learners. Will the students know their classmates? Will they want to engage in non-content related activities such as clubs or sports?
A third pedagogical shift is around our notion of student engagement, which is being pushed beyond previous conceptions and understandings. Previously, student engagement was often gauged through physical and verbal cues, which inform the teacher of a student’s understanding, or lack thereof. Maria expressed that, in her program, she had been taught to use these visual and behavioral cues for confirmation of student engagement. However, now, she’s had to think beyond what she can see to understand student engagement; a task that requires creativity and courage. To her, student engagement now looks like student responses in the chat or sharing random memes/gifs to convey how they are feeling. Student engagement can also mean logging into the school online portal or joining the class call at 7:05 a.m., when class starts.
Even though so much is uncertain, including when schools in Nashville will return to in-person teaching, there are many lessons that Maria, as a pre-service teacher, is learning from this experience. For example, she mentioned learning how to incorporate technology and using it fluidly during live class sessions. It has also been remarkable how students have adapted to the new technologies her mentor teacher introduced at the beginning of the year, such as Peardeck and Desmos, and how these specific technologies allow her to provide more students with immediate, intentional feedback to an extent that was impossible during in-person teaching.
She is hopeful that some of the things we are attending to now will continue to be foregrounded when we return to in-person teaching. Maria has noticed a higher emphasis on social emotional learning and is considering how best to bring this attentiveness back into her secondary math classroom, which can tend to be more content-focused. Maria and her mentor teacher begin classes with a daily check in where students pick a “would you rather” or drag an icon to an emoji to let them know how they are feeling at the start of class. These check-ins happen at the beginning and end of class, which is new. Maria and her mentor teacher ask students to give them a “temperature check” about their confidence about their understanding of a given topic. Our students are human beings first, and we are all given the opportunity to attend to this humanity, especially as we reflect on our own needs as humans.
Written by Maria Aguilera (@aguileramf) and Jess Moses (@Jess_Moses1)