A Semester to Remember
January 12, 2021
Each year, the GVSU CSO offers GVSU learners who study education an opportunity to complete their student-teaching requirements in a Detroit GVSU-authorized charter public school through the Detroit Student Teacher Scholarship. In typical years, the learners who receive the scholarship reside in Detroit and work within their assigned school building each day.
But as K-12 educators prepared to start the 2020-2021 school year, scholarship recipients for the past fall semester became a groundbreaking group. This cohort would become the first learners to complete an entire semester of student-teaching through the effects of COVID-19. And with each school district designing its own unique plan for instruction, each learner would have a unique student-teaching experience.
With instruction varying from school to school, we asked the GVSU learners who utilized the scholarship to share more about the successes and struggles of their semester. Three learners were kind enough to provide details: Abigail Matkin, a fifth-year learner majoring in special education with endorsements in cognitive impairment and early childhood education; Megan McCurry, a fifth-year learner majoring in elementary education and special education with an emphasis in emotional impairments and cognitive impairments; and Alexandra Featherston, a fifth-year learner majoring in elementary education with an emphasis on English Language Arts.
What did instruction look like for you this fall? Were you teaching in person, in a hybrid format, or completely virtual?
Matkin: So special education student-teachers actually had two placements due to COVID cutting our last semester short. My first placement was a general education placement and we taught virtually from 9:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. with breaks for lunch and specials. My second placement was focused on special education and we’d be with the whole class on Zoom twice a day for 30 minutes and hold one-on-one Zoom meetings in between.
McCurry: The first 10 weeks of my semester I was teaching virtually in a general education class. I then transitioned into a new placement where I was a student teacher in an EI self-contained class where I was 100% in-person.
Featherston: I taught in a first-grade classroom, 100% virtually.
What was a one of the biggest challenges for you during the semester?
Featherston: Not being able to see my students in person. One of the things that drew me to education was the connection that you make with students and being able to see them grow throughout the school year. While I was still able to experience this virtually, I would have loved to see it face-to-face.
Matkin: Teaching certain content online (especially math) and forming those relationships with the students. My first placement was in a first-grade classroom and teaching the four content areas over Zoom was a struggle because younger students need a lot of visuals, hands-on activities, or even help with writing their letters correctly by guiding their hands.
McCurry: Trying to navigate not only how to be an effective teacher but also how to navigate online curriculum and formatting.
Describe a time when you felt you went above and beyond to support your students.
McCurry: My students were very structure oriented, so when it looked like we may have to go back to virtual instruction, I spent two weeks transferring our daily schedule into an online format that has subtle changes. This was very important and I spent a lot of time working on it to make it similar to our in-school routine as well as user friendly.
Featherston: My favorite time that I felt I went above and beyond for my students was Halloween this year. Even though they would not be able to see me in person, I woke up early and dressed up as Ms. Frizzle (the Magic School Bus teacher), making sure they still felt the excitement and joy that Halloween can bring.
Matkin: I feel like I went above and beyond on forming those relationships with the students while being 100% virtual. The school I was at made it a point to do a mood check-in with the students and ask get-to-know-you questions at the beginning and end of the day. I think the mood check-in and the questions helped me form connections with the students because I knew how they were feeling that day and asked how I could help if they were feeling mad or sad, and I got to know more about them through the questions, which I could use in my lessons.
What about this semester of student-teaching are you most proud of?
Matkin: I feel most proud of navigating online teaching on multiple platforms like Schoology, Google Classroom, Class DOJO, Zoom and more. I know this was an adjustment for a lot of teachers, so I am glad as a student-teacher we could figure it out together.
McCurry: I'm most proud of being able to finish a placement that was 100% virtual and move right into a placement that is 100% face-to-face.
Featherston: The growth in my ability to be flexible. There was so much uncertainty and change throughout the whole semester and I have really learned to accept that, which is not something I have always been comfortable with.
What’s your key takeaway from this experience?
Featherston: No matter the circumstances of how or when you are teaching, the students' success and happiness are the main goal. When you keep that in mind, and make sure they are put first, you can be a great teacher.
Matkin: Every day is a new learning experience. Everyone is adjusting and learning how to teach in different formats. My cooperating teacher said our motto this year is for everybody to have grace and patience.
McCurry: Teachers need to be flexible in any given
“normal year,” but 2020 taught me what being a flexible educator
really means. It means having to go virtual with a day’s notice,
having to change placements within a weekend and jump right in. It
means modifying curriculum to meet the needs of students behind a
screen and, possibly, it means never meeting your students whom you
care for. This has been a wonderful experience learning about how to
be an adaptive and flexible educator alongside so many others who feel
like they are first-year teachers too.
What advice would you give to other GVSU learners whose student-teaching experiences may be shaped by COVID?
Matkin: Don’t overthink how, what, where, when, and who you are going to teach. There is only so much you can control, especially while being virtual. You cannot control students' home environments, you cannot control who shows up to your Zoom, you cannot control technology issues. Just take one day at a time and you’ll make it.
McCurry: Education is always changing. Even without COVID, there are ebbs and flows within our educational system that we must overcome. COVID has introduced new challenges to education, but this will teach us how to be effective teachers no matter the circumstance we face. Don't lose sight of what is best for your students no matter the challenges you have to leap over.
Featherston: My biggest piece of advice (and I know it sounds cliché now), is to just be flexible and welcome all of the challenges that you will face. I am a planner, I write everything down, and this semester I learned that I have to write in pencil from now on because so much will change and you will have to erase and change things frequently. Be open to new things and changes and you will excel.