Senior Kasey Loucks poses at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., in January. Loucks said she teaches English to 11th graders at Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School. Photo Courtesy of Kasey Loucks
Over a year into COVID-19, seniors in Pepperdine’s Teacher Education program prepare to lead their future classrooms by gaining their clinical teaching hours virtually.
There are 23 seniors — called “candidates” — in the Teacher Education program who teach a variety of grade levels and subjects virtually at schools across the LA area. Candidates in the program are required to take three semesters of student teaching credits, which start with observation and culminate with candidates teaching full-time, totaling about 750 hours of student teaching. Since March 2020, candidates have been fulfilling these requirements by teaching virtually alongside a teacher mentor.
“Some of these candidates said, ‘No, this is what I want to do, I’m choosing this,’” said Somer Levine, director of Clinical Practice for the Teacher Education program. “It’s been challenging, and it really highlights how resilient Seaver College’s Teacher Education candidates are. I’m so in awe of them because they’ve just rolled with the changes as they’ve come.”
Teacher Education program adapts
When Pepperdine administrators sent students home in March 2020 due to COVID-19, Levine said she and other Teacher Education faculty members were reeling, unsure of how to navigate the changes COVID-19 would bring to the clinical teaching experience.
“We were at a loss,” Levine said. “It was uncharted waters, this has never happened in our lifetime.”
After receiving guidance from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Levine said she and her colleagues acted quickly to restructure the clinical portion of the Teacher Education program, allowing all requirements to be filled remotely.
“We could not delay an entire cohort of teachers from graduating because of this,” Levine said.
Levine said she focuses on helping candidates navigate their clinical experiences virtually. After receiving instruction from the CTC, she was able to restructure the hour requirements for the program, so candidates received credit for the hours they spent planning, grading assignments and developing curriculum after the school day finished.
“We were asking, ‘How can we support them in completing their clinical experience during this transitional time?’” Levine said. “Our candidates were living this abrupt transition. It was going to be a very powerful learning experience for them in leveraging the power of technology in the classroom, but also learning how to build community during a time of virtual learning.”
Last spring, Levine said she and Assistant Professor of Teaching Elizabeth Yomantas held workshops to help candidates prepare for virtual instruction. In these workshops, candidates learned how to communicate professionally with their assigned mentors over Zoom and offer their assistance. Crucially, candidates also learned how to navigate technology platforms like Zoom and earned their Google teacher certifications.
“Zoom was not on teachers’ radars at all,” Levine said. “So [candidates] actually were able to be technology leaders — as a student teacher supporting their mentor — helping set up a lot of the virtual learning spaces that were new and now being created. They became student teachers, but they were wearing, essentially, Director of Technology hats.”
Virtual student teaching
At the start of the pandemic last spring, senior Kasey Loucks said she thought about halting her Teacher Education studies and graduating with just an English degree. However, Loucks decided it would be worth it to attempt virtual teaching.
“I was really upset,” Loucks said. “Such a big part of becoming a teacher is the student teaching experience, so to have that taken was hard. But, who knows when everything is even going to be back to normal? That’s why I just decided to go with it.”
Loucks teaches 11th grade students American Literature and AP Language and Composition at Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School in Los Angeles. Loucks said she works virtually alongside her mentor teacher, who she assists by taking attendance, monitoring the Zoom chat, answering questions, grading and lesson planning.
Virtual teaching has its challenges, Loucks said. It’s challenging to connect to her students because she has never met them or her mentor in person before, and her students avoid participating in class at times.
“It’s really hard; it’s very different from a Pepperdine online course because [teachers] don’t require them to use their cameras or speak, or anything, really,” Loucks said. “It’s very different [from] the typical student teaching experience.”
Nonetheless, Loucks said she feels like she is gaining valuable teaching experience. Loucks recently started her “takeover,” in which she will handle the majority of teaching. She will teach her students how to write argumentative essays using academic sources.
Loucks said she learned how valuable interpersonal communication is in a successful classroom.
“The biggest takeaway has been how important it is to have relationships with your students and your co-workers,” Loucks said. “It’s really important to know your students and have a relationship with them before you can really teach them anything.”
Learning from teacher mentors
Senior David Kim is a Biology and Teacher Education double major who is teaching fifth graders at Las Virgenes Virtual Academy. Kim said teaching his students is an enjoyable experience because they are excited to be in class and want to get to know him personally.
“They’re enthusiastic about learning,” Kim said. “The first day I was introduced, they would ask me questions like ‘Do you watch “Wandavision”? Who’s gonna win “Godzilla vs. Kong”?’ I think just being able to talk with the students, connections are being made, and you still get to see their personality.”
Kim said his mentor teacher keeps her students’ attention by constantly engaging them, and asking intentional questions about their interests and hobbies outside of school.
“She has so much patience, which I think is really crucial at a time like this,” Kim said. “She always takes the first 15 minutes of class to ask her students ‘How are you doing?’”
Kim’s mentor leans on him for technology support, Kim said. Like Loucks, he monitors the Zoom chat while also facilitating and monitoring breakout rooms. Kim said he is impressed by how focused his students stay, even when they’re in a breakout room by themselves.
“They’re more on-topic and on-task than we are,” Kim said. “I’ll hop into the breakout room and they’re all working or presenting to each other what they made; they actually do what they’re told.”
The weekly schedule for Kim’s fifth grade class outline when students are expected to be on Zoom as well as their break times. Kim said he is learning a lot from his mentor teacher, who has taught for over 20 years. Photo Courtesy of Los Virgenes Unified School District.
Despite how well his students are able to concentrate on classwork, Kim said he is still disappointed they are not getting the experience of learning in a classroom with their peers.
“[Zoom] isn’t the greatest mode of delivery,” Kim said. “Everyone feels burnout. The kids can’t even talk amongst themselves, unless the teacher has the chat open. It’s little differences like that, where everything feels like it’s the bare minimum.”
Kim, who wants to teach high school science, said he learned a lot from his mentor about how to encourage students and build trust so they will feel comfortable participating in class. Teaching virtually, Kim said, showed him the fundamentals of teaching, which he hopes to build on in his future teaching career.
Class materials for Kim’s fifth grade class at Las Virgenes Virtual Academy detail best practices for Zoom learning. Kim said his class has 30 students. Photo Courtesy of Las Virgenes Unified School District.
“Zoom — the teaching — is the bare bones,” Kim said. “It’s just the skeleton, then you at least have a basic fundamental framework of what teaching looks like. But then, we have lungs, we have skin, we have connective tissue — things that give us life. That’s like the interactions between students that you don’t get to see. That’s the interaction of a class laughing together. I think those elements are added-on elements that are essential to teaching.”
Now that many schools have been offering virtual classes for over a year, Levine said burnout is something all teachers experience, but most remain focused on meeting their students’ needs.
“Teaching is a very selfless job,” Levine said. “We are always concerned about others in our role, because our role is grounded in serving the families [and] students of the school community. So are [teachers] experiencing Zoom fatigue? I’m sure they are. But the dialogue is more about how do we help minimize Zoom fatigue for our students?”
Going forward, Levine said she hopes Teacher Education candidates will focus on the mental and emotional needs of students, especially as they start teaching in their own classrooms.
“Many students have experienced trauma during the last year . . . So there is a lot of need to lean on the skills we’ve built during this time on how to build community in the classroom for the benefit of our students,” Levine said. “Just as critical as math, language arts and science are social and emotional health, and teaching that to kids at a very young age.”
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