As Eric Thompson ’20 was completing his student teaching assignment amid a worldwide pandemic last fall, his second graders—visible only on computer screens—sometimes talked about how much they missed seeing their friends, their teachers, and the school playground. On rare occasions, some of the children simply said that remote learning was hard.
“It was tough because they were saying what we were thinking as well,” recalled Thompson, who taught at Steele Elementary School in Galesburg, Illinois, with Molly Kleine as his cooperating teacher. “We obviously wanted to see them [in person], and we wanted to be in the classroom with them.”
Even so, as teachers, Thompson and Kleine had to try to ease students’ concerns and keep morale high in their virtual classroom. “We just always talked about the future,” he said. “Like, ‘We’ll all be together someday. We’ll all get to come to the school someday and play on the playground.’”
Thompson, who has been hired as a full-time substitute teacher at Galesburg High School for the remainder of this school year, said he’ll always feel a special bond with the Steele second graders because they all endured the pandemic together.
“Despite me simply being a face on their screen, and them kind of being faces on my screen, we really got to know one another, and we really got to form a relationship with one another,” he said. “I feel as if I got to know each one of my students very well. They also got to know me, their teacher.”
Thompson is among 27 Knox College educational studies students who are fulfilling their student teaching requirements during the 2020-21 academic year—an especially stressful time for many schoolchildren, families, and teachers because of COVID-19. The pandemic has forced school districts to change and continually revise their plans on how to provide students with an education. As a result, student teachers have needed to prepare to work in environments that can run the gamut from all-online to all-in-person learning, with some schools operating under a hybrid model that includes elements of both. As of mid-February 2021, most schools had resumed in-person learning.
Kristen Strom, coordinator of teacher education at Knox, said that since spring 2020, she and other members of the Knox educational studies faculty have adapted classes and assignments to ensure that student teachers would be better prepared for a remote or hybrid teaching environment.
- Strom made assignments that required her students to design lesson plans for a virtual classroom and to consider what technologies they would need.
- A weekly seminar for student teachers covered topics such as how establishing classroom culture in person differs from establishing it online.
- Student teachers for winter 2021 got a head start during the fall term by spending 20 hours with their coordinating teachers, getting to know them and the way their schools operate.
“What we’ve been saying is for the students to keep in mind flexibility, adaptability, and understanding that everyone right now is going through a learning experience, even the cooperating teachers,” Strom said.
The student teachers expressed gratitude for the advice and encouragement they have received from Knox faculty and from teaching colleagues at the schools. “At Knox, there is a sense of companionship between professors and students. There’s really a mutual respect and a mutual care for one another,” Thompson said. “When you can believe in the people helping you that much, it means the world.”
In addition, Knox’s student teachers observed that what they’ve learned in Knox classrooms has helped them deal with difficulties in the classrooms they are now leading.
“Technology will fail, a lesson won’t go the way you wanted it to, and you will have bad days. These things will happen, and you need to be able to roll with the punches and keep moving forward,” said Jaynee Bowker '20. She completed her student teaching assignment in the fall at Knoxville High School, which used a hybrid schedule combining in-person and online learning, and recently was hired there as a long-term substitute.
“I feel that Knox truly prepared me to be adaptable in the classroom. My professors encouraged me to face challenges head-on in order to best serve my students,” added Bowker, who taught freshman English language arts and worked with teacher Jennifer Sprecher. “I had to make sure all of my lessons would work for both in-person and at-home students. Sometimes, technology would fail, and I’d have to completely switch gears and find something that would work.”
Katy Coseglia ’20 was a student teacher for first graders at Gower West Elementary School in Willowbrook, Illinois, which she attended as a child. While Coseglia was teaching there, the school started with a hybrid teaching schedule and later shifted to an in-person schedule. “I really learned that it is important to take one day at a time because student teaching during this time is definitely very different than in years past. With COVID, I learned that it is also important to ask for help when you need it,” she said.
One of the people who helped was her student teaching supervisor, Mary Lyons, a Knox visiting assistant professor of educational studies. “She was always checking in with me and her other student teachers and offered the best support,” Coseglia said.
Some Knox student teachers worked from on-campus classrooms in George Davis Hall (GDH) this winter, using the building’s computers, whiteboards, and other equipment to help them teach online more effectively. Knox faculty and students didn't need those classrooms because the first half of winter term was all-remote.
Connor McClelland ’21, for example, set up a classroom in GDH to teach biology and environmental science at Galesburg High School, where he has teamed up with teacher Carole Buebe. They had been teaching virtually since the start of 2021, though the high school very recently resumed in-person learning.
“The education department at Knox did an excellent job preparing me for the fast adaptation to online instruction,” McClelland said. “The one thing that has stuck with me the most through this experience is something I learned in my Social and Emotional Learning class with Dr. [Jennifer] McCarthy Foubert. In this class, we learned about the importance of being mindful with our students.”
McClelland said his cooperating teacher, Buebe, shares a similar perspective. “Mrs. Buebe always says, ‘handle it with grace,’ which really resonates with me. These troubling times call for grace, and it is our job as teachers to try and provide some of that grace to our students.”
Photo at top of the page: Student teacher Connor McClelland in the remote classroom he set up in an empty Knox College classroom in George Davis Hall. Photos below: Student teacher Jaynee Bowker outside her classroom at Knoxville High School; student teacher Eric Thompson teaching remotely from his home; and student teacher Katy Coseglia with her cooperating teacher, Kristin Picciola, at Gower West Elementary School in Willowbrook, Illinois.