Destinee Cambium was a student teacher in a third grade classroom at Saucedo Elementary in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood for a short time this spring until that was cut short because of Illinois’ COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
From mid-March on, she had to settle for videotaping herself reading stories for her students instead of working with them directly. She couldn’t field questions from them. She couldn’t practice assessing whether they understood the material.
Cambium tried her best to improvise. She spoke to students as if the videos were live and explained vocabulary words she guessed they may not know. But like many student teachers, Cambium’s interactions with the class were limited to saying hello during virtual lessons run by her mentor teacher
“I miss them,” said Cambium, who just graduated from UIC and hopes to get hired for the fall. “I liked coming to school every day.”
The 2020 graduating class of teachers is the first wave getting certified during a pandemic, and they graduate getting a firsthand look at the successes and failures of remote learning. They’re also heading into their first teaching jobs without taking some high-stakes licensure tests and the required student teaching hours. They’ll be starting new jobs behind a mask in front of a class of masked students.
Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order in April that allows them to get their license without fulfilling those normal requirements.
But Vicki Trinder, who coordinates the undergraduate urban education program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the last semester isn’t just about wrapping up those certification requirements. It’s also a time to get to know students and practice building those relationships. Still, she’s confident in this group of graduates’ ability to pivot. She said they’ve gone through a lot.
“This group also experienced the [Chicago teachers] strike in the fall,” Trinder said. “They’ve managed to pull everything off even then.”
To help new teachers adjust, there will be extra support this fall. The Illinois State Board of Education is setting aside money from the federal CARES Act for virtual coaching and professional development to help an estimated 4,000 new teachers entering the field. The agency is also working on updated recommendations for remote learning that will include guidance for new teachers.
“I don’t take for granted how tough it’s been for our students,” said Andrea Evans, interim dean at Northeastern Illinois University’s College of Education. “It’s been tough for all of us.”
Evans said it was stressful for college students to spend so much time taking classes online and then interacting with elementary students digitally, too. They’ve been working on different ways to conduct e-learning that isn’t just hours on a video conference.
“One of the things that have come out of this is students need to understand virtual learning for K-12 schools,” Evans said.
Evans said the college has had lessons on technology usage, but they’ll include more specifics on remote learning for the fall.
Creating the right learning environment for students
Cesar Palafox recently graduated from UIC and is hoping to teach at a CPS school this fall — either remotely or in-person. He said he learned more about technology and e-learning than he ever expected while student teaching during remote learning this spring.
He wants to be a bilingual teacher, and the stay-at-home order helped him recognize the challenges of teaching students who are learning English. He said that an equitable remote learning plan needs to consider how teachers interact with their parents, too.
“They’re learning from home,” Palafox said. “So not only for them to understand but also find a way for their parents to help them out in case they need any help.”
Schools will be able to open in the fall under certain requirements, but ISBE recommends districts have remote learning plans ready if there is a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Palafox said his college program focused a lot on how to make school the best learning environment for students. That’s going to be a challenge to make work online, especially for a first-year teacher.
“For a lot of these students, the best learning environment is at school,” he said. “It might be the only safe learning environment that they have. So you have to figure out how to support them from your home.”
Trinder said this time offered pre-service teachers valuable lessons about education. She said people, not just those in education, are looking at schools and inequity differently than before. She gave examples of how private groups offered help for e-learning.
“People are looking differently at supporting education, and that brings a lot of hope for me,” she said.
Trinder said a community that wraps around its school can be key to successful learning — whether it’s in-person or remote.