Teacher candidates and the COVID-19 experience

Shifting perspectives on a career during a pandemic

As both students and educators during the pandemic, teacher candidates have an unusual perspective on education. We learn from our professors at university and the students we teach on placement. Through our practicum experiences and from speaking with other educators, we have found that there is no single, typical experience of school during this time. We hear stories of classes that are finding innovative ways to connect and thrive, and classes that are facing immense barriers, inequities, and burnout. As there is a shortage of practicum hosts, teacher candidates are finding themselves in unusual placements. Our peers have been teaching in person and virtually, in ESL classrooms, Virtual Learning Centres, student success programs, learning hubs, and more. While not the typical teaching placements, we are able to learn about a broader view of schools and how we simply cannot generalize about learning during the pandemic.

When I began the teacher education program, I knew the career was difficult, but I had an attitude that as an individual I simply had to grow stronger. The pandemic has taught me that the field of education is immensely challenging and unpredictable. I have shifted my focus from individual success to collective wellness in our school communities. How can we create learning environments where students feel connected, seen, and valued, especially during difficult times? What actions can I take to prioritize sustainable wellness at both the personal and community levels?

I believe that our unusual experiences as both students and teachers during the pandemic will shape this generation of teachers moving forward. As a student, I crave my teachers’ clarity, flexibility, and good humour. It seems every month brings a new challenge and I deeply appreciate my professors’ efforts to create structure, while also demonstrating understanding and compassion. I miss the hands on, experiential learning of in person courses and I look for meaningful learning tasks that are clear and practical. As a teacher, I miss seeing my students’ faces. It can be difficult to check in on students when the camera is off and the mic is muted. We need to think about opportunities for students to give us feedback and to have a sense of autonomy over their own learning. Overall, everyone is missing connection. Both virtual and in person classrooms are becoming some of the few spaces that students get to interact with each other. Taking the time for community connections is an important part of our collective wellness.

Do I still want to teach? Absolutely. Is teaching easy? No. Teaching was never easy and it certainly is not right now. The pandemic has shown me that youth need caring adults who can create supportive learning communities during difficult times. I am most inspired by the teachers and school staff who instead of thinking about what we cannot do in schools are innovating new ways to teach and gather, both in person and virtually.

There is so much that feels out of our control this year, but we can consider what we can do from our circle of influence. How can I have a positive impact on my learning communities from where I am? How can I model self-care and community care at this time? I hope that a focus on wellness will continue into whatever the future holds for education.

It has been incredibly valuable seeing my university professors and host teachers adapt to virtual modes of learning. Seeing them model flexibility, self-assessment, and improve ad-hoc systems throughout this difficult time, has been deeply educational and inspiring. By comparison, I have experienced a mere fraction of their challenges: in a short placement in a virtual Grade 10 class last fall, a placement in a virtual Grade 8 class this March/April, working as a remote tutor, and volunteering as a Crisis Text Line Responder with Kids Help Phone. None of it has been the sort of perfection promised in a typical five-second YouTube ad for a new learning platform or tool. When it worked best was when our shared humanity was acknowledged, faults and all. In virtual teaching, I have found that creating opportunities for discussion, where students feel respected and heard while space is given for others to offer their perspectives is crucial.

Making personal connections and building community creates the foundation for a positive learning environment—but how is that accomplished when teaching and learning are so impacted by the pandemic? Those short interactions between students, custodial staff, guidance counsellors, social workers, special education resource teachers (SERTs), nurses, and teachers all coalesce into a greater whole, whereas they are siloed now. Masking, physical distancing, and independent work areas are likewise fragmenting what makes our collective effort so special.

Deborah Britzman says that learning to teach (and teaching itself for that matter) is a constant state of flux: formation, transformation, self-assessment, becoming, and striving to become. Their wisdom holds true during these unprecedented times. I find comfort in these words as I take my first steps towards the field of teaching, which looks less familiar than what I expected when I started my B.Ed.

As a learner, I find myself struggling to navigate through countless hours of screen time—Zoom classes, online readings, discussion boards, virtual projects—despite having built strong academic skills, coping strategies, and my own innumerable privileges. In talking with my peers, I am not surprised to hear of their struggles as well. I hope this gives me sensitivity and insight into what elementary and secondary students are facing now and how a sense of belonging is equally crucial to their success after the pandemic.

As graduating teacher candidates, we are entering a job market that hasn’t been seen in Ontario for decades. In the last year, we have had deep learning opportunities that are unprecedented and invaluable. But these gains are coming at the real costs of growing disparities of inequity, further cracking open the already-present gaps in learning, and the heartbreaking impacts of the pandemic on the lives of students and their caregivers. How will we cope with the conditions that are causing experienced teachers to leave the profession? How will we support the students who have faced disproportionate impacts to their learning due to their social location? How will we mobilize our privilege to foster reciprocal relationships with communities? We are learning that our own self-assessment and framework of questions combined with our commitment to build community and prioritize wellness may be good places to start.

About EmmaRose MacDonald and Daniel Frawley
EmmaRose MacDonald and Daniel Frawley are teacher candidates at Trent University’s School of Education.

1 Comment on Teacher candidates and the COVID-19 experience

  1. Dr. Luigi Iannacci // May 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm // Reply

    A superb article written by two exemplary teachers who have and will continue to meet the immense challenges of the current context in ways that are always responsive to their students, critical and social justice focussed.

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