Student Teachers Learned Intense Lessons Under COVID-19

 This article originally appeared in The Free Press and is reprinted with permission.

Jean Harr

While the pandemic has brought disruption to daily lives, it has reminded us of the important role teachers play in their students’ lives. Teachers are hardworking, dedicated and effective. Recently, the irreplaceable nature of their work has been reaffirmed by millions of students and their parents.

Teachers not only promote learning, help students make connections and nurture their confidence, they also selflessly contribute to preparing the next generation of educators.

Minnesota State University has been preparing teachers for over 150 years and has had a long history of collaboration with its PK-12 partnership school districts. The university and the partnering school districts blend in-depth preparation with relevant practices and authentic experiences to ensure teacher candidates are prepared to meet the learning needs of all students.

The COVID-19 experience only heightens the importance of effective partnerships in teacher preparation—and the continued role that Minnesota State Mankato plays in supporting and leading it.

The process of learning to teach requires sustained, ongoing opportunities to engage in authentic performance within diverse learning environments. Course work aligns with those field experiences, which grow in complexity and sophistication over time and enable teacher candidates to develop the skills necessary to teach all learners.

Studies have documented that field experiences, student teaching and PK-12 partnerships are critical components of a high-quality teacher preparation.

A 2018 report in the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) noted that such experiences are “gateways” to developing highly effective teachers and that they “provide mutually beneficial outcomes for all stakeholder partners.”

The challenges posed to PK-12 education by COVID-19, then, also provided a challenging environment for student-teachers—but from my perspective, those challenges will benefit new teachers as future challenges arise.

Almost simultaneously PK-12 schools and higher education institutions shifted to delivering distance education as the COVID-19 crisis emerged. School districts not only rose to the challenge to adapt quickly to distance learning, they also rose to the challenge of continuing to partner with us in preparing future educators as Minnesota State student teachers found themselves in the midst completing their final semester in a much different manner than expected.

Given the demands placed on them, school districts could have contended there was just too much happening to continue their part in the preparation of student teachers. They did not hesitate to include the student-teachers in the experience.

As has been the history of our partnership with school districts, there was value in the experience for the districts as well as the university. Mentor-teachers and student-teachers shared countless stories and examples of how they collaborated to prepare engaging lessons in a completely new format, to create interactions to heighten students’ learning and to create check-ins to minimize the isolation some were experiencing.

It was a heavy lift, but as student-teachers completed their experiences and had a chance to reflect on the impact it had on their preparation for the profession, many realized the situation intensified their preparation. Led and advised by university faculty, student-teachers used a combination of software and online/remote learning modules to deliver an impactful and challenging learning experience, while recreating means of communicating one-on-one with students to maintain and develop relationships.

University faculty served as a support system, facilitating planning and assisting student teachers in refining strategies and tools to meet student learning outcomes while also reminding and guiding them in being attentive to students’ social, emotional well-being. Faculty also provided ongoing guidance as student teachers worked to contribute as a co-teacher with their mentor teacher, sharing their expertise and skill sets around content, technology and student engagement.

Overall, student teachers, PK-12 teachers, and university faculty gained valuable lessons about the need to be flexible, creative and intentional with instruction, assessments, and expectations. Teaching will always be a complex, yet rewarding profession.

As 144 Minnesota State graduates completed their bachelor’s degrees in education recently and are set to enter the workforce, they’re already familiar with the complexities and rewards due to their training. The pandemic heightened the complexity while also serving as a powerful reminder of the importance of our partnerships, and the perennial need for Minnesota State to lead the way in serving Minnesota’s students, from prekindergarten through college.

Jean Haar is the dean of the College of Education at Minnesota State University.

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