By Katharine Webster
major Abby O’Keefe grew up in Lowell, and she was excited to do her student teaching in a second-grade class at Pawtucketville Elementary School.
But because of all the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn’t know what kind of teaching to prepare for: virtual, face-to-face, or both.
A week before school began on Sept. 17, she was assigned to work in person in a class with many students who need extra support, either because they have special needs or they are still learning English. Then, 72 hours before O’Keefe’s first day, Lowell announced that classes would start virtually.
Two weeks later, her class switched to in-person. Three weeks after that, it went remote again, and it’s been that way ever since.
“Right when I began to get the hang of remote teaching, they announced we were going to go to on campus. And right when I got the hang of being on campus, we switched back to remote,” O’Keefe says. “It’s been a little stressful.”
O’Keefe is among the 17 undergraduate education majors who are seniors this year. They are the first cohort of education undergraduates at UMass Lowell in decades, and will be the first ever to earn dual certification in elementary education and teaching students with moderate disabilities.
They’re also the first class in a century to student-teach during a pandemic. And, as if that weren’t difficult enough, they need to complete two separate practicums: 300 hours in elementary education during the fall and winter and another 300 hours in special education in the spring. During the fall, they were student-teaching on Fridays; starting this month, they will teach full-time through finals week, says Asst. Teaching Prof. Katherine Miller
“Our students are so resilient, and they’ve been fighting all this ambiguity,” says Miller, who teaches the practicum class. “They’re struggling with things that they wouldn’t have struggled with in any other time.”
Among other challenges, several seniors’ student-teaching assignments got upended last August, because either their mentor teachers bowed out, due to the pandemic, or the students decided to live at home. Lizzie Casanave, who arranges student teaching placements for the College of Education, worked fast to find new ones.
Nicholas Kerrigan was supposed to student-teach at a school near Lowell, but decided to live and work closer to home after he learned that his UML classes would all be online. Casanave found him a spot in a first-grade class at an elementary school in his hometown of North Attleboro, Massachusetts.
The town is operating its schools on the hybrid model: Students attend in person two days a week (either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday) and study online the other three days. During the fall, Kerrigan student-taught in person on Fridays and worked Monday through Thursday at the local YMCA, which provides a safe space for children who need to study remotely while their parents work.
As he prepared to take the lead teacher role full-time this month, he said the biggest challenge would be teaching the in-person and online students simultaneously, while keeping all of them engaged.
“Everyone needs the same attention, but your eyes can’t be on both groups at once,” he said last month. “Kids are really smart – they know a lot of things and can do a lot of things – but it’s been a process of getting to know everyone and their learning styles. And I haven’t even met half of them yet, because only half of them are in the classroom on Fridays.”
Sara Fagan also got help from Cassanave in finding a practicum in Hudson, Massachusetts, next door to her hometown of Marlborough. Both towns have large populations of recent immigrants from Brazil, and Fagan – who picked up some Portuguese from her childhood friends – is student-teaching in a classroom of multilingual learners. She says it’s a great chance to apply what she’s learning in a UML course on English instruction for students who speak another language at home.
Because they need extra help, Fagan’s students are on campus four days a week. Fagan also did more student teaching than required during the fall semester: In addition to Fridays, she was in school for a half-day on Monday, taught remotely on Wednesdays, and subbed on Tuesdays and Thursdays when needed.
“My supervising teacher says, ‘Oh, I wish you could have come last year – we could have done all this exciting stuff’ that we can’t do now because of social distancing,” she says. “But it’s going better than I thought. I really like it. I’m very lucky to actually be teaching in person.”
Kyra Wright, who lives in Boston, was assigned to a fourth-grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Lowell that’s full of English language learners and students with special needs. She commuted to teach in the classroom in early October, but now that Lowell has gone entirely remote, she’s student teaching from home.
She says that despite all of the COVID-19-related challenges, it’s been a great experience because she loves her students, her mentor teacher and the teaching team. And the pandemic has taught her a valuable lesson.
“I’m learning to be flexible as a teacher, to adjust and go with the flow and not be so set in your ways,” she says.
O’Keefe agrees that the kids make it all worthwhile. Even though she only got to meet her second-graders in person on three Fridays, they love “chatting” with her on Zoom as much as they enjoyed casual exchanges in the classroom, she says.
“On campus, it felt so normal and so natural. The kids made it feel like there was no pandemic happening: They were just so happy to be there,” she says. “When we went remote, the kids kept that attitude. I think they’re just happy to see everyone every day.”