Morgan Tierno ’20 had a unique student-teaching practicum – and an equally challenging year as a new teacher. 
She completed her undergraduate degree in biology, with a science and math education minor, in December 2019. All she had to do was complete a four-month, student-teaching practicum at Lawrence High School to qualify for her initial teaching license.
Then, days before her practicum started in January 2020, the teacher who was supposed to supervise her abruptly quit. In the last-minute scramble for a replacement, Lawrence High offered to pay Tierno to complete her practicum and keep teaching through the end of the school year.
Suddenly, she was in charge of six sections of freshman biology. While she received the required mentoring from the science chair at Lawrence High and supervision from Clinical Asst. Prof. Sumudu Lewis, director of the UTeach education minor at UMass Lowell, she was mostly on her own.
“It was definitely intimidating,” she says now. “I had to come in and set some norms, establish routines and build relationships. But after the first few weeks, everything went really well.”
That, she says, was thanks to UTeach, which aims to turn students majoring in science, engineering and math into secondary school teachers who use active, inquiry-based teaching methods. UTeach students lead lessons in schools starting their first semester and take on more teaching assignments as they progress through the program. They also learn about developmental psychology, how to support multilingual students and how to manage a classroom.
By the time they start their student teaching, they’re well-prepared, Tierno says.
“Every day, I had the students doing something hands-on. They really responded well to that,” she says.
Then, just two months into her student teaching, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the high school, and classes moved online. Teachers and school staff spent the rest of the school year just trying to get laptops and mobile hotspots to all their students – and making sure they were OK.
“We spent most of our time doing outreach. Our main goal was to make sure everyone was safe, fed and had a computer,” she says. “During that time, students were allowed to make up any work they had missed during the year, but we weren’t teaching much new material.”
Tierno grew up in North Andover, Massachusetts, close to Lawrence and Lowell. She began college as a biochemical engineering major at Syracuse University, but after a semester she transferred to UMass Lowell to be closer to home, save money and study in smaller classes. She changed her major to chemical engineering before settling into biology.
One of her friends from high school was in the UTeach program at George Washington University and “raved about it.” So, at the beginning of sophomore year, Tierno decided to give UML’s UTeach program a try. From the first time she stepped into a middle school classroom, she knew she wanted to teach.
“We were teaching a lesson to fifth-graders on erosion. Each group got a box of sand, and the students had to blow on it and pour water over it,” she says. “It just felt so natural to me – I enjoyed it and I was good at it.”
Lewis supported Tierno throughout the program, including by connecting her with Circuit Lab, a company that offers computer and circuitry summer camps and after-school programs for children ages 5 to 14. Tierno has worked with Circuit Lab every summer since.
“Dr. Lewis still texts me to this day and lets me know about awards and opportunities and grants,” Tierno says. “She’s always trying to find us the best opportunities that she can, even though we’ve graduated.”
Sometimes, the best opportunities are close to home. After finishing her semester in Lawrence, Tierno was hired full-time to teach biology in the Freshman Academy at Lowell High School – remotely, until after April vacation. At the same time, she began working on her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction for science education at UML.
Her students’ concerns about COVID-19, racial injustice and political unrest made it a challenging year to be a new teacher, Tierno says. But the experience yielded some insights she will carry with her throughout her career.
“I let them talk when they really needed to, and they were so thankful for that and really respectful of each other, and they had such a mature conversation about how important it is to care about others,” she says. “It made me realize that sometimes the most important thing to do as a teacher is just to listen and be there for your students.”