by Auburn University

The education realm has been one of the sectors most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as educators, administrators, parents and students had to scramble to adjust to policies and guidelines put in place in the interest of public health. Faced with numerous obstacles from a variety of angles, educators have had to find creative ways to reach and teach students and adjust the way the teachers of tomorrow are trained. Auburn University’s W. Gary Martin, the Emily R. and Gerald S. Leischuck Endowed Professor of mathematics in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching, describes the last year-and-a-half in higher education and examines how and if changes made in the wake of the pandemic will affect education training in the future.

Has the pandemic changed Auburn’s College of Education curriculum or courses for aspiring educators?

Beginning March last spring, we had to go fully remote for all of our classes, and I was primarily remote for the fall semester as well. While going remote did not change the course content, it was a challenge to get the level of interaction with the teacher candidates that is needed in the mathematics methods courses I taught, where they need to dig deeply into different methods for teaching mathematics, the mathematics curriculum they will be teaching and broader issues of equity and access. Teacher candidates need to engage in discussions of these issues; a lecture simply would not suffice. These discussions would normally happen in small groups, where they can talk more personally about the issues, as well as full-class discussion.

At first, it was a challenge to get this same level of discourse over Zoom. But we gradually adapted to breakout rooms in Zoom for small group discussions, and the Zoom chat feature allowed an additional mode of interaction, where they could add comments without having to wait for a turn to speak. I also found that I had to increase the time I waited after asking questions in full-group discussion to allow extra time; I jokingly refer to that as “Zoom wait time” versus regular wait time.

An additional challenge for mathematics is that we teach our teacher candidates to use physical materials to help students gain a better understanding of the concepts. For example, they may use plastic circles cut into wedges to model fractions. Fortunately, we were able to find good virtual materials online, which will actually be a good resource for the teacher candidates in the future.

Has the pandemic changed the extent to which your school trains aspiring educators in aspects of virtual/remote instruction or distance learning?

We increased attention to remote instruction, as their clinical experiences in the schools often included some level of remote instruction. Teacher candidates explored the use of Apple Classroom and Google Classroom to manage instruction (including students who are not participating in real time), as well as different online interactive tools to help manage real-time virtual discussions. For example, PearDeck allows teachers to add questions in different formats (multiple choice, short answer and other) to a presentation. The responses are shown right in the presentation, so that the students can see how their responses compare to that of other students. And the teacher can then pick some of those responses to discuss with the class. While it is unclear to what extent remote instruction will continue in the future, many of these tools could be useful even in a face-to-face environment.

Has the pandemic changed the extent to which your school trains aspiring educators in the use of technology and digital tools in teaching and learning?

Given that mathematics is a highly technological field, we already include a full methods course focusing on use of technology to teach mathematics. This course mainly focuses on using mathematical tools to solve mathematical problems. Examples include spreadsheets, visualization tools such as Geogebra and tools for data analysis.

While I always included some attention to using technology to support student interaction and engagement (as in PearDeck above) in the course, the pandemic has been a learning moment showing the value of these online tools for managing instruction.

Has the pandemic amplified the way you train aspiring educators about recognizing and addressing students’ wellness and concerns regarding mental and emotional health?

Attention to student wellness and mental/emotional health has always been a part of what we discuss with teacher candidates in our coursework and practicum experiences, since students may face all kinds of challenges in their personal lives that impact their learning in the mathematics classroom. The pandemic provided many additional challenges for students, and so we spent additional time discussing how to best support students in this environment. Again, the pandemic accentuated the need to take these issues seriously.

Has the pandemic changed how your school trains aspiring educators to recognize and address their own wellness and concerns regarding mental and emotional health?

In all of my classes, I spent time having my students reflect on how they were navigating the challenging environment. Nearly every class began with a check on “How are you doing?”

Have the ways your aspiring teachers get real-world and hands-on teaching experience prior to or as part of completing their degrees been affected as well? And are those impacts expected to continue during the coming academic year?

In normal times, we provide real-world, hands-on teaching experiences during the methods courses and a full-time internship the final semester in the program. In Spring 2020, those experiences came to an abrupt end at mid-semester. Schools were scrambling to figure out how to move forward, and the teachers did not have the bandwidth to deal with our teacher candidates. Safety was an area of mutual concern since the teacher candidates would be interacting with many school-age students. It was a very uncertain time for everyone. We devised alternative assignments in which they analyzed videotapes of classrooms and explored other facets of the classroom environment. While useful, this wasn’t the same as actually being in a classroom.

By the fall and spring semester of the past year, we were fortunate that our teacher candidates were largely able to have face-to-face classroom experiences for their practicums and internships. We had close relationships with schools in which we trusted the teachers to provide a safe environment for our teacher candidates, and they trusted us that our teacher candidates would behave in a safe manner. 

Many programs around the country were not so fortunate, as schools in other states remained on remote instruction for the entire school year, although their teacher candidates were able to help with remote instruction. But that provides a very different experience in terms of managing a physical classroom and building relationships with students. And in some cases, schools were not willing to host teacher candidates.

Even our teacher candidates who were able to have a face-to-face experience had a lot to contend with, including school-wide quarantines for a day up to a full week, classes with many students who were quarantined or chose to participate remotely and many other disruptions to what a typical school experience would be. In addition, social distancing requirements made it harder to interact with students, which increased the difficulty of forming strong bonds with some students. Also, our mathematics program encourages student interaction, often in pairs or small groups, which also was not feasible due to social distancing requirements. Thus, teacher candidates had to find alternative means of increasing student engagement, including those I have already mentioned.

While I am sure the teacher candidates will find many of the methods they used last year to be useful in the future, I worry that they have not had an opportunity to develop some of the basic tools that they will need if/when things hopefully return to some semblance of normality in the coming year or two. There are things they just haven’t had the chance to experience, such as working with students in a one-to-one setting or orchestrating small group work. Even managing a full class without the restrictions of social distancing will be different. I feel confident that our teacher candidates will be able to adapt, but it may present additional challenge in the already steep learning for a beginning teacher.

Are there other ways the pandemic has influenced or altered the training received at your school by aspiring teachers?

Issues of equity and access have always been an area of focus for our program, but again these issues have been heightened with the pandemic. Many K-12 students did not have access to the technology and support needed to participate remotely when needed, which is an even bigger issue when the rest of the class is meeting face-to-face. Students who are participating remotely are already at a disadvantage, and when they can’t even do that, they are at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. Alternative approaches, such as preparing packets of worksheets, were used, but clearly that is not the same thing as being present for the class discussion. Even if they were on Zoom, some students had their cameras turned off and did not respond to any of the teachers’ (or our teacher candidates’) attempts to engage them in their lessons. Some students just disappeared into the background, and their teachers never heard from them. Unsurprisingly, students from less affluent homes are more likely to experience these challenges.

At this point, I really don’t know how teachers can cope with these challenging circumstances if they continue, and I am not sure how to help our teacher candidates adapt. My main advice has been to persist and not give up, to continue to try to reach out to these students who are falling behind, as well as their parents, and try to find some productive way to connect with them. However, some of this can only be addressed by a comprehensive schoolwide effort, although each teacher (teacher candidate) can advocate for that to happen and do whatever they can for their students.

A related issue is how to support these students as they reemerge into a more normal school environment, having had limited opportunities to learn over the past years. Many of the mathematics education organizations are working to address this situation. I was a member of a writing group this summer organized by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics, which released a document titled Continuing the Journey: Mathematics Learning 2021 and Beyond that provides valuable insights into how to navigate the current context.

My final summary is that the 15-plus months have been very challenging for educators at all levels, including those preparing teachers, who not only had to adapt to a very different teaching environment but also needed to try to support their teacher candidates in adapting to that environment as both teachers and learners. However, my hope is that we will move forward with new insights and strategies that will be useful in whatever a “new normal” might look like.