Interns, teacher educators navigate COVID-19 with shared inquiry

Jim Carlson
April 29, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Count the teaching profession among the greatest affected by the fallout of COVID-19. When interns from the award-winning K-4 Professional Development School (PDS) partnership between Penn State’s College of Education and the State College Area School District (SCASD) left their internships for spring break, little did they know they would not return. 

For Penn State seniors majoring in elementary education, an internship in a K-4 classroom is a long-anticipated, capstone experience, one that places them with mentors from the start of school in August to the end of the academic year in June. But the global pandemic that put an abrupt halt to education affected 1.1 million K-12 students across Pennsylvania, and the K-4 PDS students were no exception.

When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on April 9 extended the statewide shutdown through the remainder of the academic year, it marked the end of the PDS internships but the beginning of a renewed commitment to learning together — even at a distance — through strong relationships and shared inquiry. A more in-depth story about the PDS interns can be found by clicking here.

Rather than return to their mentors’ classrooms in State College, interns are joining their mentor teachers and students in SCASD’s shift to remote learning. Together they have been learning to plan for both synchronous and asynchronous instruction using a variety of technology resources.

“The news that all Pennsylvania schools were going to remain closed through the end of the academic year was difficult for our interns to hear,” said Erin Morgart, K-4 PDS coordinator. “They were still processing the loss of their senior year and some were holding out hope that schools would be opened before the end of the school year.” 

Kelly Essick, a national board-certified teacher at Corl Street Elementary School and teacher educator in the K-4 PDS, said strong relationships have enabled internships to continue during this transition. 

“Not only were our interns always included in the picture of what remote learning would look like for our K-4 students, but they were specifically thought of and cared for during this difficult, and at points, uncertain time in their internship,” Essick said. “Our director of elementary curriculum, Deirdre Bauer, specifically reached out to both myself and Erin to see how our interns were doing after hearing the news about Penn State switching to online learning. This is evidence of the relationship of this long-standing partnership.”

Christine McDonald, a professional development associate within the PDS partnership, said the program’s pre-service teachers are “amazing” young people. “They genuinely care and respect their K-4 students and mentors and miss learning from them and alongside them. “They know that creating strong relationships help foster a sense of community which seems to have helped them support their students and mentors and school community,” McDonald said.

“They are growing in their understanding of how to teach with social justice and equity. They are conscious of the inequities present in the educational system and even more notable in this current situation across the country. As a collaborative team, the work with our graduate student partners has encouraged all of us to look inward and outward in order to try and do what’s best for SCASD students and our Penn State pre-service teachers’ future students,” she said.

Another of the PDS’s cornerstones is teacher research, or practitioner inquiry. Rachel Wolkenhauer, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, said inquiry is an integral part of the partnership.


Rachel Wolkenhauer

IMAGE: Penn State

“In the yearlong PDS program, we have the luxury to intentionally teach inquiry in the fall, so that by spring our interns can engage in authentic inquiry without having to also learn the cyclical process of questioning, data collection and analysis, synthesis, sharing and acting for the first time,” Wolkenhauer said.

“It is our goal that inquiry become a stance and not simply an assignment for their university coursework. This January, interns developed ‘wonderings’ about their practices that were deep and demonstrated heart, creativity, leadership, and drive. They wondered about educational equity, professional communities, tailoring instruction for struggling learners, global citizenship and maintaining joy in the work,” she said.

Wolkenhauer said the transition of the students turning to inquiry and seeing how different teaching and learning was about to be didn’t pass without emotion.

“Our first video conference seminar after spring break was spent crying together. We were grieving,” she said. “Even then, though, a series of questions appeared in our conference chat window that will give me goosebumps every time I remember it popping up: ‘Can we do an inquiry into this together?’ ‘Can we ask something about what it’s like to learn to teach during COVID-19?’ Interns’ resiliency, even in extreme fear and sadness, was incredible.”

Logan Rutten, a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction, is learning to become a teacher educator in the PDS. 

“Inquiry is a powerful tool for learning together and taking action about things that matter to us as educators. It’s also a stance that we adopt, our deliberately chosen way of conceptualizing what it means to teach,” said Rutten, whose adviser is Wolkenhauer.

“By grounding their response to COVID-19 in an inquiry stance, interns displayed this shared professional commitment to inquiry as a way of living and a way of teaching,” he said.

Morgart noted that the interns’ inquiry stance toward teaching during COVID-19 offered the PDS partners a way to move forward constructively.

“While dealing and coping with the loss of teaching in a traditional classroom environment, rather than mourning the loss of the internship they had dreamed of all year, the interns quickly began to wonder what they could learn from teaching remotely,” she said. 

“The interns’ ability to rely on their inquiry stances to guide them through their new reality allowed the PDS community to proceed in meaningful and productive ways that will result in the interns’ continued growth as teaching professionals.”

Wolkenhauer said the interns’ inquiry stance tells her that they will be able to adjust and handle just about anything they might encounter in their professional lives with grace, intelligence and determination.

“They are going to be advocates for themselves, their students and for our profession in unique ways because they are being so systematic in their learning about how to become teachers during COVID-19,” she said.

McDonald noted that while there is no way that teaching in a pandemic crisis can be close to a normal classroom setting, she has seen SCASD administrators, teachers and the Penn State pre-service teachers do remarkable things under unprecedented circumstances.

“Teachers, including our mentors and pre-service teachers, are continuing to cultivate their classroom communities through the use of Zoom and Seesaw,” she said.

“I have heard my students, pre-service teachers talk about and have been present to see elementary school students share their pets, stuffed animals and even younger siblings during morning meeting sharing time. It is heartwarming to see students interact with their peers and teachers. Everyone misses the social interaction.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 06, 2020