Student teachers adjust well to alternative instructional venues

Jim Carlson
March 31, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— The COVID-19 global pandemic, which has forced countless people to adjust the way they live their lives and perform their job duties, perhaps left a most indelible mark on students, teachers and … student teachers.

Puzzling problems that needed to be solved included finding school districts locally and statewide that were actually conducting in-residence classes and would allow student teachers in the building; forming relationships with mentor teachers regardless of whether instruction was remote or in-person; how to learn to control a classroom if that class is looking at the teacher through a computer screen; and, among others, how to find locations conducive to a teaching environment.

A handful of student teachers from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s program in Penn State’s College of Education dealt with each of the aforementioned items in one way or another and were especially thankful when the college assisted them in setting up a locale in which to teach other than their bustling State College apartments.

According to Julian Morales, the director of operations for the College of Education, some student teachers were placed in the glass-enclosed pods in Krause Studio in Chambers Building and others on the first floor of Chambers in the newly renovated science wing.

Sean Fowler, for example, is teaching economics and psychology to juniors and seniors in the Bald Eagle Area School District from his Krause office. The secondary social studies education major from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, said he is still getting the full experience as far as planning and the workload that a teacher has day-to-day.

“The thing I was most worried about was lacking the interaction with my students; I’ve started to form some connections with them, but it’s definitely harder being virtual,” Fowler said. “I'm also getting to feel out my own teaching style as if I was in-person.

“Virtual teaching also lacks some elements of classroom management, but thanks to great people in the College of Education, I really feel like I'm hitting my stride and will be prepared to have my own classroom next year," he said.

Fowler was not alone when saying he didn’t expect his teaching situation to unfold as it did. “I held out hope even until the start of the semester that we'd be in-person. But my mentor teacher set up a TV and camera in her classroom, and sometimes I forget that I'm not there,” he said.

"Everyone in the College of Education has been great this semester and last (semester),” Fowler added. “Keith Machtinger and Al D'Ambrosia, my major specific advisers, have worked extremely hard to make sure all student teachers are getting the best experience possible.”

Alex Karras, from the Bucks County town of Chalfont, is teaching middle level mathematics to students at Mount Nittany Middle School in Boalsburg; his concerns about fulfilling student teaching requirements and graduating on time were allayed. 

“If you were to tell me a year ago that I would have been student teaching remotely in a room with no students, I would not have believed you,” Karras said. “However, that is what is happening right now and that is the reality for a lot of teachers across the country. Being able to teach in this small, glass-enclosed room has been great, believe it or not; It is like my mini office, and it helps me focus and get my work done.”


Kaitlyn McCoach performs her student teaching duties at Pleasant Gap Elementary School in the Bellefonte Area School District from within a glass-enclosed office in Chambers Building.

IMAGE: Submitted

A middle level math education major, Kaitlyn McCoach, from Reading in Berks County, is working with fourth- and fifth-graders in the Pleasant Gap Elementary School in the Bellefonte Area School District. Because she performed her pre-student teaching remotely, she was ready for the day-to-day remote responsibilities.

“I was used to it already, so I was not worried about the fact that I was remote,” she said. “It is sad that I cannot go in to see my mentor teacher and students, but I know this is what is best for this situation. Even though I am student teaching remotely, I am glad that I can still get some helpful tips and tricks while teaching.”

Noah Grube said his student teaching thus far has gone as smoothly as possible given the circumstances. “Obviously, I wish I was in person, but everybody is trying to make the most of the situation at hand,” said the secondary social studies education major from State College; he is teaching U.S. history to eighth-graders and civics to 10th- and 11th-graders at Bald Eagle Area Middle School.

“I never envisioned teaching from Krause, but it's not as bad as it may seem," said Grube. "Outside of being able to see other students doing work on the other side of the door, I can sometimes find myself forgetting that I am stuck in a glass box in Chambers. Everybody has tried to make this situation as easy and painless as possible.”

Erin Gazzillo, a middle level mathematics major from Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, is another who couldn’t envision what her responsibilities would be like teaching in a remote classroom in Park Forest Middle School in State College.

“I had absolutely no idea what to expect with virtual student teaching but know that I was still able to do so was very comforting,” Gazzillo said. “I never thought that I would be in this situation when I pictured my student teaching experience.

“I am very grateful that I was able to get a space where I can teach. It took a bit of time to get used to seeing people walk by the room and having the lights flash on and off from the sensors but knowing that I have a whole room to myself without interruptions is great.”

The COVID-19-induced situation is not without its drawbacks, but the students can balance the pleasures along with the annoyances.

“Remote teaching definitely has its pros and cons,” Karras said. “I would say I feel very confident and prepared for teaching online because that is what my pre-student teaching and student teaching experiences have been. I have found ways to implement fun lesson plans through online teaching by adding fun review games such as Kahoot, interactive lessons such as Google Jam Board and more. 

“Then there are areas where I do not feel the most prepared for a full-time teaching job next semester such as classroom management. I am in a hybrid classroom, so there are students online and in person. Trying to manage students that are not physically with you has been one of the toughest things in my experience. I have had previous jobs that have allowed me to practice classroom management in person, and I know that as I keep teaching online, I will find ways to keep my students’ behavior under control,” Karras said.

Grube expressed similar sentiments. “I feel like people student teaching right now will come in with the advantage of knowing how to deal with virtual learning,” he said. “The main disadvantage is that I'm just not in the classroom and I cannot work on my classroom management skills, but that is something that once I have my own classroom and I am in person I will be able to figure out on the fly.”

Gazzillo also said it’s been difficult to choose classroom management strategies, but it’s balanced out by her finding numerous online tools to incorporate into class. “These are manipulatives that I might not have found since I would have physical objects that I could use. These tools can easily be applied even when every student is in the classroom with me,” she said.

Learning classroom management is the overriding fear among student teachers, according to McCoach.

“I can only see so much of a student, so it is hard sometimes to know if they are focusing and paying attention to my lesson,” she said. “This is something that I knew was going to be difficult going into remote student teaching, so I talked with my mentor teacher to come up with some ideas to help.”

Another disadvantage, McCoach said, is the challenge of developing relationships with students.

“I am a huge relationship person, so I always want to have other conversations with students that are not just math conversations. I am trying my best with relationships, but they definitely would be better if I was in person," she said.

McCoach, though, is grateful for her mentor at Bellefonte. “Even though I am not with her, I still am getting great information and ideas to help in my future,” she said. “This is even new for her too, so we are both learning together. That is something that I think is helpful for me as well. We are both lost sometimes with lessons/activities, but we collaborate and come up with ideas to help support our class. 

“Another advantage is that I am becoming a professional with technology," said McCoach. "I am learning so many different online resources I can use for future lessons that I never even knew of before.”

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Last Updated April 01, 2021