Virtual learning left teachers scrambling. How are teacher prep programs catching up?

When COVID-19 forced school districts across the country to close their buildings and move classes online in the spring of 2020, teachers were left scrambling to find new ways to do the job many had done the same way for decades.

Although teachers and students have been back in school for more than a year, many of the changes brought about by the pandemic are likely here to stay. But digital tools aren’t the only change: Teachers must now find ways to work with students who are still suffering the mental health effects of the pandemic.

Now, teacher preparation programs in Texas and nationwide are beginning to incorporate coursework designed to help the students understand how to teach using the same digital tools that long-tenured educators struggled to adopt during school shutdowns, and to prepare them to work with students who are dealing with trauma. Leaders of those programs say they made those changes out of a recognition that the teaching profession may never look the same as it did before the pandemic.

“We were very aware that we were at a crossroads in the teaching profession,” said Randy Bomer, dean of the College of Education at the University of North Texas.

UNT overhauls elementary ed curriculum

Shortly before the pandemic began, the college began a complete redesign of its elementary education curriculum — a major project that teacher preparation programs don’t take on very often, Bomer said. Historically, curricula at colleges of education have been relatively “fastened down” compared to other majors, he said, and don’t leave students with much choice about the courses they take.

“There’s a lot of things teachers need to know and be able to do, and so, often, faculty will load up the curriculum, and it just kind of stays stuck in place for decades,” he said.

Although the college began the curriculum overhaul in response to a change in state law and not with the pandemic in mind, it soon became obvious that the curriculum would need to change to prepare future teachers for the new roles they’d be stepping into, Bomer said. The fact that the college was already in the middle of that process gave it a head start, he said.

The remodeled curriculum still covers all the things elementary teachers have always needed to know, Bomer said. Students will still learn how to teach reading, writing and math. But now, they also take courses on how to respond to students’ mental health needs and how to incorporate digital tools into their classrooms, he said. Students also leave the program better equipped to respond to a wide range of unpredictable situations — “more ‘normal’ ones as well as extraordinary ones like fully remote teaching,” he said.

The college’s leaders also recognized that education majors would soon be stepping into classrooms in which larger numbers of students are dealing with mental health crises, Bomer said. Across the country, teachers, school counselors and education researchers have reported seeing more students showing signs of trauma and anxiety since they returned in person after school shutdowns. So the college added coursework designed to equip teachers to respond to students’ mental and emotional issues, he said.

The college added other material to its curriculum that wasn’t directly in response to the pandemic, as well, including coursework on how to understand and communicate about equity in schooling and units on the various levels of authority governing schools, from the federal government down to local campus administrators.

“These weren’t new ideas to us at all, but we thought, ‘If we come out of COVID without having a program that addresses these things, people will wonder what we were thinking,’” Bomer said.

Teacher prep programs bring in digital tools

Lynn Gangone, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said colleges of education across the country are governed to a certain degree by what their states require of their degree programs. Institutions sometimes want to be more creative in what courses they offer their students, she said, but the combination of those state requirements and the fact that there are only so many hours in a degree program leave little room for innovation.

That being said, Gangone said more colleges of education across the country have taken deliberate steps to incorporate technology throughout their curricula since the beginning of the pandemic. Familiarizing teaching candidates with instructional technology isn’t the same as showing them how to teach classes in a remote environment, she said, but it’s one step in that process.

The pandemic also forced colleges of education to begin making more creative use of technology in their own classes, Gangone said. At the beginning of the pandemic, when school districts across the country shut down their buildings and moved classes online, it meant that college students majoring in education couldn’t get into classrooms for in-person student teaching. The student teaching experience is typically one of the most pivotal times in the teacher preparation process, since it’s the first time that teaching candidates are fully responsible for what goes on in a classroom.

Because colleges of education couldn’t place their teaching candidates in K-12 classrooms with live students, many began using simulators to mimic the in-person student teaching experience, Gangone said. One such program, developed by faculty members at the University of Central Florida, has future teachers lead lessons in front of classes of virtual student avatars on a screen. The program, called TeachLive, uses motion-capture technology to read the teacher’s movements. Another person, called an interactor, controls the students’ avatars and responds to the teacher through a microphone. The virtual students aren’t always cooperative. Sometimes, they’re mouthy. The program is intended to help teachers practice the classroom management skills in a controlled environment.

The program dates back to 2012, and some colleges have used it for many years. But Gangone said it’s gained more widespread use since the beginning of the pandemic.

Many teacher preparation programs have also incorporated more social and emotional learning into their curricula, Gangone said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, teachers, school counselors and researchers have reported an uptick in emotional distress among students. Although the pandemic moved those issues to the forefront, classroom teachers have been dealing with them for years, Gangone said. Even before the pandemic, colleges of education were beginning to look at how to prepare their teaching candidates to work with students with trauma in their backgrounds, she said.

“The 21st century teacher, even before the pandemic, could not just facilitate academic learning,” she said. “That teacher had to wonder if that child had enough to eat before they came into the classroom. That teacher had to wonder… what the family circumstances of that child are, and what impact that was having.”

UT emphasizes connections with students’ families

Melissa Wetzel, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, said the college has placed greater emphasis on preparing its teaching candidates to build strong connections with students’ families. Those connections have always been important, she said, but they’re even more so now, after many students experienced severe disruptions to their schooling.

The college works closely with the Austin Independent School District, Wetzel said, and many students in the district come from multinational families. Many of those students went home to some other country when school buildings shut down and returned when they reopened. Teachers need to understand that experience so they can help those students make up any ground they lost, Wetzel said.

Those relationships are especially important with families of special-needs students, she said. Nationwide, school districts struggled to deliver effective instruction to students in special education programs during school shutdowns. So college students who expect to become teachers in the next few years need to be prepared to work with those students’ families to get them back on track, she said.

UT is also preparing students to walk into school buildings that are understaffed, Wetzel said. Many school districts in Texas and across the country have reported a sharp uptick in the number of teachers leaving their jobs: By July 1, the Fort Worth Independent School District’s deadline for resignations, the district had received 50% more teacher resignations compared to the year before.

Although preparing students to work in understaffed schools is a priority, Wetzel said the college hasn’t had to change its curriculum to deal with it. New teachers are forced to learn to manage large classes during their student teaching because that’s the environment they end up working in, she said. One of her students did her student teaching in a classroom that had more than twice as many students as it would normally have had, Wetzel said. So the student’s cooperating teacher showed her how to set up learning stations across the room that the students could cycle through and work independently, she said.

Although that student teaching experience isn’t ideal, it helps new teachers develop problem-solving skills, which will serve them well when they go to work in unpredictable school situations, she said.

“Nobody really knows, fully, how to teach differently in these new conditions,” Wetzel said.

Not every new digital tool is effective in the classroom

Robin Griffith, a professor in the College of Education at Texas Christian University, said the university already had courses on integrating technology into the classroom before the pandemic began. The professors in those classes don’t focus on specific programs, because there’s no way to keep up with the pace of technology — “You can learn an app and it could be gone and obsolete in three years,” she said.

Instead, professors focus on teaching future educators how to bring technology into their classrooms that matches the objectives of what they’re teaching, she said. There’s a tendency among some teachers to try to adopt every new tool that comes along because it’s fun and unique, even if it doesn’t help students learn, she said.

More recently, TCU added a course designed to help future educators understand what effective virtual instruction looks like, Griffith said. Generally, that means making sure the course content works well in a virtual setting. For example, if a teacher wants students to work on a collaborative project, she needs to be thoughtful about creating a space online where students can work together as effectively as if they were sitting around a table, she said.

By incorporating more coursework on how to teach effectively in a virtual environment, Griffith said the college hopes to put its graduates in a better position than teachers who were in the classroom in the spring of 2020. But she emphasized that those teachers did the best they could to shift quickly to a new form of instruction in a school system that wasn’t structured with that in mind.

“Teachers did a great job of figuring out how to teach kindergartners online,” she said. “But our schools aren’t designed for that.”