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Starting to Teach During the Pandemic

By Debra Shapiro

Starting to Teach During the Pandemic

The 2019–2020 school year held many surprises for Chris Epps, a first-year seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Liberty Hill Academy in North Charleston, South Carolina. The alternative school is students’ “last stop before being expelled,” says Epps, who had spent the previous year substitute teaching in Germany, then moving to Charleston and earning a master’s degree in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum. Last fall, he was Liberty Hill’s only science teacher, and was tasked with “converting South Carolina’s standards to full lessons. It was incredibly stressful. I’m surprised I made it through. It was a really good experience, but there was not a lot for me to lean on,” he recalls.

Students’ behavior issues presented a challenge. “I felt unequipped to deal with it; it required incredible amounts of empathy and patience. A lot of their experience [made them think] adults were out to get them. I think a lot of students were skeptical, but had a good relationship with me. I had to trick them into liking science and get them to experience success in a science classroom,” Epps maintains.

An activity involving heterogeneous and homogenous mixtures helped. “I had vials with nine different mixtures and a chart for students to fill out [with three] observations about each of the vials. For a lot of students, it didn’t make sense, and they wanted to give up,” Epps relates. So he says he “sat with one student—the ringleader—and [showed him] a vial containing water and beads, and asked him what he saw. He said, ‘Beads.’ I told him to write that down. He said, ‘This is easy.’ The other students were impressed and did the work.

“They could figure out if the mixture was heterogeneous or homogenous later. I first had them make observations. They were glad to [understand that] so quickly,” Epps concludes.

After many changes occurred—including getting a co-teacher in November, then having the co-teacher and the eighth graders move to another location in February—Epps and the other three seventh-grade core teachers had four weeks of teaching smaller classes and being able to give students more attention. Then in mid-March, the pandemic struck, and South Carolina cancelled all face-to-face schooling. “On the third Monday of March, the teachers and staff came in and needed to put together a paper packet with 10 days of material,” he relates. “We had just started the ecology unit, which is easy to get students interested in, but we couldn’t do it,” he laments.

Epps filled paper packets with material copied from the textbook, crossword puzzles, word searches, and a sheet with terms and definitions. He says the packets were far from ideal. “The way I taught wasn’t text-heavy. The entire lesson was not on the computer.”

In addition, he felt students’ social and emotional needs went unmet. “There was a tremendous emotional role that we were attempting to fill through Google Classroom and Zoom,” he contends.

Epps says he quickly discovered that “students were largely absent” once remote learning began, even though all students had Chromebook computers—which he had to help their parents with. During the last two and a half months of school, “only about three students completed assignments. I tried to make them interesting, to no avail…During office hours, there was no contact via phone or e-mail. I had to reach out myself to parents,” he reports. 

Teachers were told to give full credit for any assignments completed and “leave missing assignments blank; they didn’t count for or against students. The data side of me cringed; the human side of me accepted it as reasonable during a pandemic,” Epps observes.

“In faculty meetings, we were told to be empathetic and understanding and not take it personally,” he relates. “Lots of my students live really hard lives. I had to actively remember that.”

This fall, Epps will teach science at James Island Charter High School in Charleston. His takeaway from his year at Liberty Hill? “It’s unhelpful to presume that students don’t want to learn. We need to remember students are people in a globally traumatic time. This pandemic will have many effects, once-in-a-lifetime effects…I want to give them the respect they give me.”

‘A Tough Year’

Tom O’Dowd, a seventh-grade physical and life science teacher at Chatham Middle School in Chatham, New York, came to this position with a background in informal and college-level environmental education. “I [obtained] alternative certification and taught while finishing my second year of graduate school. In my graduate program, I thought I would teach high school biology, but this opportunity came up. I had my biology and general science certification extended to middle school. Having trans[itional] certification in New York State allowed me to teach before finishing the certification process,” he explains.

“My program was an online teacher training program run by a state university system, so I was already online before the pandemic hit. I was flexible to teach online; I had ideas of what worked and what didn’t,” says O’Dowd. However, his program involved “one type of learning, a lot of typing and reading. It was not a model for online learning,” he contends.

“My first year of teaching was like student teaching,” O’Dowd asserts. “Everyone has a hard first year and needs mentoring. There was an observer from my program each semester. The one in the fall had a science background, and the one in the spring had a literacy background. It was a tough year; I had a difficult time transitioning to classroom teaching.”

He says he found it “challenging to be in a master’s program with lots of coursework that’s not like classroom work: writing essays about concepts and philosophy of teaching. I’d rather have focused on the techniques and practicality of teaching.” In addition, being in an accelerated master’s program to earn the degree in two years instead of three made it even harder to teach at the same time, he contends.

During quarantine in the spring, O’Dowd says he found that simple things like embedding images and videos in Google Forms was “the equivalent of doing a worksheet” and worked well for students. The online personalized learning program IXL didn’t work well with science because “the students felt it was too punitive,” he maintains. “I think [the animated educational website] BrainPOP is juvenile, but the students liked it. It was frustrating to try to link [it] to Google Classroom for grading…The more steps outside Google Classroom, the more stressful for students,” he contends.

The Actively Learn remote learning curriculum platform, with its interactive textbook and videos and questions embedded in it, was recommended by a high school biology teacher, but it “wasn’t as seamless as I’d like it to be. There were log-in issues,” he reports.

“At first I gave [students] two to three assignments every day. But something that an adult can do in 15 minutes took students an hour or longer. In the classroom, it’s easy to say ‘you’re on track, here’s what you need to do,’ and [you have] help from TAs [teaching assistants]. At home, there’s a lot more confusion and no one to help students and parents,” O’Dowd relates. “I went to one more involved, but self-paced assignment each week, which reduced the stress of parents and students....

“My jumping-off point was to have a multiple, extended-week observation project for the students [involving] scientist practices. Choose a question, have a hypothesis, do research outdoors, have a conclusion. They could choose [things like] clouds, water in the driveway, animal cages in the woods, squirrels,” he explains. “It was not deep or as meaningful, but students had hands-on, minds-on engagement.”

O’Dowd points out the value of social-emotional learning and admits, “I should have had more of that and not expected it to be educational…Students were bored and lonely, and sent me e-mail about their lives or asked me about my life. Some students asked me about having a snake as a pet next year…I wish I did more of that.”

Some Advantages

Kirsten Higman taught eighth-grade science for the first time last year at Jackson Junior High School in Jackson, California. “I have multiple degrees in science and was a chemist for a pharmaceutical company, then I stayed home with my kids,” Higman relates. She returned to work as a school librarian; “it was a classified position, and after a few years, it became boring. I wanted to get back into science, and I liked the middle school age group, so I got certified to focus on middle school and high school,” she asserts. “I teach an integrated, Next Generation Science Standards model with mostly physics, some planetary science, and a little bit of biology, heredity and natural selection.”

Last year, Higman’s district adopted the Full Option Science System (FOSS) curriculum for all middle schools. “FOSS kits come with supplies to do labs,” Higman notes. When schools closed during spring break, “I went to school and grabbed the FOSS boxes for planetary science. They had everything in them,” she points out.

One advantage of remote learning, says Higman, is that she could have students do planetary science activities outside when it’s completely dark. “It’s hard to see things in the sky during the day,” she notes. She made videos at night and posted them for students to watch as demonstrations.

Despite this, “it was hard to keep students engaged. They were not logging in. One top student did nothing during distance learning; their parent was worried, too,” she recalls.

“The students were surprising. Some students liked working at their own time and pace and did more work. Some started out working, then did nothing for the last two or three weeks,” Higman reports.

“I decided to stop doing planetary science. Students wanted to learn about the science of sleep and the coronavirus. At the end of the year, I was really losing them,” she concludes.

Higman notes that some students did respond well to videos of her telling them what to do. “In my teacher training, we were forced to learn tools that helped with distance learning such as [the screen recorder and video editor] Screencast-O-Matic. It captures what’s on screen and records it and lets me do a voiceover at the same time. It’s free,” she relates.

Many students were “overwhelmed with how Google Classroom worked. They didn’t have as much experience with it. I made videos of how to use [it], but I’m not sure if students watched them,” Higman recalls. “I tried to do YouTube videos, but the district had blocked YouTube immediately. I couldn’t get them to approve my channel. So I kept my videos on my work hard drive and uploaded them to Google Classroom.”

For Higman, online teaching “wasn’t bad. As a first-year teacher, I was already working lots of hours. I [typically] have a one-hour commute to school, so I had extra time to work on things at home. And I am tech-savvy, so online teaching wasn’t much of a stretch.”

She notes that FOSS “provided a lot of resources for teachers online, and we already had the textbook online. Students could have the text read to them…It was nice to be home. I have a nice computer setup at home; other teachers didn’t. I have really good internet [connectivity] at home.”

Higman contrasts home conditions with those at her school. “I don’t know if I can have students doing labs; there isn’t enough supplies. If I can’t do labs, why have the students come in? Middle school students won’t [practice] social distancing to be safe…There is only one sink in my classroom, and I have tables, not desks.”

She thought that as a first-year teacher, she would be laid off. “But the seventh-grade teacher retired, and the sixth-grade teacher decided to stay home with her kids. So I am now the senior science teacher—after one year of experience.”

From Floater to First-Time Science Teacher

Taryne Porter of Pataskala, Ohio, who is certified in science and English language arts, is transitioning from a floater teacher to a permanent position teaching science. “Everybody’s in scramble mode. I’m attending a lot of webinars and reading a lot of books,” she relates. “STEMscopes is offering free webinars in July and August, and they’re very helpful in the science end of things.”

When Porter attended Ohio State University, “there was a class on online teaching resources, but there wasn’t a class on how to teach online. Blended and flipped models were [only] mentioned. So I’m researching teaching online,” she reports, and using sixth-grade Ohio Learning Standards to learn “how to set up an online lab culture and an in-class lab culture.”

When the pandemic hit, “it was scary not knowing if I had a job because [schools went] online. I didn’t know if there would be a hiring freeze. During the last two months of school, I was in limbo [because] the district wasn’t using subs. It was bizarre to sit around doing nothing,” Porter relates. “I applied to 13 districts and heard from five; the others couldn’t say whether they’d be hiring normally.”

She also worried about the students. “[More than] half of the classes couldn’t find students. [I wondered:] Is it professional to check up on students as a substitute teacher?”

Porter will teach at a private science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) school. “They’ve offered lots of professional development to teachers. They have an online division. They’ve done a really good job of sending us things.” She has attended a session called Blended Learning in Action, for example.

She anticipates doing more demonstrations to start the year, and is wondering “how to create demonstrations that students can be involved in without leaving their desks…I’m trying to find simulations that all students can do,” using sources like PhET and CK-12. “I’m going to investigate other sources and not just get comfortable with a few,” she adds.

“My school said, ‘Prepare to be mobile because students won’t leave the classroom.’ I will be teaching from a cart and traveling from room to room. That will be hard to troubleshoot; it’s not your classroom, so where are the supplies? I’ll have to fit everything on a mobile vehicle,” she relates.

“Our district is flexible, but I want to teach topics relevant to current events at the beginning,” says Porter. “My goal is to start with life science, multicellular units. Why are we learning online now? Introduce the biology of the pandemic. What are students learning that [they haven’t heard] from the media and their parents? Explore that and probe students for misconceptions.”

She says she also wants to “see what the students are interested in and go over the standards with them, then let students determine how to approach the year.”

Porter views this time as “an opportunity to redefine what education looks like.” She advises teachers to “hang in there. There are a lot of resources and tools out there.”

Student Teaching

Two students who graduated from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, did their student teaching last year and will be teaching at schools in other countries this year.

“This fall will be my first year [of] teaching after my student teaching experience was cut short back in March…because of the pandemic. I will be teaching biology and general science at various grade levels, [middle and high school]. However, I will be going to teach these courses in the Philippines” at Brent International School Baguio, says Drew Hare of Maquoketa, Iowa. “My situation is unique: I may have to teach online because I can’t get a flight overseas right now.”

Hare says he is excited to teach in another country; he wanted to teach overseas and found his position by participating in University of Northern Iowa’s Overseas Recruiting Fair. He did his job search and interviews online because he was in Honolulu, Hawaii, for his student teaching last spring.

Hare spent his first seven weeks at a middle school in a low-income area. “It was a diverse setting. The students were largely islanders from the Philippines,” he reports, adding, “I am reassured by having experience with Filipino students. I wish I had gotten more practice.”

Hare’s second placement was teaching biology at a high school at which many students were from China. “They were higher achievers, but more likely to have a language barrier with me and my cooperating teacher. At least one student spoke no English,” he recalls. “I was not specifically prepared to teach English language learners. It’s one thing to plan for and another to actually do.” He says he received good suggestions from his cooperating teacher such as giving students guided worksheets and illustrating what he was discussing—such as using a graph—instead of just talking.

Hare spent only about four weeks at the high school until he had to fly home due to the pandemic. “I offered to help my cooperating teacher with online classes, but he said there wasn’t much I could help with,” he relates. Hare wishes he could have had some practice with online teaching. “I have taken online classes, but I don’t feel prepared to teach online,” he admits. “I would prefer to teach in person.” He has wondered about job security if he can’t physically be at his school.

In April 2019, Hare attended the NSTA St. Louis National Conference. He asserts, “If anyone has the opportunity to go [to an NSTA conference,] I’d recommend it. I went to a lot of sessions, and my favorite ones [featured] hands-on activities. I used them in my student teaching. I learned that you don’t need to set aside one day for lab; you can do it every day.” He adds, “If you’re teaching online, that might be tough.”

“I will be a first-year teacher this fall. I will be teaching high school chemistry and general science in Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, at the American School Foundation of Monterrey,” a private, independent school, says Abby DeBaillie of Orion, Illinois. She did her student teaching in 2019 during the fall semester. “I was in two placements for seven weeks each. My certification is in grades 5–12. I taught in a high school first, then a middle school.”

DeBaillie professes her “love for the atmosphere of the high school classroom” and says that when she student taught at the high school, she “taught a few different classes [representing] the diversity of the fields of science: chemistry, physiology, and general science.” Fortunately, she was able to finish her student teaching before the pandemic struck during her last semester.

“Schools closed as I was finishing up chemistry classes for my chemistry major. I had an online chemistry class that was supposed to be a lab class. It was very different, but I learned a lot. There was more discussion of more topics, which [I found] more relevant for teaching rather than research,” DeBaillie reports. She says having classes in Zoom and an online component for her education courses has helped her feel “somewhat prepared to teach online.” 

DeBaillie says she’s very excited to teach in Mexico, and her school is much like schools in the United States. She isn’t sure yet whether she’ll be teaching online, in person, or both. “I’m a little nervous because I like to plan and have a schedule. I want students to have a good experience and gain as much knowledge as possible. Not knowing isn’t comfortable, but everyone is in the same situation,” she points out.

“Most new expat teachers will take it one day at a time, be as prepared as possible, and have a positive attitude and run with it,” DeBaillie asserts.

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