A few days after the coronavirus crisis closed the school building where Micaela Box is a student teacher, Box decided to write 23 letters — one for each of her fourth-grade students at Lincoln Elementary in Warsaw, Indiana. Included in each one was her favorite memory with them.
The Grace College senior, who was 10 weeks into her 16 weeks of student teaching when the building shuttered, said she wrote the letters because she won’t be able to hug her first class of students goodbye. But also because she was worried about a couple of students who weren’t logging in for e-learning or joining class video conferences.
“The hardest part, for me, is not seeing them,” said Box. It came as a relief when two of her students wrote back.
Student teachers’ last opportunity to practice leading a class was either cut short or switched to e-learning, where their interactions with students are limited and some projects they had planned are impossible. Meanwhile, coronavirus closures have complicated their path to earning a teaching license and finding a job for the fall — fallout that some worried would worsen the state’s teacher shortage.
“We can’t forget we are in the middle of a huge teacher shortage,” said Angela Mager, the assistant dean of Butler University’s College of Education. “We still need great educators entering the profession, and so getting these highly qualified educators in the field is going to be imperative.”
The Indiana Department of Education on Friday waived the minimum 10 weeks required for a student teacher to get a license, saying if a student can’t continue teaching remotely, their supervising educator can instead certify that they are prepared. That helped alleviate some concerns caused by the closures, even though many seniors had already met their licensing requirements.
Still, the pandemic has created barriers to employment for some student teachers, with job fairs postponed and in-person interviews moved online. Licensing exams have also been postponed, though students can graduate college and be hired by a district before they receive their license.
The biggest loss, professors say, is missing the end of the school year, which is a critical time for the state’s thousands of student teachers. For many, it’s when they are allowed to take over a class entirely, following weeks of working with a mentor teacher and building relationships with students.
“It was about the time that they were getting their feet under them and they were developing a real confidence that, ‘I can do this,’” said Jan Knoop, an adjunct professor at Grace College. “That’s when all of this hit, and it was a rather abrupt ending.”
The shortened semester doesn’t make student teachers less qualified to become full-time teachers next year, said Jill Shedd, Indiana University’s assistant dean for teacher education. If anything, she said the sudden switch to e-learning is teaching many of them to be more flexible and take greater consideration of their students’ needs and access to technology.
“In some respects, I think they have some advantage over others,” Shedd said.
For Manchester University senior Emily Bailey, the switch to e-learning threw a wrench in her plan to spend the semester emphasizing hands-on learning through robotics and 3-D printing. Instead, she’s recording video lessons to explain math problems to students learning from home.
“Because I can’t be in the classroom to answer questions right away or clarify, I have to be really creative in really showing them how to do problems,” she said. “Ultimately, this is my student teaching. I just have to learn whatever I can and use it as best as I can.”
For her part, Box had been working as the lead teacher before her school closed — slowly taking over teaching responsibilities one subject at a time. But she has stepped back into a supporting role as lessons moved online.
“This is just a great example of how flexible you need to be as a teacher,” Box said. “I’m hoping this will never happen again, but I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience this as a student teacher to learn how to deal with this and still know how to classroom manage.”
There are still a couple of certifications standing between Box and a teaching license, but she already had her first phone interview for a full-time job for the fall, which she hopes to start in-person.
In the meantime, she is working with the other fourth-grade teachers at Lincoln, a northern Indiana school with fewer than 500 students, to make their online learning more rigorous. Teachers have been putting assignments online three days a week and hosting video conferences with small groups.
Only about three-quarters of her students have been participating, Box said. Some students don’t have the needed parental supervision to get schoolwork done. Others don’t have a computer at home. The Warsaw district started making “care calls” to check in on families who may be struggling during the closure. Half of the district’s families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty.
Sending letters through the mail wasn’t the student teaching experience Box had imagined. But she plans to keep writing to her students who don’t have another way to communicate. It’s better than nothing, she said.