Teacher training programs evolve to prepare candidates in the pandemic and beyond

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The coronavirus pandemic shut classroom doors in March altering the learning experience for students and student teachers. The shift to remote and limited face-to-face learning has Georgia colleges modifying their training programs to prepare future educators for the new normal of teaching.

With class time for teacher candidates reduced, the programs are incorporating more digital learning and creative options for them to practice their skills. While many preparation programs were already integrating technology, the surge in video communication and other online platforms this year is reflected in the curriculum and assignments for teacher candidates.

At Kennesaw State University, more professors and students are making use of the Avatar Lab. The lab is a mixed-reality simulation where teacher candidates can practice skills like classroom management along with their field experience. The lab has always had remote capabilities, but with classes held both remotely and in-person at KSU, most people are utilizing the remote option.

“We can put them in the simulator to really hone in on particular skills that we know are going to make the most impact on our students, and then that way when we enter the classroom, the field experience, they’ll be stronger in certain strategies,” said Kate Zimmer, associate professor of special education at KSU and director of the Avatar Lab.

Katie Bennett is an associate professor of special education and the program coordinator for the special education master’s degree program at KSU. Prior to the pandemic, the program was revised to be fully online and completed in either four or six semesters, with the first cohort starting this summer. While candidates used to go into grade school classrooms and do observations, there are now alternative assignments such as working in simulation with students with disabilities in the Avatar Lab. The assignments provide practice and feedback for teacher candidates, and they can apply what they learn to their practicum settings, Bennett said.

Other colleges have also revised their programs. Georgia Gwinnett College’s teacher training programs are four semesters long, with teacher candidates spending more days at their school placement sites as the semesters progress. Now because of coronavirus limitations, seniors in their third semester of the program are going into schools three days a week while new students in the training program are replicating field experience with videos and discussions, said George Darden, an assistant professor in the the college’s School of Education.

Similarly, the University of Georgia is limiting physical placements to teacher candidates in their last semesters of student teaching. For those in the beginning stages of programs, there is online work and alternative placements, said Stacey Neuharth-Pritchett, associate dean for Academic Programs in UGA’s College of Education.

Melissa Driver has worked with teacher candidates in higher education since 2011. Over the past decade she has seen the increased use of video and technology in teacher training and considers the growth of digital learning as a silver lining for teacher candidates.

“Now we’re seeing them kind of from the get-go as they’re planning their lessons, they’re being really intentional about how and why they’re integrating particular technology pieces and they have a much bigger repertoire to pick from at this point,” said Driver, an associate professor of special education at KSU.

Classrooms are incorporating more online communications platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These programs can provide immediate feedback to students, and the live captioning feature on Zoom and Teams makes information more accessible to students with disabilities, Bennett said.

Part of the growth of technology in classrooms is due to its integration in teacher candidates’ lives.

“They’ve grown up using a lot more technology as students, they’ve grown up using a lot more technology just as people and so they’re a lot more comfortable in front of a screen than say teachers from my generation were,” Darden said.

But there are still challenges.

Completion of teacher preparation programs has decreased in several states, including Georgia, from 2013 to 2018, according to the latest available data from the Southern Regional Education Board.

At UGA, initial teacher preparation at the undergraduate level has declined in line with national trends, Neuharth-Pritchett said. She attributes the decline to public perception of teachers, the rigors of becoming a teacher, additional costs incurred like testing fees and challenges teachers face outside of learning, like the social and psychological needs of students.

She sometimes hears from students at UGA whose family members were teachers and have warned them not to go into the field.

“I think it’s become such a challenging — yet again it can be incredibly rewarding — occupation that there are some of those things that are challenging to demystify for people,” Neuharth-Pritchett said.

Enrollment in KSU’s master’s in special education increased in the last application cycle, but for Driver, it is hard to tell if the increase is due to the pandemic or changes to the program’s format. However, she said there has been a national shortage of special education teachers for a long time.

Educators say it’s too soon to say how pandemic-related changes will affect preparedness in the long run, but the flexibility required during this time is developing a new type of teacher.

“I think that you’re going to see a bunch of teachers coming into the field now who have had to learn both in-person and digital while in their preparation program,” Driver said. “So they’re going to come into the field a little more ready to hit the ground running as opposed to if you’ve only ever taught face-to-face.”