By Kathryn McPhail
University of South Carolina alumna Iman Askar never envisioned her first year of teaching would happen online. But like thousands of South Carolina teachers, the recent College of Education graduate started the school year teaching virtually.
In March, Askar had just finished her 10th day of solo teaching as part of her internship at Dreher High School in Columbia, South Carolina, when the Governor closed schools in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“It was a crazy time for sure,” Askar says. “My co-teacher and I had developed such a great partnership, and I was really enjoying my internship and teaching. We had to quickly transfer our lessons to virtual.”
Askar says she was disappointed that she couldn’t go back into the classroom, but also knew she must learn to adapt to a new way of teaching in order to help her students continue to learn.
Askar was one of about 300 College of Education students conducting their internships when public schools, and the university, transitioned to virtual learning.
“Given the complexity of the situation, they were able to be pretty successful,” says Thomas Hodges, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education.
Even though the interns weren’t able to be in the classroom, they didn’t stop working and learning.
“Our interns continued to assist the schools by helping teachers create and deliver virtual lessons and finding online resources for students,” Hodges says. “They prepared learning packets for younger students and even volunteered to deliver food.”
Hodges says though the last few weeks of spring semester weren’t ideal, students learned valuable lessons that will make them better educators.
“I believe this adversity better prepared our students to lead their own classrooms because of their rich experiences doing both traditional and online teaching,” he says. “Teachers must be problem solvers, and they proved they could do just that.”
This summer, College of Education leaders faced a new challenge — how to effectively prepare the next generation of educators during a global pandemic where virtual learning would be mandatory for many.
“The work of the college is multi-facetted,” Hodges says. “We prepare teacher candidates, place students in dozens of schools across the state for observations and internships, conduct research and provide professional development for current educators. All of this work must continue, but we knew it couldn’t look the exact same or be delivered the same way.”
College leaders reached out to the robust Professional Development Schools Network, which comprises 23 schools and one district, to develop new processes. For example, many education courses are taught on site in public schools to allow teacher candidates to learn concepts and theories and then, immediately observe those concepts in practice inside the classroom. But for health and safety reasons, some public schools aren’t allowing visitors in the building this year.
“So, we are working with our partner schools to ensure our students can still virtually observe veteran teachers so they can continue to see those theories in practice,” Hodges says.
As for internships, commonly known as student-teaching, they will still take place but will differ based on a student’s preference and availability.
“We wanted to give our students a choice — do you want to work in the classroom if schools went back face-to-face or are you more comfortable conducting your internship virtually? After hearing their preferences, we began working with partner schools to place students,” Hodges says.
Interns will have access to school district learning management systems, such as Schoology or Google Classroom, so they can assist the lead teacher, observe and support virtual learning. Hodges says whether virtual or face-to-face, students will receive hours of experience to prepare them for whatever classrooms may look like in the future.
“I believe this will change the way we educate children,” he says. “Our teacher candidates gained invaluable and unique experience. They are adding another tool to their toolbox to make sure they are the best teachers they can be.”
Askar says she feels confident about the content and techniques she learned at South Carolina. She admits she’s nervous to navigate some of the technologies needed to teach virtually, but she’s relieved she will continue to have the support of her alma mater. That’s because Askar is one of more than 40 recent education graduates participating in the Carolina Teacher Induction Program as a first-year teacher.
“CarolinaTIP is a great, supportive program for new teachers,” she says. “At Dreher High School, I’m fortunate to be surrounded by supportive mentors, but it’s nice to have someone outside of the school and the district to talk things over with and get an outside perspective.”
In its fourth year, CarolinaTIP now serves more than 130 South Carolina alumni. The three-year program incorporates elements of emotional support, instructional coaching and leadership development. CarolinaTIP coaches observe, mentor and support new teachers in the first three years of teaching with a goal of retaining more educators in the profession. Though the program will continue in the fall, some of the ways they work with new teachers will change because of COVID-19.
“Of course, we will have to modify some of our processes,” says Angela Adams, CarolinaTIP lead coach. “We are working with school districts now to figure out the best way we can continue to support our teachers without jeopardizing the safety of these professionals or their students, all while making sure we are helping reduce their stress and increase their confidence.”
In a typical year, participating teachers would meet face-to-face four times for professional development sessions and have the benefit of in-class coaching and support from a Carolina Coach. However, 2020 is different and needs are constantly changing due to COVID-19. The CarolinaTIP team is dedicated to the success of new teachers and will make the necessary adjustments to support these teachers in 2020. Regardless of changes, Adams stresses the support for new teachers will remain constant.
“Our coaches are continuing to reach out to teachers — to be their cheerleaders, confidants and sounding boards,” Adams says. “We will continue to offer emotional support as they deal with both the expected changes all new teachers experience and the new challenges COVID-19 poses.”
Adams began reaching out to her CarolinaTIP teachers during the summer and was a bit surprised, but pleased, to hear that most weren’t focusing on the negative aspects of the pandemic.
“They aren’t talking about having to go virtual or how this year may be harder,” she says. “This indicates these teachers are ready to make this year a success no matter the circumstance.”
As for Askar, she’s confident that the preparation she received during the Master of Arts in Teaching program, coupled with the ongoing support of CarolinaTIP, has set her up for a rewarding first year in education.
“I want to do well for myself and for my students,” she says. “I want to make sure they succeed. I want to help lessen the stress and anxiety they may have. I told my students that they are still going to have to put in the work, but I will be focused on reducing their stress and making this year as seamless as possible.”