U teacher education preps students and graduates for teaching online

On Friday, March 13, 2020, U student Abi Marshall ate lunch at her desk at Taylorsville High School while keeping one eye on Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Facebook page. Just days away from completing her student teaching, Marshall had planned a surprise for her students the next week before handing the class back over to her mentor teacher. By the end of that day, though, Utah public schools statewide were closed as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was heartbroken,” she says.

PHOTO CREDIT: Abi Marshall

A sign made by a student at Taylorsville High School, made before public schools closed, hangs in now-empty halls.

Marshall and the other teacher candidates in her cohort ended their student teaching experience in unforeseen and unprecedented circumstances, while recent graduates from the U’s teacher licensure program have drawn on their preparation in the rapid pivot to online teaching. The impact of the training received through the College of Education’s K-12 licensure program, they say, has been significant as online teaching and learning has become the new normal.

“The work that teachers do every day is all about the love and passion that they feel for each of their many students,” says career-line associate professor Udita Gupta of the U’s Urban Institute of Teacher Education (UITE). “Things are even harder for teachers in the time we are in. Still, teachers are making all possible efforts every day to reach out to their students to teach and to just know if they are doing fine.”

Panic and preparedness

The teacher licensure program, housed in UITE within the College of Education, prepares students for both elementary and secondary teaching.  Graduates are hired by schools across the Wasatch Front and beyond. Marshall and her cohort embarked on their 12-week student teaching experience in January, after preparation all through the fall semester.

Gupta supervised the fall-spring secondary cohort, where students taught in the Salt Lake, Granite and Canyons School Districts. She had planned to observe the teachers through March 13, with more observation scheduled the next week.

“It happened all of a sudden,” Gupta says of the school closures, which have extended through the end of the school year. “It was bit of a panic as it was the end of the quarter and student teachers had to wrap up their student teaching, including assessments, grading and research.”

Five years ago, during the summer of 2015, UITE implemented the first “Teaching On-Line” lesson series for students completing licensure in elementary and secondary education, says Associate Dean for Teacher Education and UITE Director Mary D. Burbank. In response to a Utah State Board of Education directive for teacher preparation programs to ensure graduates had the skills to teach fully online, the teacher candidates practiced developing course modules. For current teachers, online instruction has typically involved periodic assignments or standalone explorations. With public school closures, this was no longer the case.

“The day the closure was announced was one of the craziest days of my student teaching,” Marshall says. She and her mentor teacher were already using the online platform Canvas for major assignments. During her last week of student teaching, with classrooms empty, she finished grading papers and helped her mentor teacher organize two weeks of online instruction. Marshall says she felt prepared, thanks to classes at the U on technology in the classroom and designing online units. “Had I been asked to stay on and teach through this quarantine,” she says, “I’d have accepted, feeling perfectly prepared.”

Other student teachers provided similar support to their mentor teachers, Gupta says, including helping them shift instructional materials online.

“It was all possible because of their compassion they have for teaching, willingness to work in this extreme circumstance and the training they received during their licensure and pre-licensure coursework at the U,” she says.

Teacher education continues

Marshall looks forward to returning to Taylorsville High School, where she has secured a full-time position starting in the fall. She hopes to return to in-person instruction.

“I cannot fathom a world of virtual teaching just as it is being done now,” Marshall says. “I hope this isn’t the future of education, because that was not at all how I imagined spending my career.”

Meanwhile, Gupta met remotely with the next cohort of teacher candidates on April 17. “Along with staying strong and safe,” she says, “we are planning ahead for the future, near or far, in terms of the support we are going to provide not only to our students but also to the teachers and schools we have worked with or will work in the future.”

Feedback from graduates

Recent UITE graduates highlight the significance of their preparation as central to how they are approaching their work in classrooms. The online teaching requirement at the University of Utah underscores the need for teachers to be ready for today’s realities and tomorrow’s opportunities in ways previously unimagined. A first-year math teacher notes the benefits of her training at an unprecedented time:

There are many teachers going through training to be on Canvas and I feel that I have an advantage.

A second-year biology teacher underscores teacher preparation where graduates effectively execute the technical skills of teachers’ work as well as the ability to think in ways that allow for nimble and creative decision-making.

My ability to develop a weekly digital experience for my students that mirrors our in-class time comes from the conceptual understanding I gained from my training. The use of concrete tools has allowed me to update, alter and build my Canvas. I have spent several hours assisting other teachers within my school and district with Canvas, ranging from the simple act of creating a homepage to more complex actions. I feel extremely prepared to take on online learning. 

A second-year middle school math teacher recalls how experiences with technology in classes at the U offered experience that lessened the anxiety of online teaching.

I remember that I was so nervous about being on camera and I thought, “How could I possibly create a lesson that’s only online?” Well I did it and I remember learning what worked or what didn’t work. That knowledge gained from that one assignment has helped me so much. This is just one example of how my classes at the U have helped me during this time. However, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how much I miss my students and miss being in the classroom.