A chicken in Alex Weschler’s second grader’s Zoom class was the least of the struggles the family faced with virtual classes. Students and teachers alike are adapting and changing what the future of education may look like.
A chicken walks into Show and Tell…
Alex Weschler would only have her back turned away from her second grader’s Zoom class for a minute. When she would turn back to her child, one of their chickens would be sitting in the Zoom class with her.
“I wish I was kidding,” Weschler said. “Her attention span was lacking and she [would keep] running outside to add another chicken to the mix.”
Weschler is not the only one struggling to have their children adapt to the new normal of Zoom classes. Parents across Webster Groves’ community have expressed a mixture of opinions — it’s going great, it’s going horribly, it’s too soon to tell — but one feeling has been prominent in every discussion: the anxiety of uncertainty.
The virtual struggle
With COVID-19, the territory for education is widely unknown. Schools spent all summer wrangling with the different plans of hybrid, in-person or fully virtual classes. The Webster Groves school district opted for fully online classes.
This led to some hiccups in the early weeks. Jessica Zeh, a student teacher at Avery Elementary, teaches remotely from a classroom with her cooperating teacher. The two have been separated for now — Zeh has been quarantining for two weeks since she had just gotten married and went on her honeymoon when school started. Zeh co-teaches second graders and has found trouble with connectivity and assisting the younger kids with new technology.
The student teacher is not letting the problems stop her, however. She creates how-to videos for her students, showing them step-by-step processes to work Canvas and Zoom. These videos are not foolproof, and Zeh will still sometimes have to pause her lesson and create a “breakout room” to help her second-grader unmute their mic or get to a certain link.
“Teaching is the easy part,” Zeh said. “You can teach all day long virtually, but creating a relationship through a camera is really difficult.”
Senior Emma Teson student teaches at a high school while finishing her bachelor’s degree in Studio and Art Education. Relationship-building has been hard for her, as well. Teson and her cooperating teacher both agreed on not forcing their students to turn on their cameras or mics at home. Many of the students opt to keep the cameras and mics off.
“[Keeping the camera and mic off] makes it difficult to get to know students, let alone form strong and trusting relationships with them,” Teson wrote in an email.
She said this also poses challenges to creating a strong and cohesive classroom atmosphere since many students might not know each other and everyone is working in different environments that may be more or less conducive to learning.
Teson has also struggled with the technology aspect of online learning. She works from home for the most part, struggling with connectivity issues and staying in one spot staring at a screen for so long, like Zeh.
“I joke around that after the challenge of student teaching in this way, nothing will ever be difficult for me ever again,” Teson said in her email.
While Teson admitted that’s not true, she said her creativity is also being tested to help the kids in her classroom adapt to their circumstances.
“Virtual instruction has also already opened my eyes to a whole new world of resources that I can use in the future to keep instruction interesting and more effectively work with exceptional students who may need alternative options,” Teson wrote.
Both Teson and Zeh had to complete practicums before being assigned to a classroom. These practicums allow education majors to observe a classroom and the teacher before putting their skills to the test. Teson and Zeh had their practicums interrupted last semester as the classroom moved online to accommodate shutdowns.
Kaitlin Kullmann is a senior who double majors in elementary and special education while also obtaining her master’s degree in English as a second language. She is currently in the beginning of her second practicum after the first was interrupted by COVID-19.
Yet, this practicum already looks different from the one she did last semester. In the spring, she was allowed to observe and help plan lessons and when the move to virtual learning came, she still did some behind-the-scenes work for the teacher.
This semester, she is not allowed in a classroom online or remotely like Zeh or Teson. Kullmann records herself on a platform called Veo and submits her lessons to a supervisor.
“This might be the future of education,” Kullmann said. “So, we need to focus on how we make the best of it.”
The supervisors will give feedback on what the student needs to work on during their lessons. Professor Kerri Fair is one of the supervisors who is trying to help students make the best of the situation. One of three self-described “uber supervisors,” Fair manages seven students who are going through practicums. Fair focuses on how to help students plan for their teaching future.
“Planning has been different,” Fair said. “We have to plan on how to make this concrete, thinking about best practices, ‘How can I talk through and share the information I need?’”
Fair also detailed how they have to think of new issues such as the moment of silence between telling a group of students the teacher is about to share the screen and how to optimize that moment.
“You don’t necessarily have that pacing when you’re teaching in-person,” Fair said. “Sometimes, you have technology glitches, but it seems like there’s always that pause. So, my worry is ‘Is that just enough time to be distracting?’ or ‘Did they lose that thought and now we’re coming back?’”
Fair and the other supervisors have started planning for programs to help the students prepare for their future. They have weekly seminars for the education majors, help them explore the virtual platforms available to teachers and have the students do reflective pieces on what works on a lesson plan they have recorded and what does not. They also have been searching for new programs to help students prepare for an in-person classroom setting.
One new program they plan for places the students in a simulation with different types of students in a classroom. One avatar would be the fidgety student, one would be a quiet student and so on. The student, in the role of the teacher, would then be able to plan lessons around these different types of students. This would help education majors prepare for the different types of students in the classroom and help them be better equipped for a transition to a classroom.
Jeff Morrisson, a student in his third year working towards his Masters of Teaching, feels as if these programs have helped him. He said he is now more versed in the newer tools for education.
“I would feel more prepared if I was in a classroom, but it’s not like I’m solely feeling completely underprepared,” Morrisson said.
Morrisson said everyone in the field is confident with how teaching should be. After graduation and when teachers get a job, they are put into a professional development group, he says, and that helps teachers continue their own education.
“Teaching is teaching, but a lot of the unknown aspects have made it hard, even as society stabilizes a little bit,” Morrisson said. “It still feels like tomorrow could change everything. It’s hard to approach and put yourself in that vulnerable learning stage knowing there’s a finishing line, when we don’t necessarily know there’s a finishing line at this moment.”
Kullmann believes Webster is doing the best it can to help education majors prepare for their careers. Yet, she still remains wary of the world post-graduation.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any anxiety about the future,” Kullmann said. “It crossed my mind, ‘Is this going to become the new norm?’ because if so, this is not really what I wanted to sign up for.”
Kullmann does see a bright side to virtual education. She mentioned some students may thrive in a virtual classroom, while others do better in person. She’s excited to see how this can help students, and teachers, of the future.
“It’s challenged us, if this is what it is, then we are prepared for it,” Kullmann said.
A community coming together
Jessica Zeh knows there was no right answer to education this semester. Whether hybrid, online or in-person, each had its risks and rewards.
“If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already,” Zeh said. “A lot of patience and understanding really helps these days. Every parent I’ve spoken to has been so kind and understanding, although I know they are really struggling these days. I couldn’t imagine being a parent right now.”
Karin Summerland is one of those parents. Summerland has a first-grader and is a single mom. Her daughter stays home with an elderly relative who is not tech-savvy.
“On the morning of her third day of online learning, my first-grader cried when she got out of bed and broke out in stress hives,” Summerland wrote on Facebook.
Another parent, Karen Renner, wrote her husband had to quit his full-time job to stay at home to help their fifth and second graders.
“There is no way little kids can do this on their own,” Renner wrote. “[My husband] catches my youngest son softly crying to himself when he doesn’t understand an assignment, and then he helps him.”
Parents have turned to learning “pods” in order to help their children maintain socialization and their education. The pods have school-aged children meeting in one place where they are only exposed to each other. Pods are designed in order to keep COVID-19 exposure at a minimum. Alex Weschler pulled her second-grader out of the full-time Zoom classes to join a pod. Now, the Weschlers have a hybrid model of part-Zoom, part-homeschooling.
“The end of the first week, we sent out an SOS call to our second grader’s teacher,” Weschler said. “The online for my youngest was going to kill us.”
Weschler said the hybrid model has been working well for her daughter. She is grateful the school was so flexible with her family. Parent Casey Foy said an important goal is to make sure the “little guys,” the kindergartners through third-graders, do not end up hating school.
Other parents, like Laura McCabe, have noticed a positive change in their children. McCabe is a mother to a kindergartner, sixth-grader and tenth-grader. She said her two younger daughters had been previously marked as “quiet” by their teachers. Now, she notices her daughters speaking up more.
“My sixth grader is one who will sit in class, clueless, never speaking up and I’m grateful to be able to notice when she’s confused,” McCabe wrote to The Journal. “We all complain about them being in front of the screen all day, but it’s no different than playing video games and TikToks, just more educational.”
McCabe has noticed the confidence continuing as the weeks go on. She hopes it will transfer to in-person classes, as well, whenever that may be.
Zeh said it has taken the whole community to make the online education work.
“The parents have been the real superheroes,” she said.