What the Pandemic has Taught Me… By Leslie Gates

As we near the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I’ll be sharing these posts (and my own) over the next few weeks. This week, we hear from Dr. Leslie Gates, a teacher educator in the Art & Design department at Millersville University. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

Dispositions as Pandemic-Proof Teacher Education

When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.  -Wendell Berry

This pandemic has taught me that fostering future teachers’ inclinations to reflect and collaborate may be the most effective thing I can do as a teacher educator.

The pandemic has significantly impacted K-12 classrooms. As a result, the classroom-based field experiences university teacher education programs rely on for future teachers to observe and practice teaching has also been impacted. This semester, I am supervising student teachers who are teaching in K-12 classrooms at the culmination of their teacher preparation program. The K-12 classes in which my students are teaching have smaller class sizes than usual as a result of students split between in-person and online learning. When possible, desks are spaced far apart with students seated in rows, all facing the same direction. Students are not allowed to share supplies. I supervise future art teachers in art classrooms, and let me tell you, this is not how art classrooms typically look or function.

By the end of this semester, I will have conducted over 100 visits into classrooms, mostly in person. I have yet to observe students arguing over markers, pushing one another to get a better view of the teacher as thirty bodies huddle around a demonstration table, or responding offensively when their neighbor asks a question. I was initially concerned that the student teachers were not getting sufficient experience managing student misbehavior given the ways in which the pandemic has also sanitized classroom interactions.*

Managing student behavior is one of the components of the Danielson Framework for Teaching. The university I work for uses a slightly adapted version of this framework to evaluate student teachers, and we have years of data that suggest managing student behavior is one of the main things new teachers struggle to do well.

Without opportunities to fail at (i.e., to learn) addressing student misbehavior, I wondered how my students would fare post-pandemic, when classes will once again be packed with 30 students who all want the blue marker first. At this point I recognized the need to more intentionally foster specific dispositions that would likely help them successfully navigate those challenges.

Our university defines professional dispositions, in part, as “habits of thinking,” and our conceptual framework states, “Professional educators at Millersville University possess a broad set of skills and dispositions and a knowledge base that they are able to apply flexibly in response to new problems, drawing upon the appropriate strategies” (p. 3). Just as K-12 teachers prepare students for an uncertain future, teacher educators are preparing teachers for their future classrooms where they will encounter new problems mostly absent within their current situations.

What student teachers’ current situations do afford are reflection and collaboration. The existing triad of student teacher, cooperating teacher, and university supervisor is a generative means to foster two key dispositions in future teachers: a commitment to ongoing reflection and a desire to collaborate. Here’s my approach.

The constant feedback cycle student teachers experience via their cooperating teacher and university supervisor is unlikely to exist after student teaching. It is incumbent that I work to hand off the evaluation of the student teacher’s teaching to the student teacher over the course of the semester. Some strategies I use include:
• Allowing the student to reflect first (before the cooperating teacher or supervisor share their perspectives) after I observe their teaching.
• Generating a list of questions to ask the student following an observation rather than simply providing my feedback as statements.
• Asking my student (before I observe) if there is a specific aspect of their teaching on which they’d like me to focus my observation.
• Assigning students the task of self-assessing using the Danielson Framework, citing evidence from their teaching for their ratings.
Fostering students’ inclination to reflect offers them ownership and agency over their growth as a teacher. Reflection is a chance to learn rather than to spiral into shame and self-doubt when they fail (and they will fail).

The triad (university supervisor, cooperating teacher, and student teacher) is a remarkable opportunity afforded to student teachers. Three-way post-observation conferences that are focused on the student’s problems of practice model the value of collaboration and multiple perspectives. During those conferences, I often tell stories of what I saw in other classrooms (both struggles and successes) as a way for students to see themselves as part of a community of learners.

Four of my students referenced conversations they had with other student teachers about the issue we were discussing in post-observation conferences this week. I was encouraged to know that a month into student teaching, the students were starting to rely on one another to help troubleshoot their dilemmas and for ongoing support.

My focus on helping students begin to reflect on their teaching practice and see the value of collaboration leaves me confident that they will leave this semester ready for the responsibility of their own classroom, despite not having had a more typical experience student teaching. Developing these dispositions, it seems to me, is pandemic-proof teacher education.

*I don’t have room here to celebrate the ways the pandemic will likely leave them more prepared than previous student teachers for careers as teachers, but I see that happening, too!

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