On a mid-March afternoon in 2020 Eliza Meltzer ’19, MAT ’20, exited through the doors of Worcester’s Jacob Hiatt Magnet School after completing another day of student teaching. She had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was about to bring the last few months of her Master of Arts in Teaching program to an abrupt end.
“It was just shocking. We had gone home from school after a totally normal day,” Meltzer says. “News about COVID circulated, they canceled school, and then [Education Department Chair] Holly Dolan called us and said our placement was over.”
The MAT program typically ends with a two-week classroom “takeover,” where students act as the lead instructor at their Worcester Public School placement after months of observing a teacher mentor. Students graduating in spring 2020 never got that chance.
“That would have been the first time we were the lead teachers. All the decisions would have been up to us,” says Meltzer. “That experience would have made me feel like I could teach in my own classroom.”
For nearly two years, Clark’s MAT students entered the teaching profession in a world dramatically altered by the pandemic. Under unprecedented circumstances, they were challenged to hold classes through Zoom technology and, when schools reopened, from behind masks.
Meltzer was hired as a full-time teacher at Jacob Hiatt in September 2020, but had to pivot to create virtual teaching strategies for her third graders, a departure from what she’d envisioned for the start of her career.
“I was incredibly lucky because I started where I did student teaching — at least I knew what the building looked like and had met my coworkers before,” she says. “I still had a connection with my mentor teacher. But it really was like being thrown to the wolves.”
Kacey Legare ’19, MAT ’20, wanted to launch her teaching career in a place where she could experience new cultures. She got a job at Makakilo Elementary School in Hawaii and led the district’s virtual learning program when remote learning was instituted. Keeping up with policy changes from her district and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added extra responsibility to her teaching duties.
“The biggest challenge for me was how often changes occurred,” she recalls.
After a few months of distance teaching, Legare finally was able to teach a classroom of fourth graders in person. But it was far from the experience she’d imagined. COVID restrictions in Hawaii prevented students from engaging in typical elementary school activities like reading with a partner or sharing materials. In Hawaii, students and teachers still must wear masks in school.
“COVID changed everything. It changed how I view the profession, it changed my expectations, it changed how I do my job,” she says. “I’m doing what teachers are expected to do and I’m doing what students need, but I do feel very eager and excited to return to the idea I had of what teaching could be. I know that it will get more stable, and things will look different.”
Thomas Del Prete, director of the Adam Institute for Urban Teaching and School Practice, says faculty were challenged not only to help MAT students learn to teach, but to learn to teach in a modality that was unfamiliar.
“To remotely teach others how to teach remotely became our task; for the most part, we were traveling blind,” he says. “What helped all of us — faculty, MATs, and the teachers in the schools — was that we were all learning and recognized that we needed to learn from each other. In a sense, we created a different kind of learning community to help all of us navigate and work in a virtual space.”
Sophie Kelliher ’20, MAT ’21, completed her student teaching at Woodland Academy in Worcester while the district was in remote learning mode. Teaching math was difficult because she couldn’t walk around a classroom to observe student work. While trying to learn new subjects from home, some students struggled to get reliable Wi-Fi or had to spend time looking after younger siblings.
“We all had to try things, fail, and then make them better. It was challenging to get kids to come online,” says Kelliher, who is now a second-grade dual language teacher at Woodland. About 60 percent of her daily teaching is in Spanish.
The Worcester Public Schools moved to optional hybrid learning when Kelliher was doing her teacher “takeover.” Half of her students opted to stay remote.
“I had to open up Zoom for half my students and I had the other half in the classroom with me,” Kelliher says. “It was hard to figure out how to make it fair and spread my attention so that everybody felt like I’m still their teacher.”
Kelliher managed the mix of remote and in-person students with group projects, assigning specific jobs so everyone felt included.
“Even in remote learning, you still have to slow down your instruction for students to understand. You still have to reteach concepts,” Kelliher says.
Many children found it difficult to adjust to remote learning while others thrived at home, the teachers say.
“It has been great for some students to express their learning in different ways, but overall I have seen a decrease in student social-emotional regulation,” Legare says. “Fourth graders should be somewhat independent. There’s an expectation that you can give direction and they can complete work with partners, or on their own, but my students have needed a lot of review and explicit instruction on how to be a good teammate, how to disagree with someone. These are skills they missed from being apart for so long.”
Meltzer and Kelliher have also seen gaps in learning and social skills.
“It takes a lot of time to try and get them to slow down, take a breath, and solve a problem,” Meltzer says.
Kelliher’s second graders needed to start the current school year learning letter names and sounds, a concept they typically master in kindergarten. They also struggle with classroom decorum.
“Not being in a physical space together was just challenging,” she says. “To be able to communicate well, to use nice words — socially they were very behind. They struggled to problem-solve with words or even to have the ability to say ‘I’m sorry.’”
One silver lining of the pandemic was that it highlighted just how resilient children are, Legare says.
“Kids are extremely capable of rising to challenges, understanding technology, and interpreting complex data,” she says. “They’re capable of helping their siblings learn while they’re learning.”
Though not physically together for much of the pandemic, the new teachers still built bonds with their students.
“Being welcomed into their homes online brought us very close together,” Kelliher says. “We were all trying to support each other and learned about compassion.”