Yates Elementary School first-grade teacher Erin Backaus prepared for what she knew would be a school year unlike any in her 16 years as an educator. Kaitlyn Strangis, a student teacher joining Backaus this year as part of a two-year placement, prepared for her first year in a classroom.
“It’s definitely a unique situation for Kaitlyn,” Backaus said in a recent interview. “Everything looks so different.”
The pair spaced desks six feet apart, removed the soft furniture they won’t be able to use this year and prepared to teach students wearing facemasks and grappling with the social and emotional fallout of a global pandemic. The teachers adopted a flexible approach, knowing they would need to respond to the needs of their students and be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice.
“There is no program that says how to be a virtual teacher, we are really just flying by the seat of our pants,” Strangis said. “I saw it as an opportunity. We can say kids are missing out and it’s not the same, but we still have a job and responsibility to do, and that is to make sure kids learn, that they are loved and cared for and safe in our hands.”
Strangis joined Backaus’ classroom — which was moved from Yates to Zoller Elementary School after the district closed half of its buildings to save money — as part of Classroom Academy, a program that places student teachers in local districts for two-year placements. Schenectady joined the program last year and maintained its student-teacher placements this year, despite massive layoffs imposed in September.
The placements extend well beyond typical student-teacher placements and state requirements but aim to develop a new model for teacher preparation, one that gives student-teachers a chance to experience the entire classroom experience from the first to the last day of school. And then again the next year.
“Because we are longer, we have more opportunities for [the student-teachers] to really weather a storm like this and get the full experience,” said Colleen McDonald, who manages the Classroom Academy program, which is run through the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Essex-Hamilton BOCES.
McDonald said the program currently has seven students placed in Schenectady schools and a smaller number placed in the Cambridge, Stillwater and Beekmantown school districts. The pandemic disrupted efforts to expand to new places as districts brace for budget cuts and some people who had considered changing careers into education put those plans on pause in the face of economic uncertainty.
But for the teachers who continued placements from last year or started new ones this year, McDonald said they will have a learning experience that will serve them well into their careers. And she said the support of experienced teachers will go a long way for student teachers entering a classroom during a tumultuous time in education.
“This is the kind of experience that drives early-career educators out of the field, but they actually have support built in as they learn this,” McDonald said.
Some districts and teachers have passed on student-teacher placements this year, complicating the work of teacher preparation programs working to ensure prospective teachers have the opportunity to meet teacher certification requirements during the pandemic. State officials eased the rules of the placements to enable student teachers to work in an all-remote environment, but interim state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa still had to send a letter to districts earlier this month encouraging them to maintain student-teacher programs this school year.
“During this time of unprecedented uncertainty and challenge, it is more important than ever to ensure that the pipeline of prospective teachers remains open and active,” Rosa wrote in the message to districts.
Jason Lane, dean of the University at Albany School of Education, said some of the college’s students struggled to finalize placements this year but that all have been able to do so. He said some are joining all-remote classes — including some who have taken remote placements in New York City schools — while others are working in in-person classes. While the placements were more work to finalize than in previous years, Lane said every student was able to be placed somewhere.
Lane said the broader education community has been bracing for a teacher shortage in recent years and that the shortage has only been exacerbated since the pandemic. The pandemic caused many older educators to move up retirement plans, Lane said, and educators worry the stress the pandemic has caused on the education system will turn people away from teaching.
“On the one hand, I’m concerned that what happened recently may discourage young people from going into teaching,” Lane said. “On the other hand, I’m hoping some of them [young people] will have seen the incredibly important role teachers play in their their lives, and they will be inspired by it and consider pursuing a career as a teacher.”
Lane said the college actually saw an increase in students enrolled in its programs this fall: the school of education’s overall enrollment climbed from 1,188 in fall 2019 to 1,282 this fall.
Strangis, a graduate student in SUNY Plattsburgh’s teacher education program, has helped to effectively shrink the student-teacher ratio in Backaus’ first grade class and played a key role supporting students as they caught up from a disrupted kindergarten year. She has also helped develop activities that utilize the new technologies at play in classrooms.
“We are going to have that much more opportunity to utilize Kaitlyn, and she has such a larger opportunity to learn,” Backaus said. “Not only is Kaitlyn learning from observing me, I’m actually learning from Kaitlyn. She is from a younger generation, where she does all of these unique things.”
Strangis said she has learned this year that things don’t always go as planned and that she will have to be willing to be flexible in the classroom — when one thing doesn’t work, try something different.
“Sometimes our applications, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t work. Flexibility has been huge,” Strangis said. “Teachers normally plan everything and this is something none of us have planned for. Not only are the kids learning, but we are learning too.”
Backaus said the flexibility Strangis is learning this year will come in handy throughout her career.
“If this was her very first year, she will be able to adjust to everything,” Backaus said.
‘Prepared for anything’
Connor Kuebler, also a student at SUNY Platssburgh, is in his second year in the program at Oneida Middle School. Working with classroom teacher Richard DeCarr, Kuebler said his experience starting last year, working with DeCarr through an overnight shift to online learning and then being a part of the mixed model of both in-person and remote education this year, has given him a wide-ranging experience as a student teacher.
“I couldn’t imagine having to be a teacher with only 12 weeks of student-teaching experience,” Kuebler said.“I’ve got experience teaching fully in-person, teaching full online and now experience in a hybrid classroom. I feel like I’m pretty much prepared for anything.”
DeCarr said the extended length of Kuebler’s placement allows him to become part of the classroom community and gain a better understanding of the small things that go into building a productive learning environment for students. The placement has also given DeCarr a chance to reflect on his own practices.
“I was learning a lot about my own practice by having to explain it to someone else,” DeCarr said.
Like Backaus, DeCarr also said he was grateful to have an extra teacher in the classroom this year, enabling that much more one-one-one time with students, especially since health precautions put in place this year has limited the number of students in class each day.
“It’s six-to-one,” DeCarr said of the smaller-than-usual class size. “That [student-to-teacher] ratio doesn’t exist anywhere in urban education.”
Kuebler said the students have adapted well to the new rules and demonstrated a desire for staying in school.
“They are happy to come here every day, and they don’t want to jeopardize that,” he said.