Teaching Teachers

How Santa Clara University prepares future teachers as the coronavirus pandemic drastically alters education

Teaching Teachers

It’s only been about two months since the coronavirus pandemic emptied schools and workplaces in the Bay Area and beyond. And there are already lots of big questions being asked about how this time spent quarantining and social distancing will profoundly change us and have long-lasting impacts on major institutions, from the economy to education.

When Santa Clara University moved to virtual learning in mid-March, education faculty within the School of Education and Counseling Psychology (ECP) had to grapple with the question of how this pandemic will change the way they teach future teachers to, you know, teach.

“Right now, we’re in a difficult period of transformation that’s causing a lot of anxiety and confusion. But it’s a great time for experimentation,” says Keith Yocam M.A. ’07, a lecturer in the Department of Education and online education manager with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. A former elementary school teacher and manager with the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow program that investigated the impact of tech in classrooms, Yocam says the education community has long anticipated a transition into relying more on technology in the classroom and utilizing distance learning, they just didn’t expect the shift to be so sudden. But he’s not sweating it too much. “I look at this is a real opportunity for us.”

Something Yocam focuses a lot on when instructing the required Technology for K-12 Teachers course at SCU is preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. “We’re preparing kids for an unknown future, so we need to think about how to give them the 21st Century skills they need to prepare. It’s the same with teachers,” he says. “There’s an opportunity now for exploration, especially with regard to technology. There are a lot of really fantastic tech tools out there.”

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Keith Yocam M.A. ’07, a lecturer who instructs the Technology for K-12 Teachers course, focuses on how technology can be used effectively to teach students the 21st Century skills they need to prepare them for their futures. Photo courtesy Santa Clara University.

By being forced into the online realm due to school closures, teachers are having to challenge themselves and perhaps confront some styles and habits that were not super effective for their students. Utilizing more tech tools can provide more opportunities for students to better interact and engage with subject matter.

Future teachers, or pre-service teachers as ECP Teacher Education students are called, may already be quite comfortable with technology, many of whom are millennials or gen-Z who grew up with personal tech. “Our students are very savvy. They embrace technology,” Yocam says. “They use YouTube. Visual applications are big… They’re into interacting, and social media engagement.”

Kathy Stoehr
Associate Professor Kathy Stoehr, who focuses on preparing pre-service teachers to teach mathematics, says this sudden shift to distance learning is an opportunity to get creative and take risks. Photo courtesy Santa Clara University.

Perhaps most important is for education faculty to shift their own mindsets and not be afraid to fail, says Associate Professor of Mathematics Teacher Education Kathy Stoehr. “We have to show teachers that, hey, ‘This is opportunity.’ Not ‘this is a drag and when can we get back to normal?’” she says. This is a defining moment of change—a speeding train for which teachers can help design the tracks or watch as it passes by.

“For years, we’ve talked about having kids have their K-12 experiences partly online. Now we’re in a position where that’s maybe not going to be a choice, where we’re going to move from talking to actually doing,” Stoehr says. One positive example to come from such a move, she says, is that students who miss school due to sickness or familial circumstances are able to more easily catch up to their classmates in learning material. “We’re not just giving them a packet of stuff to do. Online, there’s a way for them to link back to the actual lesson because it was recorded.”

Morever, if, post-pandemic, schools debut smaller class sizes, that will always be beneficial. “If we have less kids in a classroom at one given time because half of them are working online while the other half is in-person before switching, that can improve teaching,” Stoehr says, referencing a hybrid model that’s been floated to ensure social distance safety guidelines can be maintained in classrooms.

In her own experience with quarantine-inspired distance teaching, she’s finding it better to break up her Zoom class into 12 students or less. “Even though it puts more of the onus on me, I’d much rather do that than be talking to a screen where I’m scrolling through multiple pages of participants to see who’s with me, who’s on their phone, and who’s completely bored because it isn’t interactive,” she says. “We have to model for our students how to better teach, and therefore for kids to better learn.”

Katie Brenny MATTC ’20 says though it’s been difficult to make the leap from in-person to virtual class, both as an SCU grad student and as a student teacher, she’s trying to look at this time to get creative and try new things. “It’s been kind of liberating,” she says.

Before her classes in South San Jose’s Oak Grove School District were moved online, Brenny was already thinking a lot about using technology to enhance student-learning, particularly with her combination 4th and 5th grade class—“things like creating podcasts for book reports.” Now, technology is everything: the classroom, the chalkboard, the testing, the socialization. She’s taken her students on virtual field trips to faraway places and taught them about osmosis by filming her experiment of soaking gummy bears in various substances and uploading to YouTube.

Katie Brenny on Zoom
Katie Brenny MATTC ’20, a student teacher in South San Jose, says she hung all the artwork she’s received from her students to boost her mood while adapting to virtual teaching. Screenshot captured by Lauren Loftus.

“I actually think collaboration can be stronger online,” she says of her students returning to the virtual classroom. “I think they’re less afraid to step on each other’s toes in an online format, so they’re sticking up for themselves more in projects…They’re a little more bold.”

On the flip side, “we’re going to see how unequal things are coming out of this pandemic in terms of access,” Brenny says. “We do have some students we haven’t seen [since closing] because they don’t have computers,” she says. “Some were given laptops from the district but they don’t have Internet…as much as we can ensure equal access to learning resources at school, there’s no way to ensure they have that same support and tech at home.” Online learning may seem like the great equalizer; as long as everyone has access to the necessary technology.

For now, Brenny is looking forward to graduating with her credential in June and getting her own classroom in whatever format possible. And though this whole thing—scrambling to turn paper lesson plans into online content, attempting to encourage struggling students through a screen, finding ways to engage bored kids in science—can feel overwhelming and sometimes discouraging, it never feels futile. “I think this has been an opportunity for teachers to get back to the passion they felt for teaching in the first place,” she says. “At least it has for me.”

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