Amidst school closures, UW welcomes new cohort of aspiring secondary teachers

May 18, 2020

For future teachers, the beginning of their preparation program is marked by trepidation in the best of times. Even as teacher candidates learn the skills of effective teaching, how to attend to the overall wellbeing of students and much more, many are getting their first real experience leading a classroom.

When the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated the closing of all schools across Washington state in early March, that trepidation became even more acute for teacher candidates starting their studies in the College of Education’s Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) later that month.

STEP Director Anne Beitlers said the first priority for the program was creating a sense of community.

“It was important to let our candidates know that we’re all in this journey together,” Beitlers said. “This is a new reality for both students and faculty. So, for example, in my case I'm going to problem solve in front of you and demonstrate how I reflect on my practice and how I also am a learner in this space, even though I've been teaching for 20 years.”

During a two-day orientation at the start of the program, the focus of STEP faculty was providing certainty for candidates wherever possible. For example, every instructor uses Google Slides with links inserted in the slides during their presentations, while Google Docs are used to capture individual processing of class material and record group discussions in real time.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in our world right now, so if we can help provide some certainty, we’re trying to do that,” Beitlers said.

At the same time, STEP faculty regularly check in with candidates about their physical, mental and emotional wellness. Beitlers noted that during the pandemic, candidates are facing more disruptions in their lives, from childcare to financial stresses.

“We understand that candidates might have to miss something,” she said. “We can model that, ‘Hey, you know what, this is not a surprise that you're having a hard time sitting down and getting through the content. So, what is it that we can do to help you here to make sure you understand this concept?’ That responsiveness is a commitment we want our candidates to take with them into the classroom.”

Adapting to school closures

While the abrupt, mid-week transition to remote learning created chaos for teachers and students alike, STEP instructor Tina Gourd said her own research also pointed to opportunity amidst that confusion.

“Ambiguity is a prime opportunity for individuals to assert their voices and their power,” Gourd said. “This quarantine created plenty of ambiguity; therefore, there was also plenty of space for agency.”

In previous years, STEP candidates would spend the spring quarter observing and learning about the student experience in local middle schools. With K-12 instruction moved online, however, the program has organized candidates into practical learning groups that have each adopted a local school in order to explore its broader community context.

And, to better understand the student experience in a middle school, especially for students from marginalized identities, candidates are watching videos of students in action in school. They are also reading and watching testimonials from students of color.

In addition, STEP candidates will for the first time gain experience creating online learning modules in addition to in-person curricula during their preparation program.

“We have an opportunity now to do that thinking and work with our candidates so they enter the field with experience teaching online,” Beitlers said.

Gourd, who is responsible for 17 social studies candidates in the current STEP cohort, reached out to local teachers who help mentor UW teacher candidates to see if they’d be willing to share their challenges moving to the new world of remote learning. In return, Gourd offered to have teacher candidates write curricula during spring quarter that those mentor teachers could use with their students in the new remote learning context.

“For their first-ever lesson plans, our new teacher candidates are planning inquiries, designed explicitly for remote instruction contexts, tailored specifically to the needs of an actual social studies teacher,” Gourd said.

Looking to the future

While the current pandemic will come to an end, Beitlers said the experience has presented STEP with an opportunity to reflect on what changes it might want to hold onto and how it can continue to adapt. For example, she noted the intensity of the year-long program for candidates who are juggling classes, field experiences in local schools and their personal lives.

“I think our program can engage with whether there are times when being online with each other instead of in person could make our candidates’ lives a little bit more manageable,” she said.

The pandemic has also demonstrated the importance of preparing K-12 educators to enter the profession with the skills to effectively teach online.

That includes being proficient in using various online learning applications, Beitlers said, but also gaining online presentation skills, thinking through what needs to be done together synchronously versus what can be done asynchronously, what should be done as a whole group versus what should be done in small groups, and managing and assessing small groups.

“Maybe it’s not a pandemic but an earthquake or something else could happen where school systems need to shift to remote instruction,” Beitlers said. “We’re also learning there are circumstances where some amount of online instruction can benefit student learning. We’re learning so much right now and it’s going to help us make sure our candidates are ready for whatever the future holds.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications