If all had gone as planned, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh senior Samantha Panther would still be bouncing back and forth between three different schools in Neenah.
Her days would look much like they did earlier in the year, when she be split time between one of two elementary schools and the high school in Neenah, teaching physical education to students ranging from first-graders up to juniors and seniors.
Panther—or Ms. Panther, as she’s so proud to be called—and her students would spend their time running, jumping, sweating and laughing.
In person. Together.
“I loved it,” Panther said of the stretch of about two months she spent student teaching in the Neenah school district before mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. “It was a great experience.”
While there’s still some running, jumping, sweating and laughing, the in-person togetherness is no longer possible. Neenah, like so many other school districts nationwide, has moved instruction online.
That leaves Panther, a physical education major, trying to get her students moving from behind a computer screen in her hometown of Schaumburg, Illinois.
“I wish I could be there having more experiences with my kids and with the teachers,” she said. “I loved being there. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life so I really enjoyed it.”
‘A difficult time for everyone’
Like many seniors at UW Oshkosh and beyond, education majors have had their final semester shaken up indefinitely. It’s time that had for years been planned to include several months of real-world experience in the classroom but is now strictly virtual.
“It’s a learning experience,” said Haleigh Brickey, a senior from Sheboygan studying early childhood and special education. “I kind of have to laugh because I realize that’s kind of what teaching is in general—you have a game plan in your head but it always skews from that exact game plan.
“It’s a lot like that in a way. It tests your flexibility.”
Brickey is in the early-goings of a student teaching placement with a fifth-grade class at Pier Elementary School in Fond du Lac. It’s the second of her two nine-week placements. Her first, at Bessie Allen Middle School in North Fond du Lac, only had its last week disrupted. This time much—if not all—of the work will be done online.
UWO education majors are required to complete a full semester of student teaching in a K-12 school in order to be eligible for a teaching license. Before Gov. Tony Evers announced the closing of all of the state’s public and private schools on March 13, there were about 120 UWO student teachers placed around the state.
UWO College of Education and Human Services Associate Dean Eric Brunsell said in the face of quickly changing circumstances, he’s been excited to see how these students have responded.
“This is a difficult time for everyone,” he said. “In addition to the tremendous disruption to K-12 schools, our students also have had to adjust to keeping themselves healthy, helping roommates move home, moving themselves, transition to working from home and lots of unknowns as to how this would impact their ability to graduate and get their teaching license.
“None of this has stopped them from continuing to support the K-12 teachers and students they have been working with for the past few months.”
‘There’s a silver lining’
UWO alumna Nikki Pruett ’15, is the fifth-grade teacher partnered up with Brickey. Now a few years into her teaching career, this is the first time she’s taken on a student teacher, so the two of them have plenty of new experiences ahead. And that was the case before the pandemic.
Brickey is now trying to make connections with students while not being able to interact with them in person. That is a tough task even for teachers with years of experience.
One approach many teachers are using is through videos shot with a smart phone or laptop. To introduce herself to the new class, Brickey jumped right in, filming herself singing a parody of the Justin Bieber song “Intentions” with new lyrics about, well, her intentions for the rest of the semester.
“I have been blown away so far with how she is taking not only these curveballs, but learning along with me and through the videos I share,” Pruett said. “She has handled this transition beautifully.”
With Panther’s subject matter, too, videos have been a big help. (“YouTube definitely has been my savior through all this,” she joked.”) One of her early success stories was calling on her third-, fourth- and fifth- grade students to film themselves doing their favorite dance from the Fortnite video game. It resulted in more responses than any of the other fitness challenges or other prompts she’d issued so far.
For her high school students, it’s a different approach. She said the students will be logging their physical activity each day—with help from smart watches and apps—and tracking things like nutrition and how much sleep they get at night. Instead of the sometimes silly ways teachers try to get youngsters moving, the focus for older students is to teach them how to take better care of themselves.
“There’s a silver lining in this,” Panther said. “It’s a challenge, it’s a change, it’s a new experience.”
Titans rise to the challenge
With a month and a half in a kindergarten classroom under her belt, senior elementary education major Megan Stecklein felt like she was hitting her stride. She was starting to incorporate things she’d learned into her daily practice. Had things continued on as normal, by this time she would likely have been teaching full days at H.B. Patch Elementary in Omro.
She’s now adjusting to the new normal of online learning, an especially tricky thing when dealing with kindergarteners. It takes a lot of cooperation from parents or guardians, and some families are better equipped than others for this type of schooling.
From her hometown of Peosta, Iowa, Stecklein said the experience of teaching through this kind of crisis is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she’s making the best of it.
“I’m learning so many different skills to be able to teach not just in the classroom, but I can apply the skills I’m learning by teaching online to my own practice when I have my own classroom,” she said. “I think I’ve learned a lot about different resources that are available that I would not have if this didn’t happen.”
When not focused on her students in Omro, she’s begun to use her extra time to help out other children in her neighborhood. She’s now tutoring three elementary students whose schools have shut down over COVID-19 fears.
“They’re a little older but at least I get to be with kids,” she said.
Helping out family friends helps, but student teachers are still missing out on the classic face-to-face experiences with children they so deeply love. Kim Woodkey is the wellness education teacher at Wilson Elementary School and one of the teachers paired with Panther. Woodkey said she, like the students, would have had opportunities to learn from Panther during in-person instruction and other collaborations.
There’ll still be learning—it’ll just be of a different sort.
“Sam is an excellent student teacher and will handle this like a pro,” Woodkey said. “I just feel sad that I won’t be able to watch her teach in person.”
All this innovation is happening while educators, students and parents wonder whether or not the school year will resume in the more traditional fashion before summer break. The answer for now is unknown, so the educators are focusing on only what they can control.
“It’s overwhelming but I’m getting through it, I’m adapting to it,” Panther said. “It’s been easy but it’s been difficult too, because you’d rather be in school with kids. But it’s challenging me to be a better teacher.”