How Clemson’s College of Education, its student teachers and numerous partner districts adapted to COVID-19

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Teacher resident Katherine Armstrong (left) and master teacher Sarah Day first met during the College of Education’s Teacher Residency kickoff celebration on Jan. 17, 2019.
Image Credit: Katherine Armstrong

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused Powdersville High School to move all instruction online in early March, the school’s educators operated under the assumption that most others in the state did: this would be temporary, and they would be back in the classroom by the time spring break ended.

However, before spring break even arrived, it started to become clear to teachers, staff and students that they may very well be finishing out the year online.

Sarah Day, math teacher at Powdersville High School and master teacher in Clemson’s teacher residency program, is thankful she at least wasn’t alone as this curveball arrived. Her teacher resident, Katherine Armstrong, was already in the first week of her four-week instruction takeover when she and Day had to suddenly make two-week stopgap plans work for the remainder of the school year.

Armstrong went into teacher residency and student teaching expecting the unexpected in addition to valuable insight into education. She’s fairly sure that improvising classroom delivery during a pandemic qualifies as both.

“I had been there all year, so this was the culmination for me; I’m just sad I didn’t get to spend more time with my students during my class takeover,” Armstrong said. “But being forced to adjust and adapt to a situation that changed so quickly was a learning experience.”

Powdersville High School had decided to use a program called Edgenuity, which contained pre-recorded videos, modules and pre-loaded assignments. According to Armstrong, this format would have been fine in the short term, but she and Day saw that things would need to change once it was clear two weeks would extend further into the year.

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Armstrong (left) and Day included their pets during e-learning updates in late March during Powdersville High School’s virtual spirit week.
Image Credit: Katherine Armstrong

They held several online meetings discussing ways to supplement the lessons. They ended up using the existing modules as a foundation for students that they could build on via large and small group meetings as well as one-on-one tutoring. The occasional supplemental video uploaded to the class has also gone a long way to further explain concepts.

Day said she and Armstrong have complemented one another well throughout the year, but the adaptation to e-learning was a truly unexpected test for Armstrong and for their effectiveness as a team. Day said that after daily phone or video conferencing and multiple instances of Armstrong going above and beyond, it’s clear she’s risen to the occasion.

“We’re doing the best we can to make the most out of the time we still have together with our students this year,” Day said. “She’s still planning instruction and recording videos for students; she even stepped in to administer tests when I lost power during a recent storm. She’s gone above and beyond.”

While Armstrong was concerned with fulfilling her obligations to students, the College of Education worked with multiple schools and school districts scrambling to define what the rest of the semester would look like for its teachers, and by extension around 400 student teachers across traditional student teaching, the teacher residency program and including early field placements and practicum students.

According to Leigh Martin, executive director of the office of field and clinical partnerships and outreach in Clemson’s College of Education, the early days were filled with addressing unanswerable questions and easing fears.

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Leigh Martin (right) worked with dozens of teacher-student pairs as well as partner districts to adjust numerous processes during COVID-19.
Image Credit: Katherine Armstrong

“It felt a lot like running triage; we had worried students and because district responses weren’t identical across the board, we didn’t always know what to tell them,” Martin said, “but we made sure to communicate early and clearly that no matter what happens, they should follow the lead of their cooperating teacher or master teacher and see how they could most effectively help.”

Martin said the college has been able to fall back on information from the State Department of Education since that office is what ultimately certifies teachers. As of this writing, the state department has created a policy that allows higher education institutions more flexibility on requirements to complete certification, so Martin and university supervisors have in turn altered requirements for end-of-semester work.

However, Martin thinks Clemson students preparing for their first year of teaching are already in a good position to do so, simply because all programs in the college go well beyond what’s required for early field placements, and students have multiple in-class experiences before their final semester even starts.

“I’ve been in constant contact with all of our university supervisors, and aside form a few students who are needing a little extra help finishing a random assignment, they’re reporting minimal issues,” Martin said. “I had one supervisor who told me they’ve heard from all 10 of their students three times a week, and they’re encouraged by how well our Clemson students have adapted to online-only instruction.”

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Armstrong (left) and Day both dressed as Bugs Bunny from the movie “Space Jam” during a pre-COVID-19 spirit week.
Image Credit: Katherine Armstrong

Day said that even though she and Armstrong are still in the midst of wrapping up the academic year, she has full confidence in Armstrong’s abilities as a first-year teacher. Day said it is hard to compare work and talk improvement over time when the work environment has changed so completely, but she can say Armstrong has done everything in her power to maintain contact with her, the students and their parents while remaining open to helping finish the year in any way she can.

Armstrong said the experience has forced her to become more competent and “fluid” when it comes to her use of technology. She already sees the benefit during her first years as a teacher to create material online that will supplement instruction or aid a substitute teacher when she is out of the classroom.

Armstrong said she has also seen on a personal level what truly matters to students. She’s learned you can’t teach math while ignoring the elephant in the room; students need to feel safe before any instruction can happen. She learned from Day that addressing the situation directly and letting students know that their teacher is there for them during an unprecedented situation helped them get back to work.

“I think my main takeaway is that I’m not cut out to be a purely virtual teacher,” Armstrong said, laughing. “I love seeing my students every day, and that’s why I want to teach. I like math, but I love kids, and this experience has only made that clearer to me.”

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