When Rachael Smith was growing up in the schools of Vallejo, California, the recent OU early childhood education graduate was hungry for the support she lacked at her home.
That’s where Mrs. Russell, Smith’s third grade teacher, stepped in.
Russell would come to school early to read stories to her students and stay late to help them with math. Russell took the time to care about each student individually.
“She made all of us feel loved multiple times a day,” Smith said. “When we went out to recess, every single time, she would give us a hug. And as soon as we were coming back in, she’d give us a hug and say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’”
In a time when Smith needed guidance and understanding in her emotional growth, her teacher was there for her.
“She just kind of changed everything for me,” Smith said.
Now, degree in hand and hired to teach kindergarten at Norman’s Kennedy Elementary, the Air Force veteran said it’s her turn to inspire the next generation and be someone else’s “Mrs. Russell.”
“I feel like she changed my world,” Smith said. “And that's what I want to be for kids. I want to be that person that makes them feel the way that she made me feel.”
In a world unable to hug every child as they walk through the door, Smith will have to make that meaningful connection socially distanced, behind a mask or through a computer screen.
For Smith and the thousands of other education graduates and students across the country, the last semester of their degree programs — a full-time student teaching internship — is designed to prepare them for the reality of managing a classroom of students. But when universities across the country went online and public schools shut down as COVID-19 began to spread, student teachers were left to salvage what preparation they could from stunted internships.
Five months and a new reality later, they now must confront one of the most daunting obstacles teachers have faced in generations — a pandemic — in their first jobs.
‘Everything just stopped’
Smith interned at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, working with a class of first-graders for the first half of the spring semester. One week before spring break, she switched to a second-grade classroom.
For three days, Smith helped her students learn how to count and exchange currency and encouraged them through St. Patrick’s Day art projects and readings. Because her school held parent-teacher conferences at the end of the week, Smith said goodbye to her students after three days, not knowing it would be the last time she saw them in person.
“I had been starting to know them better,” Smith said. “And I was learning most of their names. And then everything just stopped.”
Smith wasn’t alone in experiencing the abrupt end to her student teaching internship. Sydney Warrick’s fifth-grade class at McKinley Elementary School in Norman was deep into state testing preparation when the pandemic hit.
Since January, Warrick, now an OU elementary education graduate and incoming teacher at Jenks Elementary, had been helping her cooperating teacher — a supervising teacher whose class student teachers work with — prepare and teach lessons on subjects like fractions, grammar, earth science and the Revolutionary War. Warrick was also gearing up for “teach weeks,” the final stage in her internship when she’d have a class to herself for two full weeks.
That stage never came.
“That was probably my biggest (disappointment) of this semester, was not having those two weeks where I was the teacher,” Warrick said. “It'll just be an interesting time experiencing my own classroom (this school year) when I haven't really had that experience yet.”
Smith also wished she’d been able to complete her “teach weeks” — something she’d been looking forward to all semester.
“I guess I feel kind of robbed in a way,” Smith said. “I’ve been in my program for four years. I have done all the readings and all the assignments. But there’s nothing like getting that hands-on experience in a classroom — you can’t get that from a book. … And now, I’m kind of nervous for the school year to start just because I could’ve used a little more practice.”
At McKinley, like all other Norman Public Schools, administrators decided to switch classes to all-online after spring break and froze all students’ grades. Teachers were instructed to review and enrich but not to teach new content because not all students had access to remote learning resources.
Warrick and her cooperating teacher held virtual office hours for students to schedule one-on-one interactions, and once a week the class gathered on Zoom for a session. At first, it seemed like a workable solution.
“The first few (online classes) went great — (the students) were all super involved,” Warrick said. “And then after about week three or four, it just kind of started dwindling and dwindling.”
Attendance deteriorated for many reasons — limited internet access, declining motivation for learning ungraded subject matter and the mounting stress from simply trying to live through a pandemic.
“So after spring break, there were some students I just never saw again, which is really sad,” Warrick said. “And it was just kind of weird because no one was really prepared (with) a definite ‘goodbye.’”
‘Unprepared for the situation that we’ve been thrust into’
Sometimes, instead of listening to the teacher, students used the video chat sidebar to catch up with the friends they could no longer pass crinkled notes to. Understanding was a challenge through patchy internet connections and forgotten “mute” buttons. Teachers became tech consultants attempting to fix students’ remote issues.
It all, Hannah Schnelle said, meant holding students’ attention throughout the class period — a feat in person — became a folly from afar.
Schnelle — another recent OU elementary education graduate who taught fifth-graders at Norman’s Monroe Elementary during her internship — said when her class went all online, she didn’t see much academic growth from students. However, she felt like those online meetings were especially enriching for students stranded at home, starved for social interaction.
“I think (online classes) did help them still with connecting with one another,” Schnelle said. “And the teachers (could tell) because when they logged on, they’d start chatting with their friends. You could tell that they missed each other, they missed the social aspect of (school).”
Despite her cooperating teacher’s efforts, online learning presented challenges that Schnelle, her teacher and her students hadn’t anticipated.
“A few students would be playing with their dog or their cat and they’d get distracted,” Schnelle said. “But honestly, when I was in there, I’d get distracted too, because I'm home too.”
While OU’s Jeannine Rainbolt School of Education offers a technology class, Schnelle and other OU student teachers said it shows future teachers how to use apps and equipment for mainly in-classroom use. OU does not require education graduates to take any coursework on online teaching pedagogy.
In contrast, while the University of Central Oklahoma did not offer an online teaching pedagogy course last semester, a spokesperson for the university’s College of Education and Professional Studies said it added a course, "Online Learning for Pre-K through 8th Grade," to its summer schedule and may add the course to its fall or spring semester.
Now, as Schnelle faces the prospect of remote education during her first year of teaching fourth grade social studies at Little Axe Elementary in Norman, she feels like OU has adequately prepared her for a normal school year. However, she said, this year won’t be anything resembling normal.
“I definitely think I’m prepared for actually teaching and going into the classroom,” Schnelle said. “But also (I’m) unprepared for the situation that we’ve been thrust into, as well as all the technology aspects and just how to bring in what we’ve learned into our first year of teaching (during a pandemic).”
OU early childhood education graduate Chelsea Schreiber, who interned at Epperly Heights Elementary in Del City, thinks OU should equip future teachers with the resources they need to successfully teach online.
“I definitely think (OU offering a virtual learning class) is something worth looking into,” Schreiber said. “It seems like more universities and K-12 schools are kind of transitioning (to offering online courses) anyway. (A virtual learning class) would be part of the solution in making sure that the teachers who are teaching on this platform are high-quality.”
Aiyana Henry, OU’s associate dean for professional education, said in an email to The Daily the school is “always in conversation” on the best ways in which to prepare teacher candidates.
“This is a situation that I don’t believe any of us could have ever imagined, and while we never thought teaching virtually or at a distance would be something teachers would be facing long-term, many of the tools we have taught our teacher candidates will translate into this new environment,” Henry said. “We will continue to evaluate the different skills our students will need in the changing landscape of education.”
Henry added that OU’s technology course features training in applications that can be used in remote learning.
Schreiber, who accepted a kindergarten teaching position at Mid-Del’s Parkview Elementary, said her biggest concern with online classes is teachers missing key indicators that a student is being neglected or abused. Teachers are mandatory reporters, which means they must report to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services if they suspect a student is being or is in danger of being neglected or abused.
“That is such a huge role of a teacher,” Schreiber said. “To be that advocate, be that supporter of each child, and not to let anybody feel like they’re just kind of left in the shadows if they’re not that talkative in a Zoom class call.”
As someone familiar with the impact an engaged teacher can have on students’ lives, Smith is especially troubled by what she won’t be able to see about her Kennedy Elementary students through a computer screen.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of kids who fall through those cracks and don’t get the help they need,” Smith said. “I feel like (abuse and neglect) has probably happened to a lot of kids in the past couple of months because there’s no one there to report it.”
Even before the pandemic, Oklahoma ranked the highest in the nation for Adverse Childhood Experiences. According to Oklahoma’s DHS, in fiscal year 2019 the agency confirmed over 15,000 cases of child abuse and neglect — nearly twice the national average.
If her class goes completely online, Smith hopes to make attendance mandatory so she can watch for troubling behaviors. She said seeing physical signs of abuse may not be doable on a virtual platform.
“(In an online class), we can only see certain amounts of their bodies, like their faces and maybe their arms,” Smith said. “So physical markings, we wouldn’t be able to probably see. But behavioral changes — often things overlap from physical to behavioral, so we can at least notice some behavioral issues that might be happening online.”
As if that’s not daunting enough, Smith is also planning for something she never thought she’d have to teach — preparing kindergarteners to deal with grief and mourning from losing loved ones to COVID-19.
“How can I prepare them for that?” Smith asked. "And I mean, as much as you don’t want to talk about that with kindergarteners, it is something that’s going to be a potential (issue). … How do we adequately talk about grief, and what does it feel like, and how do we deal with it?”
And then, there is growing concern for susceptibility for children themselves to COVID-19.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, as of July 24, over 10 percent of all reported COVID-19 cases in the state involved people under 18. The Oklahoman reported a 13-year-old from Fort Sill was the state’s first child death, July 10, due to the virus.
‘We just have to do the hard thing’
Cassia Boaz’s excitement for her final year at OU has now morphed into a cloud of apprehension and uncertainty.
Boaz, an early childhood education rising senior, taught and observed at OU’s Institute of Child Development three hours per week for the first half of the spring semester. Just as Boaz was transitioning to a kindergarten class at a local public school for the second half of the semester, the school shut down.
Boaz’s husband, who has cystic fibrosis, diabetes and had a lung transplant, is at an extremely high risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19.
“I don't want to get my husband sick, because if my husband gets sick, he’s going to die,” Boaz said. “So I'm thinking when I have all of these huge, risky things, do I need to stop and just quit school?”
Boaz, who is nine credit hours from finishing her degree and depends on OU’s Debt-Free Teachers program to pay partially for her student loans, said quitting isn’t an option. To keep her family safe, she expects to live separately if she isn’t able to complete her student teaching online.
“(Living apart) would be hard,” Boaz said. “It would be so hard, but I can't think of any way else we could do it. I mean, dropping out of school doesn't really seem like an option. … (We’re) trying to wait it out, wait for vaccines (and) wait for people to get a better handle on this because people are still in denial. (But) I really don't see any way around (living apart).”
Upon graduating and getting a teaching job, Boaz plans for her husband to stay home and take care of his health.
“I’m going to do what I have to do to finish my degree,” Boaz said. “But I’m going to ask and speak up for what I need and hope (OU will) be accommodating. And if my husband and I do have to live apart, then that’s just what we’ll have to do.”
At 30, Boaz understands why her younger classmates are resistant to teaching and learning online this fall. But for Boaz’s family, the risk is too high.
“I get it,” Boaz said. “I mean, I wish this wasn’t happening, and I want to just move on. With all this hard work we’ve done in school over the years and then to have it just outside of our grasp — it’s kind of surreal.”
Boaz said “more than anything,” she wants to be in the classroom with her students, and she recognizes the value that in-person learning and interacting has for children. But in a crisis as serious as COVID-19, she said going online would be a “short-term sacrifice for long-term success.”
Just as teachers encourage their students to put in the work and do the right thing, even when it’s challenging or inconvenient, Boaz said Oklahoma needs to take a page from the educators’ playbook in its response to the pandemic.
“I feel like we just have to do the hard thing so that we can get back to normal sooner,” Boaz said. “I don’t think living in denial and pretending it doesn’t exist is going to do anything.”
The Oklahoma Media Center is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. This story is part of that effort.