Online Learning Still Produces Great Teachers: A Q&A with the MAT Program Directors
As school districts in Oregon extend plans for comprehensive distance learning into 2021, MAT program directors Linda Griffin (elementary) and Liza Finkel (secondary) share their thoughts on the online learning experience—the unexpected bright spots, how they continue to foster collaboration and support, and why everything learned in a remote environment will transfer seamlessly to in-person instruction.
Their ultimate message is this: Lewis & Clark prepares great teachers who are innovative and student-centered. That is true no matter what happens in our world or where our learning takes place. Teachers with the passion to make a difference for the K-12 students they work with and who have the the skills to make that happen in schools will always be in demand.
How is your program operating in regards to in-person classes, online classes, and practicum?
Linda Griffin: The elementary MAT program has operated with classes in a distance learning format since the start of the program in June. Each course consists of a purposeful combination of synchronous class meetings via Zoom and asynchronous course activities using a wide range of online teaching tools. The college is set up for a hyflex or fully in-person delivery of classes, but in periodic surveys our students have voiced a strong preference for distance learning.
Each MAT program is offering all classes online. This decision will be revisited periodically to make sure it continues to meet students’ needs.
Our distance learning delivery mirrors the modality for all of the schools in the Portland Metro area, where K-12 students are receiving their instruction in a distance learning mode. This means all of our teacher candidates are engaged in student teaching in distance learning classrooms. In some cases, the teachers are delivering instruction from the school classroom, and in those situations the student teacher joins the mentor teacher at the school.
Liza Finkel: The Secondary MAT program is currently offering all of our classes online, with the understanding that we will revisit this decision periodically to make sure it continues to meet our needs and be the best response to the pandemic. Teacher candidates are all placed in local school districts in middle and high school classrooms with experienced mentors and are teaching online in some combination of synchronous and asynchronous lessons.
How are you ensuring that this year’s candidates are able to gain the essential classroom skills they will need for in-person instruction while learning to teach during comprehensive distance learning?
Linda: Our program is organized around principles of effective teaching that transcend any particular delivery method. Good teaching starts with establishing strong relationships with students and fostering a positive classroom climate. Effective lessons are coherently aligned and provide opportunities for students to participate in their learning. Student assessments should drive teacher decisions. All of these things are true with in-person teaching as well as distance learning. The tools you use and the structures you need may be different in distance learning, but the foundation is the same.
Our program is organized around principles of effective teaching that transcend any particular delivery method. The foundational skills that teachers need are the same whether they are teaching online or in person.
At the same time, we know that distance learning is not going to last forever in K-12 and we want to be sure our candidates will be able to make the transition to in-person instruction whenever that happens. For this reason we use and discuss videos and readings that focus on in-person instruction so our candidates will be fully equipped to be excellent in-person teachers, too.
Liza: While it may not be obvious to new teachers (or those outside the profession), the foundational skills that teachers need are the same whether they are teaching online or in person. In our content area methods classes this fall, we have been focusing on developing the skills needed to build strong relationships with their K-12 students; to plan challenging and engaging lessons and units; to assess K-12 students’ understanding before, during, and after teaching; and to differentiate instruction for the range of learner readiness, interests, and learning preferences encountered in the classroom. These are the same skills that all teachers use in any instructional setting. At the same time, we are also introducing candidates to a range of technological tools and instructional strategies that make online teaching more engaging and effective.
The small, tight-knit cohort model is one of the unique and desirable aspects of our MAT programs. How is that sense of connection still fostered within the cohorts under the current circumstances?
Linda: Our program recognizes the importance of the cohort structure and has deliberately and intentionally provided opportunities for relationship building. This started prior to our Zoom-based orientation in June when we used FlipGrid videos as a platform for students to introduce themselves to each other. Instructors frequently use breakout rooms during class time which affords students the opportunity to interact in a more informal setting.
One poignant example of how connected and supportive this cohort is happened several weeks ago when one member of the cohort experienced a house fire. Without any prompting from faculty, the cohort organized a gift for her family and provided note-taking and other academic support for her. This student had to move out of town temporarily, and because both her LC classes and her student teaching are online, she is able to continue in the program despite this enormous disruption in her life.
In addition, we have organized regular on-campus social gatherings for the cohort. When these occur, we gather (masked and socially distanced) on the lawn outside Rogers Hall for conversation and personal sharing between students and faculty.
In addition, our students have created their own social connections. They created a Slack channel which they use for sharing about a wide range of topics (e.g. assignments, social events they have organized, discussion about student teachers, etc.)
Liza: Our candidates are grouped into two cohorts and have been working together in these groups since the start of the program in June. From the very first class, Writing and the Writing Process, all of our instructors work to help candidates connect with one another through opportunities to share their experiences, hopes, and concerns in writing and through discussion. Classes all use a variety of groupings, from whole class conversations to small group discussions and projects. In addition to meeting in cohorts, Secondary candidates attend some classes in content area groups, and some classes with all of the other candidates in the Secondary MAT Program. This variety of groupings helps candidates form connections both within and beyond their cohort. We are also continuing to support candidates with one-on-one meetings with content area coordinators (who teach the content area methods classes) and with seminar instructors (who lead our cohorts). Holding Zoom office hours, and opening Zoom classes a bit early, in addition to formal one-on-one meetings, provide candidates the chance to connect with program faculty more informally and learn more about one another.
How are teacher-mentors adapting to mentoring candidates online? Have you observed, or heard of, any especially creative approaches?
Linda: A productive mentor-candidate experience relies on establishing clear lines of communication. While in distance learning this typically means setting aside regular time for one-on-one conversations between the mentor and candidate. We structure some of this time during our program-wide mentor-candidate meetings by posing questions and planning tasks to the group, then sending mentor and candidate to their own breakout room for discussion supported by faculty as needed. We are also aware of how distance learning has accelerated some relationships. For example, several of our candidates have spent time with mentor teachers at the mentor’s home (even dining together from time to time).
By getting to know the mentor’s family and home, I think many bonded in ways they wouldn’t have if their only interactions had been at school in a traditional student teaching situation.
On a similar note, each candidate is assigned a Lewis & Clark supervisor who conducts regular observations of their teaching.
Mentors have been very open to including candidates in department meetings, school-wide professional development offerings, and co-planning sessions with other teachers. Distance learning has also accelerated some relationships, and many mentors and candidates have bonded in ways they wouldn’t have if their only interactions had been at school in a traditional student teaching situation.
This year, we’ve gotten creative there, too, with many positive results. In some districts it is impossible for the supervisor to attend the virtual class meeting for a variety of reasons (technology and privacy issues). In these cases candidates have been able to record their classroom teaching and share the video with the supervisor. Later the supervisor and candidate review the video together which affords the opportunity for much more in-depth analysis of teaching moments because a single interaction can be reviewed multiple times, something impossible to do with a live observation.
Liza: Our mentors are incredibly generous with their time, knowledge, and resources. Many of them have found that having a student teacher to help out and co-teach in an online classroom is a tremendous asset (as it is during in-person teaching). Mentors have been very open to including candidates in department meetings, school-wide professional development offerings, and co-planning sessions with other teachers. In one school, all of the science teachers plan together, with each teacher taking the lead for a different week’s lessons and the student teachers at that school have been active contributors to this work.
What unique strengths are current candidates developing due to online learning (either by taking classes online or by teaching online)? Will these translate to in-person instruction and offer them an advantage in any way?
Linda: Well, flexibility for sure! So much of what is happening this year (in school and out of school) is changing rapidly.
Rather than focusing on the limitations or constraints of one delivery method or mode of technology, we want our candidates to always ask, “what’s best for kids” and act accordingly.
Good teachers deal with changing circumstances by always focusing on their north stars. Rather than focusing on the limitations or constraints of one delivery method or mode of technology, we want our candidates to always ask, “what’s best for kids” and act accordingly.
I also believe that many of the online tools they are using by necessity right now will become tools they will choose to use in the future. Tools like online math manipulatives, virtual read-alouds of children’s stories, and digital notebooks are beneficial additions to their teacher toolkit and will increase opportunities for differentiated instruction in an in-person classroom.
Liza: One of the most important strengths a new teacher needs is flexibility, and given the uncertainty that has defined the last few months, this is a skill they are developing, whether they like it or not! In addition, they are learning about the importance of teacher collaboration as many teachers are now working together to plan lessons and units, to learn to use new technological tools, and to problem-solve together. All of these skills and ways of working will benefit them when they enter the classroom for in-person teaching.
PPS has announced they are online through the end of January. How has this affected planning for the solo teaching aspect of the program?
Linda: We are taking a month-by-month approach and adjusting timelines and expectations incrementally. We are holding to our typical sequence of monthly benchmarks in which they incrementally take on more and more teaching responsibilities.
For example, in October the goal is for the candidate to take responsibility for most of the classroom routines and procedures. If we had been in-person, the routines would have been different, but in distance learning we expect them to take over the routines of the digital classroom such as morning meeting, read-aloud, question of the day, movement breaks, etc.
If we are in distance learning after spring break, our student teachers will engage in their solo virtually and they will be ready because they will have practiced the full range of teacher duties by then through a purposeful gradual release of responsibilities to them.
Liza: Other than the fact that they are teaching online, we have not changed the expectations or plans for how candidates begin to take on more responsibility in the classroom. After Thanksgiving, they will all take on the role of lead teacher for one class and they will continue in that role after winter break. After spring break they will take on the role of lead teacher for ¾ of their mentor’s classes; this allows them to experience close to a full teaching load while at the same time having a little bit of extra time for planning and grading.
What barriers have been removed by being able to access education remotely?
Linda: Students who need to travel or live outside of Portland for any reason are able to continue their studies. We have had several people who had to go out of town (for such things as funerals or to assist family members) and have been able to join their LC classes and their student teaching classrooms from a remote location.
It has also been possible for our students who are parents themselves to remain in the program while supporting their school-aged children who are in remote learning. If our classes were in person, this would have created a hardship (childcare) for them.
We can no longer take it for granted that all of our K-12 students are engaged with the learning only because they are in a desk in the classroom. The online setting makes K-12 students’ lack of engagement easier to identify and pushes us as teachers to learn more about each student as we work to plan teaching that engages them all.
Liza: One thing that I have noticed is that we can no longer take it for granted that all of our K-12 students are engaged with the learning only because they are in a desk in the classroom. The online setting makes K-12 students’ lack of engagement easier to identify and pushes us as teachers to learn more about each student as we work to plan teaching that engages them all. I also think that teaching online has required all of us to pare our teaching down to the essentials – the idea of teaching fewer topics more deeply is one that I have ascribed to for a long time, and I honestly feel that, maybe for the first time, I am really doing that. Finally, teaching online in ways that engage K-12 students also supports our giving them more opportunities for independent work and to choose among different ways to access content or demonstrate their understanding. This is another dimension of good teaching that has been highlighted in the online setting.
I should also mention that remote education has exacerbated some inequities and made some previously easy to ignore challenges for K-12 students more problematic.
For example, making sure all K-12 students have access to a computer or reliable wi-fi and a place where they can work effectively at home, have been challenges that school districts have worked to address in a variety of ways (e.g. loaning out computers, helping K-12 students access wi-fi hotspots).
Districts have also found ways to continue to provide food for K-12 students who rely on the schools’ free and reduced lunch program for meals. Of course these are conditions that existed prior to the current pandemic and that have become more visible as we have moved learning from school to home. Since our program focuses on access and equity as a part of our social justice mission, we make sure candidates are aware of these conditions so that they can respond effectively to the needs of their K-12 students that may go beyond learning differences. As a specific example, we have taken one assignment in our seminar class and adjusted it to focus on the ways that school districts have responded to the pandemic, with a particular focus on how their responses address issues of access and equity.
What has been an unexpected upside to distance learning?
Linda: As a program we can be much more flexible and responsive in distance learning. For example, it takes just a couple of clicks to set up a help session for our students via Zoom, without constraints and logistics of finding a classroom space that is available.
Distance learning has pushed all of the LC faculty to “up our technology game.” We have all learned new technology tools that allow us to engage students in our content in innovative ways.
We have also used distance learning technology to provide outside experts such as past grads of the program and other guest speakers. The virtual space means we have fewer constraints when considering who might be available to speak with our students.
Liza: One unexpected upside to teaching in Zoom or Google Hangouts is the ease with which we can invite guests into our classrooms to meet and work with candidates. Of course, we could have done this before, but now we have the technology at our fingertips and in our classrooms. Another upside is the increase in teacher collaboration. Instead of planning and teaching alone, more teachers are planning together and collaborating to develop new lessons and activities for their K-12 students. This is great for the K-12 students in their classrooms, for the teachers themselves who benefit from the collegiality and professional collaboration, and for teacher candidates who will come to see this way of working as normal and expected.
Faculty, candidates, K-12 teachers, and K-12 students have all had to make a huge leap in adopting and becoming fluent in various technologies. Do you think any of these new tools will remain in use after we return to in-person instruction?
Linda: Absolutely. Communication and collaboration tools have become especially valuable and their benefits transcend distance learning. The tools we have used most extensively are Flipgrid, Padlet, Jamboard, Pear Deck, and screencasting tools. I am sure we will continue to use these even when instruction returns to in-person delivery.
Liza: Yes! I do think many of these tools will become a regular part of my teaching and I can imagine they will for other teachers as well. Zoom, while it is not a perfect tool, provides a way for K-12 students who are unable to attend school in person to attend and learn along with their peers. As we develop more skill with this kind of hyflex teaching, I can imagine this will become more common for K-12 students who are ill, or recuperating, or as a way to support some incarcerated youth. Other tools like Padlet, are great for providing a way for K-12 students (and our teacher candidates) to share their work and to view others’ work and provide feedback. And tools like Flipgrid provide uncomplicated ways for K-12 students (and teacher candidates) to share information about themselves with their peers and teachers and to get feedback verbally.
Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling offers MAT programs in elementary and secondary teaching, as well as an ESOL option and multiple endorsements for inservice teachers. Program details can be found online.
Applications are currently being accepted for the 2021-22 cohort. Classes begin in June 2021. Visit our admissions page for application requirements, deadlines, or to see the schedule of upcoming information sessions.