By Doug McPherson
When Mayrel Rodríguez was a little girl, she would pretend to be a teacher, holding makeshift classes in her bedroom for her cousins and brother.
“I started at around 7 years old until I was about 12 – my whole childhood, practically,” Rodríguez said. “I’ve always dreamed of being a teacher. And as I got older, I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”
But no amount of pretending or practice would prepare her for pandemic-style teaching: switching on and off from in-person to online and then back again over and over, not to mention social distancing and managing all the other coronavirus protocols.
The elementary-education major at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) has been getting those lessons firsthand since August, working with kindergartners as a preservice teacher at Holm Elementary in southeast Denver.
And while the pandemic has wreaked its havoc around the globe, it hasn’t dampened Rodríguez’s spirit. In fact, it may have boosted it.
“Doing my residency during a pandemic hasn’t been ideal, but it has taught me how important it is to be flexible as a teacher,” said Rodríguez, 25, who plans to graduate in May. “We’ve gone back and forth so many times with remote and in-person learning, but I’ve gained a lot of experience on how to teach remotely and I’ve become a lot more tech-savvy. Plus, I’ve learned it’s crucial to adjust your teaching so it doesn’t prohibit students from learning.”
Prepared for Unpredictability
Rodríguez has reason to be optimistic. She’s getting a lot of support from her mentor, Jacqueline Luján, a 2015 MSU Denver elementary-education graduate and a kindergarten teacher at Holm. Rodríguez is Luján’s first teacher resident.
“I volunteered (to be a mentor) because I wanted to give back to a program and an experience that was so meaningful to me,” Luján said. “My mentor teacher during my time at MSU Denver was incredible, and if I can help someone in the way she helped and taught me, that would be so fulfilling.”
“Doing my residency during a pandemic hasn’t been ideal, but it has taught me how important it is to be flexible as a teacher.”
Mayrel Rodríguez, Student, MSU Denver
Rodríguez adapted “very quickly” to remote teaching and all of the changes from the pandemic, Lujan said.
“She’s very easygoing and understanding about all the challenges and unpredictability,” Luján said. “I just want (Rodríguez) to have the opportunity to fall in love with teaching and further her understanding of how students learn but also accept that this year is not normal.”
That’s what Julie Eber wants for Rodríguez too. Eber, a lecturer in MSU Denver’s Department of Elementary Education and Literacy and a residency site coordinator, said the pandemic has “completely changed” how the department is educating future teachers.
“It’s changed how we teach, how we give them experiences and feedback, how we meet with them, and it’s changed how they teach and work with their own students during their residencies,” Eber said.
A year ago, when the pandemic took hold, Eber said, “we didn’t know what we were doing.” But dedicated faculty and students continued working, stayed flexible and adjusted to the realities of COVID. Now?
“Our students are learning how to teach in multiple ways, building their skill sets, learning how to pivot from online to in person,” she said. “They’re also learning how to be more expressive when they’re online to keep the students’ attention – they have to be more creative.”
New ways to communicate – and teach
Eber believes the pandemic has improved communications between professors and their students.
“It’s helped our communication because meeting with the students is now easier,” Eber said. “We’re meeting on (Microsoft) Teams; we can see each other and meet more easily and actually have deeper, better conversations than we did before. It was bumpy at first, but we’re reaching out to our students, working to keep our relationship with them strong. We’re having lots of open chats online – like weekly for 10 minutes to touch base.”
Normally, Eber and her cohorts visit teachers in training four times a semester. Since they can’t do that this semester, faculty members are supervising and giving feedback online via Teams, Zoom or Google Classroom.
“At first, I didn’t think it was going to work. It’s not the way I wanted it to be,” Eber said. “But we’re still able to give them feedback and help them to home in on the craft and give them goals to work on. We can watch them live and talk with them right after they teach. We just pivoted to be more flexible to meet students’ needs and help them grow.”
The toughest hurdle for students such as Rodríguez has been not being able to connect with their students in classrooms, Eber said.
“They can’t be that nurturer that they want to be for their kids,” she said. “They have to keep their distance, and that’s really hard for them, especially when their students are upset.”
Rodríguez agreed: “It is hard not being able to hug my students or be in close contact,” she said. “It’s hard for students to have limited activities like no partner reading, but we’re making it work as best we can.”
Doug McPherson, Metropolitan State University of Denver, RED.
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