Changing Course: Collaboration, Creativity, and Compassion
Although it has been almost three years since the pandemic forced many departments to change course mid-semester, higher education institutions are still feeling the impact. This article describes lessons my program—the education department at West Chester University of Pennsylvania—learned from creating a contingency plan for 179 student teachers placed in 30 local school districts as these districts closed due to the pandemic. The early middle grades student teaching supervisors and student teaching coordinator created a contingency plan focused on student teaching competencies and based on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s guidelines for teaching certification. One of the most important considerations was ensuring that the student teachers could earn their certifications from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and graduate in May 2020. Our contingency plan focused on collaboration, creativity, and compassion. While we developed this plan for student teachers in a teacher preparation program, the lessons can be applied to many contexts.
Collaboration was one of the keys to the success of this contingency plan. This collaboration came in the form of sharing strategies for a contingency plan with neighboring universities then addressing concerns and questions. It was helpful to speak as a collective group to certification bodies and university administration to communicate in a single voice. This allowed us to present a needed solution that decision makers could more readily accept. In the case of our contingency plan, it became clear that the focus had to shift to competencies rather than the traditional student teaching model. Brainstorming sessions, communication through group emails, and collaboration across documents were extremely helpful in fostering collaboration across universities.
Thinking creatively to share documents and ideas and support each other was vital to meeting competencies. The results of this creative thinking were engaging ideas enhanced by using technology. For example, supervisors encouraged the student teachers to show their proficiency in delivery of instruction by recording themselves implementing simulated teaching samples and reflecting on them.
When making contingency plans, it was important to be creative and develop alternate routes to get to the same result. Technology provides many opportunities for creative problem solving, sharing of ideas, and convenient communication. One creative use of technology was the development of an ongoing Google Doc with frequently asked questions so student teachers could receive up-to-date and timely answers to any concerns they might have.
Whenever a contingency plan is needed, it is necessary to provide support and communication during its implementation. In our case, while meeting competencies was extremely important, so was the emotional and practical support the supervisors provided to the student teachers. As you would expect, many student teachers were devastated that their capstone experience would be so dramatically altered. Supervisors had to act as coaches, cheerleaders, and, at times, sounding boards for questions, concerns, and frustrations. Also of importance was support for the supervisors themselves, who were implementing a plan and supervising in a manner they had never expected. Meetings, phone calls, and video chats provided the support needed through this major change in practice. In addition, the supervisors regularly shared good news through the email distribution list. It was important to keep up supervisors’ morale so they, in turn, could keep up that of the student teachers.
- Remain current. Review competencies, remain updated on state certification requirements, carefully screen tools and materials, and understand what other institutions of higher education are doing to address the situation.
- Communication should be constant. All involved constituents should remain in touch with each other. In the case of this plan, constituents included administration, student teaching coordinator, mentor teachers, university supervisors, and student teachers.
- Address student questions and concerns as soon as possible to eliminate confusion and undue anxiety. Be sure to pay close attention to students’ well-being and ability to adjust to changes.
- Creativity and flexibility is paramount in helping students meet the competencies in alternate formats where necessary, regardless of content area. Balance holding students accountable with staying engaged with flexibility given the circumstances.
- Encourage reflection and collect feedback to ensure constant monitoring and improvement of students’ progress, and use technology to streamline assignments and communication.
Tina Selvaggi, EdD, is an associate professor and coordinator of student teaching at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Selvaggi has held various instructional and administrative positions in Pennsylvania public schools. Her research interests include professional development, instructional coaching, teacher candidate preparation, and use of technology to enhance instruction.