Jessica Barrett says she “didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye” to her students. When Illinois schools switched from what was normal for 200 years, learning in person, to remote learning via computer in mid-March, Barrett was just wrapping up her student teaching assignment at a public school in Chicago.

The coronavirus pandemic led to the switch. “It was sudden,” Barrett recalls, so sudden that no one was allowed back into the school building. Barrett was a candidate for the Master of Science in Education degree at Northwestern University.

With so many schools now on remote education, including Evanston Township High School, Evanston/Skokie elementary schools, and the entire Chicago Public School system, Northwestern’s teacher training program has had to make changes in preparing the teachers of tomorrow.

“The question for degree candidates and teachers,” says Danna Dotson, teacher education coordinator for Northwestern’s master’s degree program, “is how do we facilitate education in this particular environment?”

Before they even move to the front of the classroom, student teachers have to observe a full-time educator for 100 hours. But now, student teachers are going from the room to the Zoom, getting their observation hours remotely, because that’s how many schools are operating these days. “It’s an odd shift,” Dotson says, “but we think we can do this” in the e-learning world.

As long as a school is on remote learning, the student teacher will have to learn to teach remotely as well. Besides mastering their subjects, teachers-in-training will now have to “navigate the technology,” Dotson says, as well as learning “how to keep kids engaged in this environment.”

After Illinois schools went to remote education in the spring, the state waived in-classroom teaching hours required for student teachers. It was either that, or hundreds of teachers-to-be would not have obtained certification.

That was not the case, however, for Barrett. Because Northwestern is on quarters, Barrett had finished enough student teaching and completed enough other requirements that she graduated on time, and now has a job at an area parochial school.

Ironically, local Catholic schools are open in person (although remote learning is available for families who want it). However, Barrett says student teaching taught her that a switch to remote learning could happen at any minute. If she has to do that, Barrett says student teaching “absolutely put me in a position where flexibility is a part of me.”

While the state waived student teaching hours in Spring, 2020 that will not be the case for Spring, 20201, at least not as of now. If such hours have to be done remotely, the state says, that’s what will happen. Northwestern has 80-to-90 candidates a year for master’s degrees in education, and about a dozen bachelor’s degree students.

So, should teaching via computer be made a required part of teacher training in order to obtain an educator’s license? Barrett says that’s “premature,” but she believes very strongly that virtual instruction should be included in teacher education. She says that Northwestern has such instruction for those who will be student teachers next spring, and recent program graduates are invited to share in such sessions.

But student teachers face another challenge. Suppose they only teach remotely this academic year, but then school opens in person next fall. Those new teachers will start their first job with zero in-classroom experience, which Dotson says “will be a huge jump.” She says NU is trying to figure out a way to “help beyond student teaching.”

You might think with such an ongoing upheaval in education — in-person school, remote school, hybrid school, or switching from back and forth — that prospective teachers are being scared off by so much uncertainty. Dotson says not so. In fact, she says Northwestern has seen a slight increase in the number of applicants for teacher training. Some of that may be due to the recent protests over police shootings of Black men. “To some people,” Dotson says, “teaching is a tool to change that. Social justice is at the heart of what they want to do.”

And if they have to do it remotely for awhile, so be it.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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