By Kalli Colacino
Dr. Suzzane McCotter, the dean of the School of Education, has been at the College for almost four years. Over the past year, she has been making decisions she never thought would have to make.
With the College going fully remote in March 2020, students in the School of Education have had to adjust to virtual classes and virtual teaching. When the pandemic began, McCotter and the College made the tough decision to pull student teachers from their assignments.
“We were the first higher-ed institution in the state to make that decision,” McCotter said. “That was a really hard decision to make. I have decision fatigue. I’ve had to make so many hard decisions that don’t have any right answers.”
The Coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 591,367 people in the U.S., has put a strain on the already-struggling education industry. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles found that only 4.3% of incoming freshmen planned to major in education in 2018. The amount of students planning to major in education has seen a steady decrease over the past two decades, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
But at the College where the education program has a long-standing history, enrollment in the School of Education has been holding steady. In 2018, 11.43% (806 students) of undergraduate students majored in education — a 0.48% increase from 2017 (766 students).
“We’re still working on recruiting our freshman class, so we’re not exactly where we were (in enrollment numbers) last year, but we’re not down by very much,” McCotter said. “We have maybe 20 fewer students than we did last year at this time.”
For current students majoring in education, the pandemic has altered the typical experience of a student studying to be an educator. At the College, education majors must complete two semesters of student teaching, one part-time and one full-time semester, by attending a school local to the College and working alongside a current teacher.
But Natalie Gregorio, a junior early childhood special education and art major, has only gotten a small taste of what in-person teaching is like. After completing a few visits to a school, she was sent home and had to complete her practicum experience remotely.
“I worry that I will go into student teaching a little unprepared because I haven't been able to truly experience the initial exposure to student teaching,” she said.
Professors in the School of Education also had to adjust to a new normal.
“There’s an energy that comes from being together in the same room with students, and I miss that a lot,” said Maureen Connolly, a professor in the department of educational administration and secondary education. “But I am grateful to my students and to Zoom because, though it may be different, we have managed to form connections online that are deeper than I anticipated given these circumstances.”
Although remote teaching is not ideal for most professors and students, the College and the School of Education have come up with some unique ways to help students get the experience they need. The department has invested in a program called “Mursion,” which is a program that uses avatars that act as students.
“The avatars are able to understand what I’m saying, they’re able to respond if I ask them what’s three times five, they’re able to answer me,” McCotter said. “And some of them will get it wrong, or some of them will misbehave.”
In addition to the implementation of new technology, professors are improving their online skills.
“I can say that my colleagues and I have made great improvements in our Canvas page structures and our use of online tools,” Connolly said. “These are the upsides to teaching online, and I believe that will carry over into our course experience in the future.”
While most education majors have experienced a lack of in-person teaching during the earlier months of the pandemic, some in-person instruction is slowly coming back — allowing future teachers to get a taste of a real classroom.
For the spring 2021 semester, junior early childhood education and psychology major Stephanie Geer was placed in Whiting Elementary School in Manchester Township to complete her practicum requirements.
“The school is about an hour away from TCNJ but it is so worth it,” Geer said. “I absolutely love my second graders and my cooperating teacher. [It] has reminded me of why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place and made up for all the lost practicum time due to the pandemic.”
While some education majors are returning to in-person teaching and learning, the beginning months of the pandemic brought a lot of uncertainty.
Alyssa Sedacca, a junior English secondary education major, was having second thoughts about her major in the beginning of the pandemic.
“Last semester, I almost decided to drop my education part because of the remote setting,” she said. “Not only did I think that it would be really difficult to teach remotely, but I saw a lot of negative rhetoric around teachers from the general public. They were put in a really difficult position and it seemed like their health and safety wasn’t a priority.”
A survey conducted by RAND Corporation found that almost half of the teachers who voluntarily stopped teaching in public schools after March 2020 left because of the pandemic. With personal safety becoming a factor, many teachers are retiring early. In a survey published by Education Week, 16% of respondents said the reason they left their job was because they have a health condition that puts them at risk, and 17% said a loved one has a high-risk health condition.
Although current educators seem to be having second thoughts about their field, most education majors at the College have adapted and tried to make the best of the situation.
When McCotter was attending an alumni webinar, one student teacher who teaches her class of kindergartens virtually, said she does different things to keep her students engaged — including wearing costumes.
“She just started picking up different hats, and putting them on so she could show all of her costumes. It was so exciting and so creative to see the kinds of things that they’re doing, the kind of technology they’re using,” McCotter said. “Our student teachers are so enthusiastic and so creative, it’s amazing.”
For Gregorio, she knows that students are still going to be in need of a teacher, no matter if school is held in person or online.
“I'm not having second thoughts about entering the education system because, at the end of the day, the students are going to need a teacher dedicated to ensuring that they are supported to be successful in their education, which I plan to do regardless of how education is taught moving forward,” she said.
At the College, most education majors have not allowed the pandemic to change their aspirations. Joanna Guaimano, a senior urban elementary education and art major, said she could not see herself doing anything else.
“I chose to major in education because I saw teaching as a practical career that would enhance my life in multiple sectors,” she said. “To put it simply, I couldn’t see myself doing anything other than spending every day helping young minds learn.”
Even though the pandemic has not been an easy adjustment, education majors like Guaimano have not forgotten why they chose their major in the first place.
Heather Collins, a junior early childhood education and sociology major, said she chose to major in education because she loves working with children.
“I love knowing at the end of the day I am making a difference for future generations younger than us,” said Collins, the head senator for the School of Education.
Geer, who aspires to be an elementary school teacher, believes that teachers have the power to make a difference in the lives of children.
“We are able to touch the future in a way, through the young minds we teach,” she said.
“Teachers are going to be needed in this world whether we are in the classroom to teach the future generations of students or if we are teaching over a computer screen,” Gregorio said.
In a world filled with Zoom meetings and virtual interviews, McCotter stresses the importance of using technology to advance student’s careers.
“Our students are going to have more job offers than they know what to do with,” McCotter said. “Our students are more ready to teach using technology than some of the teachers who have been in the field for 30 years.”