Editor's Note: This story is the first of a two-part series focusing on the cancellation of student teaching experiences due to the pandemic. Part one focuses on the point of view of the students. Part two will focus on the administration’s perspective.
By Elliott Nguyen
For nearly two years, classrooms in schools across the country have looked starkly different. Now, students are returning to classrooms that sat empty in exchange for their virtual counterparts. And while normalcy seems to be returning, the impact of this departure from the classroom is still felt, and not just by the children.
In the spring of 2020, freshmen in the class of 2023 were finally hitting their stride, their first year at the College well underway. Education majors, in particular, were looking forward to the next year when they could begin their practicums, a fundamental aspect of the College’s school of education. And then, of course, the pandemic made those impossible.
Practicums, at least at the College, involve placing students in classrooms — either in a high school, middle school or elementary school depending on the specific students’ major — where they can observe how things are done. They can watch the teacher command the classroom and learn what to expect when they eventually take that role themselves, later in their college career.
“I did not get to do those,” said Zoe Talbot, a junior English and secondary education major at the College. The College operated fully or mostly remotely during the two semesters during which Talbot had expected to do their practicums, and ultimately this resulted in them missing out entirely.
Instead, there were some “supplemental readings,” they said, but no actual practicum alternative — not even virtually.
“Even virtually, (the College) really just said: ‘so we’re not doing practicums,’” Talbot said. They admitted that this may not be a universal experience, but it was still frustrating. And perhaps it was not a universal experience. But it was certainly not unique.
Will Kimberly, another junior English and secondary education major at the College, confirmed that he was not able to do his practicums either. He did still have to take the courses attached to them, which involved two weekly Zoom sessions where the professor would talk about lesson planning and classroom expectation.
However, said Kimberly, “in terms of actual in-person experience, we had none.”
Few were prepared for the pandemic, but many students felt frustration toward the school of education.
Talbot said it felt like “maybe at first [the administration was] trying to figure stuff out and then they gave up. The school did no legwork there.”
Kimberly said that it may not have been the responsibility of the College alone, and that perhaps schools were reluctant to try and work college students into an already complicated virtual learning situation.
“We haven’t observed anything. We don’t really have a base to stand on. The reality of the situation is that Covid is not going away, and playing it off as if this is the only year that’s happening is not fair or accurate based on the state of the world,” he said. “And those skills could have been valuable.”
When it became clear that practicums were not going to happen, students felt that the school simply moved on.
The Signal reached out to the School of Education for comment — they explained that the extreme circumstances of the pandemic forced them to prioritize clinicals for upperclassmen. That, combined with Covid-related strains upon the middle and high schools that partner with the College, made practicums nearly impossible. In response, the College instructed its faculty to adjust their curriculums to mitigate the loss of field experience.
However, some students still felt ignored.
“They don’t even acknowledge it,” said Avina Sharma, a junior English and secondary education major at the College. “It kind of just got swept under the rug.”
She lamented the lack of any formal apology.
“I feel like I’ve paid attention to the practices in classrooms my whole life,” Sharma said. However, she added, “We aren’t making up that experience. (An apology) would have been nice.”
Talbot also expressed feeling forgotten.
“Had someone been like, ‘you’ve got a lot going on, so sorry,’ had someone sent an email, I would have been like, ‘that makes sense,’’ Talbot said. “To this day, I still don’t know what happened, and we’ve all just kind of accepted it.”
Now, with the first of their two clinicals — programs where they are placed into classrooms and actively assist the teachers while gradually gaining more responsibility — just around the corner, students are doing what they can to prepare.
“I don’t feel unconfident going into a classroom, but I do feel a little unprepared with the classroom management sector, which I feel like a practicum would have helped with,” Sharma said. “I have all this great information and I’m like, how am I going to get these kids to listen to any of it?”
Talbot agreed and explained that there are some lessons that cannot be learned in a textbook or a virtual lecture.
“One of the reasons I applied to TCNJ was that you’re in classrooms as soon as sophomore year in the fall. And here I am as a junior having never been in the classroom,” they said. “Actually knowing students as opposed to ‘archetypes’ would be so helpful. It’s scary to think of yourself in that position, even with a co-pilot.”
Luckily, some students were able to acquire applicable experience by moving around their schedule and thus mitigated some of the damage from the loss of their practicums.
Jackson Tencza, a junior history and elementary education major, had pushed off his second practicum until this year so that he could take it in-person. Even then, he said, his practicum last semester got cut short because of Covid-19 complications.
“We only met 30% of what we should have,” he said. However, because he had made room in his schedule, he was able to slate another for this Spring semester, and he hopes it will be much more rewarding.
“I know for a fact that after this, I will be 100% ready for a clinical,” he said. However, he added, “If I didn’t have the room in my schedule to take another practicum, it would have really hurt me.”
Sharma gained experience over two semesters as a paid mentor for the College’s Career and Community Studies program, which offers tutoring for students with learning disabilities, and she was able to count it as a practicum.
Over the summer, she also tutored kindergarteners at the YMCA through a state program that she was able to apply to through the school of education.
Kimberly, who had taken a year off prior to attending the College in order to tutor in working classrooms, said he is in a “unique position” and thus is “not stressed out as much as others are.”
Some, like Sharma and Talbot, mentioned difficulties in communicating with the school.
“A lot of us just wanted to understand,” Talbot said. They said there was “a lot of uncertainty from people who had gone through one semester at college and then got sent home.”
However, Talbot said of the administration, “I feel like they’re doing their best.”
They added, “Education is such a complicated and nuanced field. Obviously it’s hard when it’s one of the most social fields. Kids are germy and gross and carry diseases, and there’s only so much you can do about that. Most of it was not the school. Most of it was an unfortunate byproduct of the pandemic. Everyone else, they really just got sidestepped in the worst way.”
Tencza agreed. “I’d say 60% of it was Covid, 20% was my one professor, 20% was just disorganization in general,” he said. “If Covid had not been here, my practicum experience would have been 10 times better.”