CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) – As school closures shuttered the facilities student teachers used for clinicals, they were faced with a gap they’d never seen – entering a classroom as a first-year instructor without that in-person experience.
Now, more than a year and a half later, those new educators might be dealing with an in-person class for the first time.
“Every year we have a challenge,” said Suzanne Horn, an associate professor, coordinator of the master of arts in teaching program at Coastal Carolina University and the interim chair of graduate and specialty studies. “This one is just really obvious.”
The South Carolina Department of Education has continued its adjusted guidance and relaxed the requirements for first-year teachers for this and last academic year. August 2021 guidance from the department has allowed for orientation, pre-planned meetings, training sessions and classroom observations to happen virtually for the 2021-22 academic year, and has allowed flexibility for student teaching in cases when a school switches to virtual or hybrid learning.
“The SCDE encourages districts to allow field placements to the greatest extent possible and acknowledges that decisions regarding such placements must prioritize the safety and well-being of all stakeholders,” the guidance reads.
It encourages districts to be “innovative” and to maximize student teachers’ in-person interactions with students.
Testing required for teachers to obtain a license has been cleared to be done online with a proctor in case a testing center is shut down. The department also allowed one-year, provisional teaching certificates for the 2020-21 year for those who finished an education program.
Horn said those tests are already stressful for students because of the high stakes. Not being able to access the exams, she said, only added to that anxiety.
“I feel really grateful that the state department saw that and said, ‘No, we are going to do some different things for students this time,’” Horn said. “It is so great that they responded in that way.”
Those first few years are crucial for teacher retention. Of the 5,996 teachers who left after the 2019-20 academic year, 42% had five years or less of experience, and 16% had one year or less, according to data from the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement. That was an increase from 13% of first-year teachers who left the previous year. More than one-third of first-year teachers who taught during the 2019-20 academic year didn’t return to a teaching or service position in the same district the next year, up from 28% the previous year.
Compared to the nearly 6,000 teachers who left, only 2,067 students graduated with a bachelor or a master-level degree in a teacher preparation program in the state.
Horry County Schools provides multiple supports for new teachers, which includes its New Teacher Academy, a four-day training that includes professional development. It features model classrooms with teachers and experts, focuses on building relationships and teaches classroom management techniques. New teachers are also assigned an instructional coach for their first year.
“I think we have felt confident in our support plans for new teachers,” said Samantha Coy, the director of professional development and standards for the district.
Teaching can be overwhelming the first year, according to Anna Carroll, the human resources director for Horry County Schools. Those mentor relationships, she said, can help soften that.
“You really just want to provide someone with some experience – a veteran teacher who walks the same walk that you are walking every day, someone that they have that they can turn to, and they can build a positive relationship for so they can support them,” Carroll said.
Coy said teachers are flexible and that the transition back to full-time, face-to-face learning has been seamless.
The district also continues to provide help throughout a teacher’s career.
“Professional development is continuous for all levels of teachers,” Coy said.
In addition to student teaching experiences shifting, the CCU students also had to adjust to their own education going online.
“It was a new experience for us all, so we had some bumps, but we worked through it together and made sure they had what they needed to finish that semester strong,” Horn said.
Approaches varied by district. Horn said the students brainstormed together, but that even veteran teachers struggled.
“Many experienced teachers I knew said, ‘I feel like a first-year teacher again,’” she said.
If a school was online, then the student teachers did their clinicals virtually. That shift gave the student teachers a unique experience – teaching a hybrid model, something they normally wouldn’t have learned – that helped them enter an unprecedented year.
“They are going into a pandemic and they are ready, because they certainly had more difficult teaching circumstances in spring when they were teaching online and on campus at the same time,” Horn said. “So having students on campus and having technology, they are comfortable with that.”
Facing a screen full of black boxes from students who didn’t turn their cameras on was a challenge. Student teachers couldn’t tell if the students were understanding their lessons, and some children never logged on.
“Teaching is about interacting, communicating and building relationships, and in the online format that was more challenging,” Horn said. “So we had to work on that – ideas on how to get people to participate, how to get groups in Zoom or Google Meet – to get them talking to each other.”
She said that the education students worked with their mentor teachers, who helped guide their interns through the changing situations.
But missing out on that face-to-face teaching, Horn said, has meant that those new teachers might not be entering physical classrooms with the classroom management experience they might have fathered before.
“I think it feels a little weird right now, with the way you are managing the class by keeping everyone apart,” she said. “Eventually that will go away, and then they will use those skills that they learned, and then will learn new skills to manage when they’re not in a pandemic time.”