Grace Brannen never thought she’d be student teaching from a pingpong table in her family’s basement, positioning herself against a wall so no one would walk behind her with a basket of laundry. She didn’t expect show-and-tell might include a student showing the inside of his fridge, or his mom sleeping after working all night. Young students had to be taught that if you whisper on Zoom, others can hear you.

The special education major taught K-8 remotely at Clara Barton Elementary in Chicago. Before school began, she traveled with other teachers to students’ homes to help set up Wi-Fi. While still working at 11 p.m., one student asked them if they were going to sleep there, and asked if she wanted to play the video game Fortnite.

This is the new world for student teachers, where they see into students’ lives, meeting families and pets, including bearded dragons.

“I love my kids,” Brannen said. “They are so sweet. I’m happy every morning. I roll out of bed, go to the basement, log in, and start teaching. They motivate me.”

The majority of her 12 students have autism. Even muting and unmuting the computer, without a parent nearby to help, has to be taught. Because it’s more difficult to tell if a student is understanding a lesson, she takes things slower. Students have a hard time sitting online all day and have sensory needs, so she gives them “slime breaks,” time to work with the stretchy goo to de-stress.

Dr. Christy Borders is director of the Cecilia J. Lauby Teacher Education Center. Last summer she was closely following school districts as they struggled with what back to school was going to look like. It was critical that seniors get their student teaching in. And they did, teaching face-to-face, hybrid, and remote.

“We had to figure out how do we not have this be a stopping point for our teachers,” she said. “It’s amazing; they’re all having different experiences but they’re learning from each other. It’s not that we didn’t know educational technology was important, but now it is a priority. There isn’t a program on campus that isn’t making sure that students are prepared for fully online instruction. We didn’t even know to ask that question this time last year. COVID is a horrible thing, but it really lit a fire under the ways we needed to change and we needed to change overnight.”

Brad Smith ’10 is working on his master’s in neuroscience and physiology, with plans to teach high school. He co-teaches biology at Normal Community High School with as many as 30 students in remote and hybrid classes.

Brad Smith at laptop
Brad Smith taught high school biology remotely.

“It’s a lot different but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” he said. “All of the teachers, even those nearing the end of their career, have really stepped up their technology game. It’s impressive.”

“My thought going into this semester was to reduce their anxiety, make them feel accepted, have a little fun, and then teach them something.”

Brad Smith

It’s challenging to teach when you can’t read a student’s body language, he said, noting most of his students don’t have their cameras on during class.

“That’s such a huge driving force behind how a lesson goes. You look out and if you see blank stares, you know you have to revisit something.”

Instead, he relies on students who speak up or type in the chat function. He also mixes up his teaching methods, from pre-recorded micro lectures to interactive games.  

“If you use only one method, you’re not reaching all of them. This semester I’ve used the textbook maybe once or twice. It’s incredibly important they’re seeing science around them and understand science doesn’t just take place in the classroom.”

And he approached the semester with what’s most important during a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

“My thought going into this semester was to reduce their anxiety, make them feel accepted, have a little fun, and then teach them something. It’s really about making students feel safe and cared for.”

Some students aren’t comfortable in an online environment and don’t want peers to see into their home lives. That’s why Smith provided a lot of flexibility with recorded lessons.

Borders said knowing a little more about a student’s home life is a throwback to a time when teachers made home visits.

“They’re getting to know students in a way teachers haven’t had access to in a really long time. They’re learning more of the social/emotional side. It’s going to make for better teachers because they’re reconnected with the emotional part of teaching, which typically is what carries us all through.”

“ISU grads are highly sought after. And with this experience, the sky’s the limit.” — Dr. Christy Borders

Only student teachers were sent into schools this fall. The other 2,000 education students doing clinicals joined classrooms online, watched videos of nationally board certified teachers, and tutored local K-12 students in a free e-tutoring program the College of Education created.

“ISU grads are highly sought after. And with this experience, the sky’s the limit.”

Dr. Christy Borders

December graduates are ready, she said.

“Our fall student teachers are being hired and will have their own classrooms a month from now and they won’t be scared. They’re as prepared as teachers who have been teaching many many years and that’s a cool place for them to be. Every teacher was a first-year teacher this year because no one was prepared for this. Our field has really show that we can bend in the storm.”

The job market is excellent, she added. Before the pandemic there was a nationwide teacher shortage, and she’s heard as many as 40 percent of eligible retires are expected to retire next spring.

“ISU grads are highly sought after,” she said. “And with this experience, the sky’s the limit.”

Apply now for fall 2021.