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Taking on the Pandemic—and Winning

by Tom Hanlon / Jun 14, 2022

Student teacher in classroom

At times, it has probably felt like wrestling a tornado. But during the first two years of the pandemic, the College of Education successfully placed 100% of its students that required placements in schools or with community organizations. Here’s how it happened.

The pandemic has hit education exceptionally hard, starting with shutdowns and moving on to quarantines and staff shortages, higher rates of mental health challenges, lost instructional time, falling test scores.

It’s been hard on the students preparing to be teachers, too. And on the College of Education, which has had to juggle the physical and mental health concerns of its students with the dilemma of how to provide them with the experiences they need to enter the profession.

Two-plus years into the pandemic, it’s clear the College has aced this most difficult test.

“I would say that the College did a great job not just providing immediate remote instruction, remote clinical experiences, and remote support, but actually bridging between those experiences and connecting them to provide students a substantive and rich preparation experience remotely as well as in the transition back to face-to-face experiences,” says Nancy Latham, associate dean for the College.

“We had a lot of challenges in placing the students and in figuring out how prepared classrooms were to use Zoom for our placement purposes,” says Sarah McCarthey, professor and head of the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. “That was hard. And it was hard returning to classrooms, where not all of our students felt safe, especially when the mask mandate ceased to exist. We still have some students who are very uncomfortable about being in those settings. So, it’s been complicated. We’ve tried to take things on a case-by-case basis but also have some policies.”

Baptism by Fire

Cara Gutzmer, director of School and Community Experiences, was on the front lines grappling with those policies.

“We have twenty-four local school districts that we work with,” she says. “Each one had their own policy: face-to-face, hybrid, or completely remote. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to figure out how we were going to navigate that situation.”

Gutzmer earned her PhD in Curriculum & Instruction (C&I) from the University of Illinois in December 2020. She began her director role a few months prior to graduation, in July 2020. Call it baptism by fire.

“Yes, I was pretty much just thrown into the middle of the pandemic!” she says. “We had three hundred field placements in the fall of 2020 and one hundred seventy-seven community placements. We placed them all virtually that fall.”

Field placements were divided equally among “early fielders,” who are earning hours prior to student teaching, and student teachers. The Education 201 class requires 20 hours of community service with a local group.

Team Effort

Gutzmer hit the ground running, but she wasn’t running alone. She had, and has, plenty of help from others. Gutzmer handles the placements for middle grades and high school, while Sue Talbott, clinical experiences specialist for School and Community Experiences (SCE), manages placements for early childhood and elementary. Danielle Galardy, office manager for SCE, keeps track of the over 1,000 placements made each year. Stephanie Smith, associate professor in C&I, is the early childhood program coordinator; Lynn Burdick, faculty development coordinator in C&I, is the elementary program coordinator; and Barbara Hug, teaching professor in C&I, is the middle grades and secondary education program coordinator. Gutzmer also names Brenda Clevenger Evans, associate director for the Council on Teacher Education, and Latham and McCarthey as being instrumental in navigating the uncharted waters of the pandemic.

“Our program coordinators are really key in this,” says McCarthey. “They meet with Cara and Sue all the time and talk over things such as how much accommodation should we do for people via Zoom if they’re sick or absent and other nitty-gritty issues.”

Some of those nitty-gritty issues revolved around the constantly evolving policies of schools and districts as the number of COVID-19 cases would dip and rise again, on training their 35 supervisors how to supervise remotely, on what classroom management would look like in a virtual space, and on the all-important responsibility of finding enough placements for their students.

Expanding District and Community Relationships

“We had to reach out to new districts because we were losing cooperating teachers from a lot of the districts that we have partnered with in the past,” Gutzmer says. “So, we reached out to parochial schools, private schools, to districts we hadn’t worked with for a while, to expand our circle.”

That effort resulted in partnering with over 55 districts in the spring of 2021—and a 100% placement rate.

“We’re incredibly lucky here at the University of Illinois to have fantastic school district partnerships,” Gutzmer says. “And the silver lining in all of this,” she adds, “is in making new district connections. It’s given us the opportunity to diversify the experience for our students. And the students themselves were part of the solution to what was happening in our area schools. They were helping find the right technology and doing things that their cooperating teachers hadn’t figured out yet.”

Gutzmer also lauds the many community partners that take on the Education 201 students for their community placements. “We have around twenty community partners we’re working with right now,” she says. “There’s tutoring, they’re back in person at Salt & Light, at the Crisis Nursery, at an adult daycare center, at food banks and food pantries.” The Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club was especially helpful during the early semesters of the pandemic, and We CU, a University of Illinois organization that empowers students to make a positive impact in the community, has been instrumental in helping the College connect with new community partners.

“We expanded our ideas of what makes a placement, especially our early field placements, so we could have enough classrooms available for our full-time student teachers,” Gutzmer says. As of spring 2022, all field placements have been face to face.

Lessons Learned

Gutzmer says her first two years as director of School and Community Experiences have taught her the importance of being flexible and really listening to the students and their stories. “It’s important to have rules and policies but it’s also important to understand the lived experience of our students and how we might need to adjust policies,” she says.

“We talk in our office about having a balance of grace and accountability; both of those things are incredibly important. We want our students to know we are holding them accountable, but there is grace because there are a lot of things that happen that we can’t predict.”

The pandemic has also illuminated the need for greater awareness of mental health issues, she notes. “We’re seeing a lot of mental health issues, and we support the students in different ways—through resources available on campus, through ways to manage anxiety, through the importance of self-care.”

Lasting Effect

The pandemic, even when it becomes endemic, will have a lasting effect on the College and on education in general.

“It’s made us really think about some of our assumptions about how students learn best and how we might be able to provide the best support and training for them to become really good teachers,” McCarthey says. To illustrate, the pandemic has opened up dialogue about perhaps shifting from three-hour blocks to two one-and-a-half hour blocks for those in the elementary program, with the possibility that one of those blocks might be a synchronous Zoom class.

“The lessons we’ve learned are influencing current program development,” Latham says. “For example, our recently approved Early Childhood Professional Education Program (ECPE) is taking many of these innovations and ideas to deliver this program online for working ECE professionals state-wide.”

Students Persevered

Gutzmer beams when she talks about the centerpiece of her job: the student teachers. “We had two-hundred fifteen student teachers in the field who have just graduated,” she says. “I am so proud of them. They maneuvered through being completely remote; they maneuvered through what many of our coops were saying was a more challenging school year than the previous year. They’ve persevered through a lot—and now they’re going to be successfully serving in our local schools and in schools around the state and elsewhere.”

As for a time when she might experience “normal,” pre-pandemic placement?

“I’m not sure what a normal placement time would even look like!” she laughs.