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September 15, 2020
It was the first day of first grade for Caroline Falls. She quickly reviewed her checklist: Hand sanitizer, check. Crayons, check.
The eager 20-year-old Piedmont Technical College (PTC) Early Care and Education (ECE) major was truly stoked to begin her formal field experience at Hodges Elementary School on August 24. Any first-day nerves she may have harbored evaporated the moment she met her supervising teacher.
“My teacher, Kimber Burrell, is absolutely amazing,” the Abbeville resident said. “I walked into her classroom, and she could not be more welcoming. I just felt like I fit in right away. That’s nice because when I start something, I want to jump in right away!”
Falls’ enthusiasm for the business courses she was taking had waned before she switched her major to ECE. “I didn’t want to wear a pantsuit every day,” she said. “Soon I fell in love with early education and realized it was my calling in life.”
A cohort of PTC education majors received their field placement assignments the first week of this fall semester. The assignment often is their first real-world classroom experience. ECE Program Director Claudia Edwards initially helped them go over the necessary paperwork (so many forms) to facilitate a safe experience for all, including the children and school faculty. All participants in the program must sign a vow of confidentiality, pass a criminal background check and sustain a negative drug screen.
By necessity, the novel coronavirus has prompted significant changes to how courses are delivered.
“About half of our classes normally met face-to-face. We have converted many to an online format, including four classes this semester that have never been offered online before,” Edwards explained. “Everything is now online except for our field placement courses. We meet just once a month and are in the schools the rest of the time.”
When the pandemic caused mass institutional closures in the middle of the spring semester, it was particularly hard on those participating in field placement courses.
“When things shut down in the spring, we had to take our students out of their classrooms,” Edwards said. “They weren’t able to finish their field placement as intended. That was hard because they couldn’t even say goodbye to their students. It was so abrupt. That was difficult.”
Those students ultimately completed their teaching experience by creating video assignments showing them teaching family members or neighborhood children when possible. “We also found some videos they could watch and discuss on an online discussion board,” Edwards said.
Offering ECE courses that have never before been offered online required some creative thinking to simulate and support hands-on classroom work as well as group learning and collaborative projects.
“Our science and math concept course has always been totally hands-on,” Edwards said. “In converting to online instruction, we decided to prepare special toolkits for our students. The items in each kit support experiments that we do and materials that they would be manipulating in the classroom. They can plan lessons for us using the materials. It’s a pre-made course designed by teachers and comes with an exact materials list. It’s very, very specific.”
During the field placement orientation, Edwards laid out in detail expectations, dress code, work ethic, lesson planning, implementation and evaluation.
The goal is for students to complete 90 hours of classroom experience. For many, that equates to about nine hours a week. The students set their schedules with their supervising teachers. While schools — observing public health precautions and policies — recently opened to students, Edwards remained wary of uncertain events.
“I am trying to encourage students to get in as many hours as they can as early as they can,” Edwards said. “We are going to have to be flexible. We like for them to get to know the children and form relationships with their supervising teachers. … There’s nothing that exactly replicates the real-world experience of being in the classroom.”
Each student will undergo two formal observations by a supervising teacher and PTC faculty member, according to standards set forth by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the program’s accrediting body. Edwards reminded students that they will be under robust scrutiny.
“The host teachers will evaluate you,” Edwards told the ECE class. “This is where work ethic, soft skills and professional growth will count a lot. … The teachers come to depend on you. So be dependable. Look at it as a job. You are a professional. You wouldn’t show up to work late or miss a scheduled session. We want you to do well.”
Falls took excellent notes as Edwards spoke to the class and appears to have no issues in the work ethic department. Wasting no time on her first day in Ms. Burrell’s classroom, she already broached the topic of her case study project, because there’s no time like the present to get a head start.
“Today, on my first day of field practice, I could actually be myself with those kids and express myself through them. I couldn’t do that in the formal business world,” she said. “I absolutely loved the experience.”
Whether classrooms return to pre-pandemic “normal” remains to be seen. Perhaps a bright side is that the quarantine has greatly enhanced many a parent’s appreciation for the teaching profession. Some experts suggest that virtual education likely will continue in some form indefinitely. Just as the PTC Early Care and Education Program has adapted under recent challenging circumstances, it will continue to be proactive and flexible. Some future teachers likely will need to engage with children they have not even met in person. Ideally, after the bell has sounded at the end of a school day, the great qualities a teacher brings to his or her job still will resonate in their online “classroom.”
“I think our students are pretty resilient and passionate about what they do,” Edwards said. “We would like for things to get back to normal. We really do miss the children” and there is no duplicating the pure energy children bring to a live, in-person classroom.
On her first day at Hodges Elementary, Falls immediately experienced how even the in-person classroom relationship has changed after the shut-down.
“I hate that I couldn’t actually hug the kids as they came into the classroom,” she said. “But we did air high-fives and (non-touching) fist bumps. They were telling me stories about what they did over the summer. It was a great opportunity for me to actively listen and provide positive feedback and reinforcement.”
In May 2021, when Falls completes her associate degree, she plans to transfer to Lander and work on a bachelor’s in education. For more information about the PTC Early Care and Education Program, visit www.ptc.edu/ecd.