The coronavirus has changed and impacted every aspect of life, and teacher education programs have faced a significant hit to long-established plans for providing students with the knowledge and experience they need to be successful in student teaching and their careers as educators. A key component to teacher education programs is the experience of physically being in the classroom environment. This environment creates experiences of engaging with students and working closely with teachers to connect classroom content to real life senarios. With a sudden transition to virtual learning in the Spring of 2020, all field placements at Saint Joe’s were canceled completely for the rest of that semester.

Entering into my sophomore year in the Fall of 2020 as an education major, we received an email from Saint Joe’s Education Department explaining that freshman and sophomores would be watching “high quality” videos from the ATLAS platform as a replacement for doing any sort of real-time field placement for the duration of the Fall 2020 semester and possibly into Spring 2021 as well. SJU’s education department describes how, “To supplement field experiences and early observation, the school also invested in ATLAS (Accomplished Teaching, Learning, and Schools®), a video library that shows authentic cases of National Board-Certified teachers in the classroom. These videos include instructional materials and the teacher’s feedback on the lesson and are a valuable and effective learning tool for teaching observation”.

When initially reading about the replacement of ATLAS for field experience for freshman and sophomores, it felt disappointing to know that I would be out of the classroom for an entire year after being used to going to a kindergarten classroom every Tuesday morning at Gesu School during my freshman year. I valued the bonds I made with the students there as well as the wealth of information I learned from my cooperating teacher.

I wished that all four grade levels here at SJU could be in a virtual placement, not just the juniors and seniors. I immediately questioned how watching ATLAS videos instead of going to fields would affect what I am learning in my education classes as I would not being able to see anything I am learning about inaction or having the chance to meet new students and teachers. I also questioned the impact on freshman or sophomores who switched in the education program in Fall 2020 without ever having in-person field experience but still taking education classes among peers who have had that experience during Fall 2019-early Spring 2020.

I decided to speak to two sophomore education majors to learn more about their thoughts on the year not being in fields and if they believed that there could be anything done differently by SJU in handling this complicated situation. My initial interview was with Lexi, who is double majoring in elementary and special education. She completed in-person field experience weekly during her freshman year before COVID hit (Fall 2019-early Spring 2020). My second interview was with Emma, an elementary education major. Emma was a member of the Haub Business School during her freshman year (Fall 2019-Spring 2020) and decided to switch to being an education major and taking those classes during Fall 2020. This meant that she never had the experience of completing SJU’s field placements, and has only used ATLAS for classroom observations. Despite having different backgrounds in the education program, Lexi and Emma shared insightful responses to my following questions.

“Lexi, How has not been able to go to a field experience impacted you, and your classes, compared to last year being in the classroom for a few hours weekly?

“Emma, How has not being able to go to a field experience impacted you, and in your classes, as someone who transferred into the education program as a sophomore and never having that experience when you were a freshman/pre-coronavirus?”

Lexi responded to this question initially through a description of what being in the classroom meant to her. She recounted how “Getting to be in the classroom last year acted as a consistent reminder of my love of teaching.” Lexi also spoke at length about how the experience of seeing what she was learning in classes would play out right in front of her. One example she gave was about how, during her freshman year, she learned about the classroom management strategy of “centers” where each day students would be assigned a different place to play (e.g. dress up, cars, dolls, iPads), as a structured free time. When Lexi learned about this, she felt like it was complicated to visualize and see working well. Luckily for her, the classroom she went to for fields practiced “centers” so Lexi could observe what worked and did not work with this classroom management tool. Comparing this to now, over a year since being in fields, she still misses all of these aspects and wishes she could have seen what she has been learning about in her education classes this year playing out in the classroom setting.

I asked Emma almost the identical question to Lexi, but with a spin to fit her unique situation. Emma explained to me that she did a divide between her and her classmates who had gone to a weekly field experience during their freshman year. A lot of the time, her professors will ask them to write reflections based on last year’s field experience and she has to explain to them her situation of being a transfer into the major. Emma shared that she did feel lucky because she did does have some experience in a classroom and is not completely left out to dry. Her mom is an early childhood teacher, and has been for many years. Oftentimes, Emma will go and help out her mom when she is home for break. She is able to use these experiences from her mom’s classroom whenever her assignments ask to consider how certain activities and lessons will plan out in the classroom. She did end this questioning by saying, “Honestly, I do feel like I missed out on a a lot but I am optimistic about next year being better and getting to have those experiences of going to a field placement.”

“Do you think that ATLAS was a sufficient replacement for our field experience? Do you think that SJU could have done something differently to help us as education majors prepare for student teaching and our careers?

Both Emma and Lexi had such similar responses to my second question that they can be combined and still accurately portray their thoughts. In our conversations, Emma and Lexi were extremely understanding that ATLAS was the best option SJU could have chosen in the complicated and unexpected situation of a global pandemic, but Emma remarked that “The videos were not as efficient as I would have hoped.” Emma and Lexi both described how a lot of the videos assigned to them appeared to be “set up and well organized” by producers and did not remotely replace the feeling of realness found by being in a classroom. They explained how the videos were helpful at some points, like when they were trying to learn about a specific topics such as handling a certain problem behavior. The two of them agreed that they were more than happy to have had ATLAS as a resource instead of the possibility of having nothing at all to supplement in-classroom field experiences.

Reflecting on these changes to field placements this past year, I do feel fortunate that SJU was able to provide us sophomores with some form of experience to observe a real classroom and real students. I do see a difference in how I can respond to my classes and better understand the materials we learn about. By going to the classroom each week, does become a reminder of my love of teaching and acts as a sort of motivator for me to work even harder on my classes so that I can learn as much as I can to serve my future students.

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