Aspiring teacher adapts to COVID-19-restricted student teaching

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Nicholas Onofrio, senior in education and mathematics, is a student teacher at Manhattan High School's West Campus in a math class. As COVID-19 continues to disturb normal education processes, student teachers have to adapt to changing course modalities and classroom prevention guidelines. (Kaylie McLaughlin | Collegian Media Group)

For aspiring teachers at Kansas State, student teaching is the last step between completing assignments and grading them. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed all school buildings last spring, student teachers were left scrambling.

Eileen Wertzberger, Office of Field Experience coordinator for the College of Education, discussed student placements over Zoom when the pandemic forced a change of plans.

“In the middle of my spiel, the governor announces that the buildings are shut down for the rest of the year,” Wertzberger said.

While student teachers adjusted to the modality of their observing teacher’s classroom, students in educational blocks and early field experience shifted to other learning methods. Schools could only support a small number of people.

“I had my Block Two completely virtual, and I taught my first observation lesson probably a month ago,” Nicholas Onofrio, senior in education and mathematics, said. “That is the first time I have ever taught to more than like two or three people. It’s definitely a big trial by fire.”

Onofrio grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and developed a love of teaching thanks to a couple of inspirational teachers. While one encouraged his love of math, the other showed him the joys of teaching.

“I also love to help people,” Onofrio said. “I think [teaching] is one of the best ways I can combine those two interests together.”

Despite the shift in his educational path, Onofrio praised the College of Education and its response to pandemic restrictions, commending his professors’ efforts to provide students a fulfilling education.

“I think they have done about as well as possible,” Onofrio said. “They’ve done well with finding [student teaching] placements. I can’t imagine how difficult that’s been.”

Wertzberger and her office handle placements, contacting district offices and principals to set up affiliations with schools. She helps mediate any issues or concerns if school officials want to discuss a situation further.

“We have undergraduate programs, we have graduate-level teacher licensure programs,” Wertzberger said. “I have my hand in a little bit of all of that.”

Now a student teacher at Manhattan High School’s West Campus, Onofrio describes his day as what one might expect from a high school teacher. He arrives at school by 7:15 a.m., gets one planning-period a day and generally leaves by 3:40 p.m.

“I’m pretty much full-time now,” Onofrio said. “They’ve been phasing me in. … It’s all pretty standard from what you’d expect for a teacher.”

However, Onofrio notes the struggles he and his students face while learning in the middle of a pandemic. The loss of interaction and COVID-19 restrictions make daily learning a difficult task.

“There hasn’t been as much time to build that class identity in each group,” Onofrio said. “I think that’s something that a lot of them struggle with.”

Students are either fully in-person or fully remote, and anyone in close contact with a positive person is required to quarantine for 10 days. Onofrio says the response is a “mixed blessing,” praising the caution while pointing out the difficulties it creates.

“It’s really hard to learn in that scenario,” Onofrio said. “I’ve had my teacher leave in the middle of the day to go pick up her daughter.”

Technology is another source of headache for students and faculty alike. Many students do not have access to strong Wi-Fi and other necessary resources, causing a roadblock for their learning.

“When we talk about education, on what it means to be a teacher, it’s always in the context of a physical classroom with kids that are right there,” Wertzberger said. “So for [schools] to make that shift that now it’s going to be in a virtual setting, that kids may or may not be able to access the technology and get logged on … it was just survival mode.”

Katelin Miller, senior in math education, said online learning points out many flaws in the current educational system.

“Equity is already an issue in education, but I feel like the pandemic has put it on such a larger scale,” Miller said.

Miller said she and Onofrio had a practicum placement together “before the world ended,” and she appreciated his passion for education.

Miller begins student teaching in the fall.

“I’m pretty nervous about classroom management, but I’m also really excited just to form relationships with students,” Miller said. “Working in my practicum right now makes me so excited to be physically there in the classroom.”

There is a mutual understanding among educators — virtual learning and technology are not going away any time soon. While downsides exist, adapting to change is a crucial part of education.

“I think — you know — when the dust settles, I think we’re going to learn a lot about how we can innovate placements,” Wertzberger said. “We have to prepare our students to be able to reach students in any modality.”

“I think really — the inclusion of virtual — I think we will use a lot more technology in the classroom than before,” Onofrio said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

After graduation, Onofrio said he hopes to end up in the Kansas City area with his fiancée, teaching high school calculus and coaching tennis.

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