Education field grapples with training, teaching in virtual classrooms

According to Owen Wachter, web manager for VCU’s School of Education, 99% of undergraduate classes and 91.9% of graduate classes in the school are online, hybrid or blended. Photo by Jon Mirador

Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

Teachers and younger students are learning to manage their time, engage via video chat and foster connections without physical contact, and future teachers studying at VCU are following suit in their field work.

Senior music education major Noah Mason would usually spend most of the fall semester and nearly all of the spring semester shadowing teachers. Mason said that hasn’t happened yet due to Chesterfield County Public Schools’ safety precautions for distributing online class information.

Instead, he helps school music instructors repair instruments, organize music libraries and distribute materials to students at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield, Virginia. He said this counts as his field experience, but he’s disappointed he can’t interact with students online or in person. 

“We reached the conclusion that no amount of undergraduate experience really prepares you for the real deal,” Mason said. “None of it is really like being in the classroom and doing the whole thing.”

Students in the City of Richmond are online for the entirety of the first semester, but surrounding public school systems differed in semester plans. Henrico County Public Schools are online for the first nine weeks of the school year, and Hanover County gave students the option to attend class in person.

Chesterfield County Public Schools will begin phasing students with special education requirements into face-to-face learning on Sept. 29. The school division hopes to have all students participate in face-to-face learning during the 2020-21 school year, according to its website

Mason said he would be eager to transition to in-person student teaching, but he would need to take additional precautions. As a commuter student living with elderly parents, Mason is concerned he could accidentally bring home COVID-19.

“I feel like you can’t really go into it thinking that you’re going to have a plan. You have to be willing to adapt.” — Liz Pearson, first grade teacher at Richmond Public Schools.

“That’s been an anxious thought of mine for some time now,” Mason said.

Owen Wachter, creative lead and web manager for VCU’s School of Education, said a majority of shadowing assignments in Richmond-area school districts are taking place online.

Wachter said that 99% of undergraduate classes and 91.9% of graduate classes in the school are online, hybrid or blended. 

A very small number of students are in face-to-face settings,” Wachter said in an email.

Zoom training is available to students, faculty and staff on VCU’s website, and Wachter said educators were specifically provided with a FAQ page and a Zoom blog for further assistance. 

With flu season approaching and uncertainty regarding a return to face-to-face learning, Wachter said he’s worried about teacher candidates who must complete their practicums and internships in neighboring districts.

“I do have concerns if we have school closures,” Wachter said in an email.

Jon Becker, associate professor in the department of educational leadership at the School of Education, said faculty decided over the summer that all of the departmental classes would be offered online. 

Becker was the director of innovation and online academic programs for VCU from 2013-17, so he was familiar with online teaching before it became a popular medium last semester. Becker said COVID-19, on the other hand, taught him the importance of synchronous learning, or instruction that requires students and teachers to meet at a designated time. 

“In a time where we don’t have opportunities to be together physically, it’s important to come together at the same time,” Becker said.

Becker said online education can be just as fruitful as in-person education, but that creating quality online courses requires more work than usual.

“I will say that they are qualitatively different experiences, but it’s very possible to teach a high-quality online course,” Becker said.

From the teacher’s desk

Liz Pearson, first grade teacher at Richmond Public Schools, has become familiar with new teaching styles, virtual classrooms and alternative learning experiences from her desk at home. 

Pearson said online teaching has gone better than expected for her class — her students understood how and why to mute their microphones within the first few days of classes. 

“As of right now, it’s been pretty positive and we haven’t really had to face a lot of obstacles,” Pearson said. “I mean, they’re just doing great.”

Liz Pearson, a first-grade teacher at Richmond Public Schools said online teaching has gone “better than expected” for her class. Photo courtesy of Liz Pearson

Pearson said that while her students are doing well, she finds it difficult to teach certain parts of the class, such as learning to write, without the constant guidance of face-to-face learning.

“I might not be able to give as good feedback right now, but I think that we’ll learn how to do that better as we get into the year,” Pearson said.

Pearson said she tried to engage in all of the virtual training offered by RPS this summer but has to remind herself to stay flexible.

“I feel like you can’t really go into it thinking that you’re going to have a plan,” Pearson said. “You have to be willing to adapt.”

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