Teaching during a pandemic: MC faculty and alumni educators create resource for teachers 

Teaching during a pandemic: MC faculty and alumni educators create resource for teachers

Sept. 10, 2020

About halfway through the spring 2020 semester, Dr. Becky Lucas, associate professor of education at Maryville College, was confronting some of the first educational ramifications of COVID-19. During this time, she had about 16 student teachers in schools completing this final, vital requirement to earn a degree with teacher licensure from Maryville College.

When the pandemic began raging in the U.S., many teachers prepared for the reality that they would not return in person after spring break. This created a whole host of challenges for mentor teachers and student teachers. Lucas said about a third of her student teachers wound up without placements after spring break, leading professors to develop creative solutions that would allow students to remotely complete the second half of their student teaching semester – creating support materials for virtual learning.

Lucas felt they had dodged disaster in the spring, but over the summer, she began to worry about her own classes at Maryville College. She was not sure what to expect when returning to teach in the fall, so she decided to enlist a group of teachers to help. 

“This came out of a selfish need – wondering how I could survive a virtual semester but also what could I learn from these experts [K-12 teachers] who had to do this last spring,” Lucas said.

Within a matter of days, Lucas had gathered a group of fellow educators via a Maryville College alumni group and set up a brainstorming session. Stephanie Jones Kirk ’05, Amanda Lawhorn Clark ’13, Dr. Emily Astor and Saundra Wilson Pitt – all educators with Blount County Schools – attended that first session. After bringing the group together, Lucas tried to take in as much as possible.

“I was thinking… I’m just a moderator and a delegator,” Lucas said. “I brought these geniuses together. I just need to step back and turn them loose.”

During the meeting, the group decided it was important to provide a safe space for teachers to convene, share resources and address questions, so they created the Remote Learning Brain Trust Facebook group.

“This is a space for pre-K through 12 educators to connect with one another, share ideas, and gather inspiration,” reads the group description. “We hope this gives you a place to find ways to solve problems creatively, to collaborate with colleagues, and to build your confidence and competency with remote teaching and learning. … We hope this group gives us a place for sharing solutions to challenges we have conquered and brainstorming strategies to meet the demands of teaching and learning in remote settings.”

The Facebook group is private, and members must be aspiring, current or retired educators (those who request to join will be required to answer a series of questions).

The two MC alumni who attended the first brainstorming session, Kirk and Clark, both teach English at Heritage High School and are not new to remote learning. Kirk has a master’s degree in learning and technology and has been using online solutions for several years. Clark teaches four virtual courses at the Future Ready Academy at Samuel Everett School and is pursuing an education specialist degree in educational technology.

“We wanted to focus on the need for dialogue regarding our experiences and tools for support [with the Facebook group], but we certainly didn't expect the dialogue to grow to almost 300 participants just in the first few weeks,” Clark said.

Like Kirk and Clark, most educators were prepared to put remote learning technology to use. For many, transferring curriculum and implementing new technology has not been the biggest challenge of teaching in a pandemic.

“It is clear that the biggest challenge for us is what we’re losing, which is that time to connect with our students and develop relationships and build trust,” Lucas said.

Since its inception, the Remote Learning Brain Trust group has been filled with clever ideas and examples on how to engage students when not face-to-face, along with plenty of encouragement and support from fellow educators.

Lucas said she is particularly proud of Maryville College alumni for their adaptability and willingness to try new technology. One example of Maryville College alumna going above and beyond is Jenna Hunt ’18, a Maryville Junior High School teacher who was recently featured on local NBC affiliate WBIR-TV for her innovative Bitmoji classroom. These classrooms allow both students and teachers to create cartoon-like versions of themselves, which helps students feel like they are still part of a classroom.

Whether teachers have previous experience in virtual learning or not, it is clear the COVID-19 pandemic has created a school atmosphere unlike anything before. It is the first time that remote learning has been done to this scale, and it can prove challenging for more than just teachers.

“We want to make sure that we're supporting students in regards to their social and emotional needs, supporting families in helping their students, and supporting each other, because all stakeholders have concerns for their students regarding safety, as well as learning,” Clark said.  

While adapting to a pandemic is not ideal nor expected, it is creating fundamental changes in the education community.

“We can't move backward,” Kirk said. “Crisis learning wasn't great, but now we have had time to prepare, and we have a network that is helping each other create a system of support for students to master the skills required while at home. In a sense, it revolutionizes the role of teacher – forces the ownership to the student and shoves the teacher into the role of facilitator. We aren't just sharing resources, though, we are creating a community that lifts each other up.”

Lucas agrees that the challenges of this year will likely result in better teaching. PowerPoint slideshows from the early 2000s are not going to cut it for class anymore, she jokes – and that has been a primary benefit of the Remote Learning Brain Trust Facebook group. It has allowed educators to bounce ideas off each other, share success stories and think beyond dated PowerPoints.

“I feel like we’re all going to be better teachers when this ends,” Lucas said. “The pandemic has forced us to work with and depend on other people and to ask for help. It’s pushed us out of our comfort zones.”

By Evy Linkous ’16 for Maryville College

 


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”