While the 2020 school year has posed unprecedented challenges to those in the education field – including education majors navigating their student teaching experience amid the pandemic – it has also paved the way for new ideas. The University of Wisconsin-Platteville School of Education is collaborating with Cuba City Elementary School to offer a new internship program that is not only providing four UW-Platteville students with an unmatched teaching experience, but also playing a vital role in helping the school limit the spread of COVID-19 and offer in-person learning.
The idea started last summer, when Brad Lutes, principal of Cuba City Elementary School and a 1996 UW-Platteville alumnus, contacted Tim Hazen, UW-Platteville School of Education clinical experiences coordinator, to inquire about hiring interns to supplement his teaching staff. The addition of interns, Lutes explained, would allow the school to split their second through fifth grade classes into smaller groups, with an intern teaching a third of the students at a grade level in their own classroom.
“We wanted to create cohort groups in our elementary building that allowed us to socially distance our students and provide face-to-face instruction as much as possible,” said Lutes. “We also wanted to help provide UW-Platteville students with the opportunity to experience face-to-face teaching despite the pandemic that is going on.”
By mid-July, the internship program was approved by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Hazen and others from the School of Education identified the top-qualified candidates.
“We took a list of our elementary education majors who were eligible to student teach, and reached out to faculty for recommendations on the strongest candidates,” said Hazen.
Students were first required to apply to the Department of Public Instruction to approve their internship. Once approved, the could apply with the administrators at Cuba City Elementary School, who then interviewed and selected the four interns. The interns are paid a stipend by Cuba City School District.
While the UW-Platteville interns are in a unique position of managing their own classroom, they work closely with their cooperating teacher and have opportunities to observe classrooms led by that teacher.
“I was extremely nervous,” said Harley Baty, a senior elementary education major from Des Moines, Iowa, who is interning in a third-grade classroom. “I barely slept before the first day of school, terrified that I would do something to mess up the students in my classroom. I think for me the biggest challenge is not having the support or direct guidance on how to do things at the tips of my fingers.”
For Baty, this meant taking complete charge of all classroom management, from behavior to technology, school policies and more.
“It was stressful, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything,” said Baty. “Despite my cooperating teacher not being able to be in direct contact, she did an amazing job making sure I was set up for success in order to help my students succeed.”
As she prepares to graduate this December, Baty said the experience will shape her as a teacher.
“In a regular student teaching experience, I would not have developed the relationships with my students in the same way I was able to during this,” she said. “I have also gained so many classroom management tools, lesson plan ideas, and learned so much about myself as a teacher. Instead of following another teacher’s room, behavior, and lesson ideas – which is very beneficial – I was able to mold and build myself and what I wanted to do as it came up. I learned firsthand what worked and didn’t, and I think it left more of a lasting impression than witnessing someone else doing it.”
Lutes said he is pleased with the internship program and has already hired four new UW-Platteville interns for the second semester.
“Things are going great,” said Lutes. “We have four quality interns this semester and believe the four coming in the second semester will also provide a high-quality learning experience for our students.”
Lutes also attributes the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases at the school in part to the internship program. “It has been vital to our ability to stay open face-to-face,” he said. “Smaller class sizes that are socially distanced, along with our use of masks and other safety protocol, has allowed us to provide quality face-to-face instruction. We are thankful to have built such a strong partnership with UW-Platteville.”
As for the participating UW-Platteville students, Hazen said he hopes the experience will have a significant impact on the interns as they start their teaching careers. “These four interns will have a real head start when they graduate at the end of the semester, because they have been in the classroom themselves and done more than a regular student teacher,” said Hazen. “They had to adapt right away and they have had good support from the cooperating teachers and the school administrator. It’s working really well.”
According to Hazen, several other school districts are in discussions with the School of Education about launching a similar program. “During the pandemic, the Department of Public Instruction is adopting emergency rules to help us help school districts, because they are really in need of not only substitute teachers, but anything they can do to supplement the amount of teachers in the classroom to help students, whether they are virtual or in the classroom,” he said.
Though the semester had its challenges, the interns agree that experiencing their first solo teaching assignment – amid a global pandemic – is a defining moment they will reflect on for years to come.
“After this is all done, I think the feeling I will walk away from this with is being grateful and thankful for this opportunity,” said Michaela Miller, a senior elementary education major from Reedsburg, Wisconsin, who is interning in a second-grade classroom. “I think if I look back on this experience years from now, I will be very thankful that I was offered this opportunity and I am very thankful and blessed to meet the people I have met and built relationships with. The bigger lessons I will take away are no matter how hard and stressful life gets, no matter what is going on, teachers and staff always rise above for their students. Teachers have been put to the test and have done things that we would have never thought we would ever have to do. I am glad I was pushed this semester, as I was nervous coming into this experience. But I believe it will make me a better teacher in the end.”
“Looking back l will definitely appreciate this experience,” said Baty. “If I can student teach on my own, in the middle of a pandemic, and keep all of my students alive, happy and healthy, and succeed in teaching them the skills they need to know, I can teach in any environment. It has definitely given me more confidence in myself as a teacher.”