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Emily Dowling, a Clarion University senior majoring in early-childhood education, felt well-situated to land a teaching job for next year. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Shortly after, the education job fair Dowling planned to attend in Pittsburgh, Pa. was abruptly canceled.
The 21-year-old persevered, landing a virtual screening interview for a teaching position at an elementary school. “I got all dressed up and sat in front of my computer,” Dowling said.
But her computer didn’t support the virtual platform, so she had to do the interview over the phone. It wasn’t ideal, said Dowling, who struggled to discern the interviewer’s reactions to her responses.
“I was really listening for the inflection of the interviewer’s voice,” she said.
For Dowling and countless other college senior education majors, their preparations for searching for their first teaching jobs began unraveling in sync with the pandemic-forced school shutdowns. Most in-person job fairs have been canceled. In many cases, graduation requirements remain unfinished. In some school districts, hiring has ground to a halt.
“It’s been really stressful,” Dowling said.
Anemic job search
Most pandemic-related shutdowns occurred just as school districts were shifting from re-assigning internal candidates to hiring external candidates. Overwhelmed, some school districts called off their normal hiring processes. In a March 23 survey of district leaders by the Education Week Research Center, 48 percent of respondents reported having made “no decisions yet” about hiring for the fall.
This comes as no surprise to University of Maryland senior Quincy Rawson, who scans school districts’ websites regularly to see if they’ve posted new jobs.
“There are very, very few,” said Rawson, who is majoring in early childhood and special education. “Since March 15, most have completely stalled.”
For University of Georgia senior Mary Cowart, the pandemic set into motion a cascading series of events that ultimately upended her future employment plans.
Cowart, working toward a B.S. degree in mathematics education, accepted a position with Teach for America shortly before the pandemic hit. She hadn’t yet fulfilled her responsibilities toward teacher certification. Most pressing, she was preparing to film herself teaching students during her student-internship—a requisite part of the edTPA certification requirement—when schools closed.
Now, Cowart will have to re-start the time-consuming portfolio process in order to earn her teaching certificate. But because of the demanding nature of Teach for America job placements, she thinks it would be unwise to attempt to do both simultaneously. So she’s contemplating deferring her TFA placement for a year. That leaves Cowart considering a new job search for a teaching position to which she could only commit for one year.
If Cowart did get hired for the fall, that could mean being a first-time teacher in a virtual environment. Like many colleges of education, the University of Georgia offers just one class in digital learning, and it’s an elective that Cowart hasn’t taken. Further, her limited experience teaching math online to middle schoolers as a student teacher hasn’t been easy. “It’s definitely not ideal,” Cowart said, who observes that it’s rare for middle school students to ask questions unprompted and finds it more difficult, in an virtual environment, to see if students are struggling.
An opportunity to learn, showcase digital skills
On the bright side, the pandemic shutdowns could provide college seniors engaged in teaching internships a unique opportunity.
“Our hope is that, as much as possible, interns could continue to be doing things [virtually] alongside their regular classroom teachers,” said Robert Floden, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education. But he acknowledges it’s not necessarily up to the student interns.
It depends largely on how prepared their respective school districts are to roll out virtual instruction plans. Interns may be in a holding pattern as the schools where they had been student teaching determine next steps. Others remain fairly engaged.
Some University of Maryland student interns have been invited to meetings in which their mentor teachers are getting trained in delivering online instruction to students, says Kathy Angeletti, the executive director of teacher education at the university’s College of Education.
Still others are learning on the fly.
Clarion University senior Dowling says that, since the pandemic began, she and her fellow education majors have been sharing digital-based resources.
“I have learned so much about technology-based educational resources since this started,” she said.
Digital natives at an advantage
Amidst the uncertainty, the demographic represented by most college seniors has one factor on its side: they’re digital natives.
“I’ve grown up in this world of technology,” said Rawson. She thinks her comfort with technology has made it easier for her to navigate the sudden online teaching demands more readily than her mentor teacher, who has taught for multiple decades and is, according to Rawson, an “amazing teacher”—but not very comfortable using the technology to support virtual instruction.
While college seniors are likely to navigate the technology demands of virtual instruction with relative ease, the same may not be true of the broader uncertainty surrounding their immediate future.
Sensitive to this, colleges are responding. The University of Maryland’s Angeletti says that their school of education has stepped up communication and collaboration with their student interns in response to the unprecedented circumstances.
And seniors report that their professors have been very supportive. Cowart says her math professors have helped students accrue technological resources like desmos, geogebra, edpuzzle and others, and encouraged experimentation with them.
But as supportive as university faculty members have been during this turbulent time, they can’t resolve the most pressing question on the minds of their students.
When asked whether she thinks the pandemic will affect hiring for next year, University of Maryland’s Angeletti said: “I can’t answer that. I just don’t know.”