How student teachers can prepare for the unknown

By Heather Harris, Rutgers Graduate School of Education

To an aspiring educator, your student teaching experience is a rite of passage. It is the bridge between the college student you are and the teacher you want to be. January 2020 marked the beginning of my student teaching journey, in a 10th grade U.S. History II classroom.

At the start of March 2020, I was preparing a lesson on Post World War II America. I printed out the activity instructions, bookmarked the sources I would need to project from my laptop, and color-coded the discussion questions I wanted to ask my students during the lesson. I didn’t prepare for that to be the last time of the school year that I would walk through my classroom door.

The worksheets have since been discarded, my color-coded notes have remained untouched in my backpack, and I’ve closed the tabs on my computer. COVID-19 went from a concerning news item to the center of American life.

Education in our country will never look the same as it did before 2020, and that is OK. We are now part of the rebuilding and reimagining of an equitable education for all children, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or ZIP code.

I left campus and returned to my childhood home to wait out what my cooperating teacher assumed would be an “extended spring break period, at most.” I settled into the love of my family and cherished my ability to safely stay home and do my part. Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and months turned into the end of my semester and senior year. The pandemic changed the face of schooling forever. Simultaneously, it pulled back the curtain on the festering inequalities facing our school system and country.

I quietly mourned my beautiful student teaching experience, my college graduation, and my entire way of life that collectively slipped away. Unable to assist with any virtual learning efforts, my classes, my students, and my livelihood turned into just memories. In comparison to all the lives lost during this pandemic, my student teaching experience is minute.

Juxtaposed against the devastating impact of the coronavirus have been the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade. An international movement has erupted in support of Black Lives Matter. Pride Month got off to a harrowing start with the murders of two black transgender women, Riah Milton and Dominique Fells. It has continued to include an attempt by the Trump administration to erase transgender health care access. Anti-black racism, misogynoir (where misogyny intersects with race), police violence and brutality, transphobia, white supremacy, and generations of systemic racism are just some of the issues that have prompted weeks of mass peaceful protests and an unprecedented public response. Now, more than ever, activism and change are needed on every level to enact long-lasting systemic changes.

It is critical that we all take this time to analyze ourselves, the systems we participate in, and the ways in which they are having an impact on our students and schools. As tumultuous as the year has been, our students are experiencing it too. At a time when we were still anxiously awaiting news of how school would look this fall, it was easy to feel powerless. But we are far from powerless.

As educators, we are in the fortunate position of being part of the future, trusted to educate the future in our classrooms. Education in our country will never look the same as it did before 2020, and that is OK. We are now part of the rebuilding and reimagining of an equitable education for all children, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or ZIP code. We need to be able to support our students, our cooperating teachers, and ourselves.

Take this time get uncomfortable. Challenge yourself to study, pay attention and listen. Open your mind to the process of unlearning your own biases, perspectives and assumptions. Be mindful of the stress you’re feeling and consider how it is affecting your students.

Author Harriet Jackson Brown wrote, “The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.” As aspiring educators, we are most comfortable when we can overly plan and meticulously prepare. We have no idea what tomorrow will look like, but today we can dedicate ourselves to just trying our best. Our students are watching. 

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