By Dionna Gonnella and Kimberly Cote
Student teacher Dionna Gonnella
It’s hard to even put into words or explain what went on during my student teaching experience while we were in a pandemic. The rollercoaster of events and changes with virtual learning and in-person learning created stress among teachers around the world. This was a terrifying and difficult time, but it was also the most important time in my education: my student teaching experience.
I was filled with anxiety through all of this, not knowing what would happen or how the next day would pan out. All of my college classes were suddenly virtual, and I was not able to get the face-to-face lectures I needed. College assignments were becoming harder and harder. I was working two jobs on top of my student teaching until it started becoming mentally and physically exhausting, but I had to work because student teachers don’t get paid.
I watched family members, friends, and all those around the world lose their jobs, lose loved ones, struggle to pay bills, and do everything in their power to make ends meet. It was hard to adapt right away and come to terms with what was happening. Many thoughts filled my head every day:
- Will I still be able to student teach this year?
- Will I be able to fit in all of my student teaching hours?
- Will a family member get COVID?
- Will I get COVID?
- How will I learn to teach virtually when I am just starting out?
- Will I be able to complete my edTPA requirement?
Most importantly, will I be good enough for my students to get the education they deserve through remote teaching?
There were so many questions and thoughts constantly running through my head, I could have run a marathon. But the one thing that kept me pushing, the one thing that made everything worth it, was my class.
From the moment I walked in on my first day of student teaching, my class welcomed me with open arms. The gratitude I have toward those students and to their teacher and my mentor, Kimberly Cote, stands above all else. They were welcoming and supportive to me through the most difficult times. It was all I needed to know I could do this.
A curve ball with edTPA
The process required to complete the edTPA was exhausting. I had to cut my hours at my other jobs and focus on the state requirement that determines if I am suitable to become a teacher. It was hours and hours of seemingly endless work, and a deadline that was quickly approaching. Two weeks before I was going to implement my edTPA in the classroom, my school shut down. We went virtual because the COVID cases started to rise dramatically in our district.
Hearing this news, I was ready to give up. I was at a loss for words and unsure of the direction I should go. I had planned my entire edTPA as three in-person lessons; now I had to recreate them as virtual lessons just in case we didn’t go back in person in time. I was in disbelief, but I was able to do it because I had a great support system at home and in my classroom. My family, friends, students, and mentor teacher were all rooting for me. I figured it out and altered my plans in case we were virtual. Fortunately, by the time I had to implement my edTPA lesson plans, we were back to in-person learning and I passed!
My role model
Throughout this experience Kim, my mentor teacher, was my role model. She was learning how to adapt to virtual learning, taking classes toward her learning disability teacher consultant certification to supplement her existing master’s degree, and dealing with her own problems. But she always put me first to make sure I got to where I needed to be. She pushed me and made sure I had the student teaching experience I deserved.
Kim went above and beyond during some of her toughest times as an educator. She helped shape me into the educator I am today and gave me the confidence to take over her classroom when she had to go on leave the last month of school. Kim believed in me more than I believed in myself, at times.
I praise all of the teachers around the world who had to adapt to these changes, become more flexible, and tech savvy in such a short time. They all deserve a trophy. Kim had to do all of this on top of teaching me how to be a teacher—let that sink in.
The big hearts and bright minds of my students
My students, every single one of them, gave me memories to hold onto forever. They were my first class, and they were the best thing to happen to me during the pandemic. They made everything so much brighter in such a dark time. We shared many hugs, laughs, and lots of tears as the year went on and my student teaching experience came to an end. They were my rock during this crazy time trying to navigate virtual learning and becoming a teacher. They helped shape me into the teacher I am today because of their big hearts and bright minds.
All of the challenges my students sent my way helped me understand them more. From them I learned how to deal with the many situations that could arise virtually or in person. However, I would deal with all of the challenges in the world for that one lightbulb moment when everything clicks, and my students become proud and happy with themselves, gaining the confidence they deserve.
This is what teaching is all about. Children are born with their whole lives ahead of them and being able to provide them with the education they need to be successful and thrive in this world means everything to me.
Mentor teacher Kimberly Cote
In August 2020, the world was in COVID upheaval, and I was sweating at the thought of going back to school. The districts around Galloway Township, where I live, were pushing the start of school off for a few weeks because they needed to set up social distancing within the classrooms. I was worried about what to do with my own children when I had to return to work.
The curriculum director’s secretary in Barnegat, where I work, called to ask if I would host a student teacher from Stockton. I had to laugh. I thought, “How in the world can we invite college students into the classroom when we aren’t sure how to make school safe for all students?” Furthermore, what college could fathom putting their students in a multitude of public schools for student teaching experiences?
I laughed and agreed to welcome a student teacher to my classroom thinking things were wild, and I might as well embrace the ride. In the student teacher’s shoes, I would have deferred my student teaching if I had to be inside of an elementary school during a pandemic!
I prepared myself in advance to forgive this student teacher immediately if teaching during a pandemic was more than they had signed up for. Especially because teaching during a pandemic might be more than I was ready to sign up for.
An educational avalanche
September through January, Dionna Gonnella completed her 100 observation hours. Boy, did she ever observe! She watched as I managed three groups of students both in person and virtually.
The schedule alone was mind blowing. I had a Monday and Wednesday in-person group and a different Tuesday and Thursday in-person group. Those students had to go home each day prepared to learn virtually the following day. In class, I was live streaming every subject, every day. I was teaching in living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, forts, garages, Granny’s house, Dad’s work truck, Mom’s office, the sitter’s playroom and the bathroom.
All the while, Dionna attempted to help me grow a few extra arms to keep the pace with our technology. We were screenshotting assignments, linking YouTube videos and creating Google slides. We started to get really fancy when we created Google quizzes with videos. Dionna was observing while keeping me from drowning in an educational avalanche.
By January, Dionna was ready to take center stage and fly solo for one subject at a time. I was starting to think COVID didn’t scare her as much as it scared me. But maybe she just really loved our kiddos as much as I did. They were an amazing group, by then arranged in two groups instead of three. Our district decided to have students come to school in person four days a week by then. Many students were switching back and forth between virtual and in person. Some were quarantining because of exposure to a person with COVID or because they tested positive themselves. Things were still very scary. Then, we closed the building to students for two weeks, but teachers and other staff were still reporting to school.
I figured Dionna would take this opportunity to stay home, safe and healthy. No. Dionna kept showing up to school to teach as much as she possibly could. We were at a major turning point in the student teaching experience. It was time to gradually transition Dionna to teaching more subjects until she was “on her own.” I was excited for her because I felt that she had invested the time and energy to learn about our students as a whole and as individuals. Dionna was ready, but COVID kept throwing us curve balls.
Dionna was teaching with me virtually for two weeks. I was continuing to teach language arts and she was teaching math and science. Dionna was eager and seemed to be absorbing things as fast as possible. She was interested in teaching literature circles and learning to differentiate lessons. I could not believe that, regardless of being terrified of catching or spreading COVID, Dionna kept her focus on learning as much as she possibly could.
Pushing through my own fear
Working with Dionna was a great experience. She is smart and was not afraid to work hard during a pandemic. There were moments I found myself pushing through my own fear because Dionna was showing up to learn, and she was counting on me. She motivated me during the worst of times in my very own classroom. This was an inspiring experience and one I will continue to cherish when I look back on my career.
Dionna continued to work with our classroom when she was finished with her student teaching experience. She became my long-term substitute while I recovered from surgery in May. This was a unique situation because I really needed surgery and Dionna was the perfect person to cover my class for the last few weeks of school. I was grateful to her and we spoke daily to address different issues that arose.
I was blessed to have Dionna share my classroom with me during the worst time to be a teacher. She was and continues to be a bright spot in my life, and I plan on staying close by as she follows her own teaching path.
Kimberly Cote is a fourth-grade teacher at Joseph T. Donohue School in Barnegat, where Dionna Gonnella is currently serving in a long-term substitute position. While she was a student teacher, Gonnella was mentored by Cote.