Teacher Appreciation Week 2020 kicked off on May 4, and while the annual celebration is decades old, this year is a bit different. Many people across the U.S. have come to value teachers in a new way because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As schools and classrooms closed their physical doors, virtual classrooms opened seemingly overnight, thanks to the prevalence of video conferencing software. Without skipping a beat, teachers were asked to rethink their approach, their methods, and their entire role as educators—while also managing their own lives and families as the pandemic hit.
“It is often the case that educators work miracles with little resources,” says Dr. Corbin Campbell, associate dean of AU’s School of Education (SOE). “Part of what makes this time unique is that the students themselves don’t have what they need. Teachers are navigating this new teaching and learning environment where not only are teachers under-resourced, but [many] students are deeply under-resourced in this new online world.”
SOE is committed to supporting teachers—whether it’s year 1 or year 15—who are in the thick of these challenges. The school is offering two free weekly webinar series—one for educators and education leaders, and another for parents and caregivers. Topics range from mental health to equity-oriented online teaching to college readiness. In addition, through its Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, SOE has also compiled COVID-19 resources for school counselors.
"We want to tap some of our faculty expertise to really support the community throughout this time,” says Campbell.
In a non-pandemic world, teachers would have months—if not longer—to plan and prepare for a completely online classroom experience. But preparing teachers has always been a priority for SOE, which itself offers three online graduate programs.
This past year, SOE implemented Mursion, an avatar-based virtual training program that simulates a classroom experience. The platform allows SOE’s teacher candidates to practice teaching in a low stakes environment, explains Dr. Carolyn Parker, director of AU’s Master of Arts in Teaching program. Parker helped pilot Mursion this past year, thanks to a gift from two university alumni.
With Mursion, student avatars (voiced by an actor) give teacher candidates a unique opportunity to test their knowledge and approach, as well as the opportunity to encounter a variety of student personas, including those who have learning impairments.
The latter is particularly important to Kim Tilley, CAS/MA ‘08, an adjunct special education faculty member who helped AU explore the use of Mursion. “This tool enables SOE candidates to confront perplexing classroom situations and helps increase the confidence of new teachers," she says. "And, near and dear to my heart, it also reflects SOE’s commitment to deepening our teacher candidates’ understanding of and familiarity with students who have learning disabilities and/or ADHD, which aligns with AU’s exemplary Master in Special Education: Learning Disabilities program.”
Around 36 of AU’s teacher candidates have used Mursion this year, and Parker says there are plans to expand. Given challenges from COVID-19, Parker envisions using Mursion more broadly if candidates are not able to get back into physical classrooms.
During this crisis, Campbell feels fortunate that SOE has access to Mursion and other technology resources. “We’ve been thinking a lot about how we can use technology towards excellence and equity in the classroom,” she says. “We aim to be an innovative faculty...being a school that is not only striving for that, but making major changes to do that, has really set us up differently for this space.”
As Teacher Appreciation Week is recognized in new ways, SOE remains committed to supporting teachers who are on currently on the front lines—likely changing the course of education as we know it.
“I'm deepening my appreciation for the real work that teachers do on a daily basis,” says Campbell. “We ask so much of teachers because it’s needed. Right now, we’re only seeing a little piece of what they do. I hope we can carry that forward with us and remember what a crucial and important job this is.”
Is there a teacher in your life who is making a difference in this moment? If you have the time, Campbell recommends reaching out with an extra note of thanks. “Individual touch points really make a difference.”