Program adapts equity, social justice teaching to pandemic era

Alice Viles, Lillian Loftin and Russell Arkin

How teachers continue to focus their educational practice on social justice and equity while teaching online during a pandemic is the question that faced UOTeach master’s degree students, partner instructors and the UOTeach instructional team.

Julie Heffernan, program director for the UO teacher licensure program at the UO’s College of Education, had to suddenly pivot and adjust curriculum for spring term.

“We were suddenly thrust into doing entirely distance and tech-centered instruction,” Heffernan said. “And the core our teacher preparation program is about equity, access and inclusion. 

“As we moved from in-person to online teacher preparation, our student teachers, supervisors, cooperating teachers and K-12 students were not familiar with engaging with each other in an online form. Our focus needed to remain true: How do you keep teaching and learning relationship oriented? How do you address learner trauma? And how do you prepare new teachers for this new unknown world for education?”

As school districts moved to online instruction, teacher preparation programs across the state were faced with a dilemma: No in-person classrooms meant no in-person student teaching opportunities, and the instructional tools and equity-focused identity students had been developing needed to be reimagined for an online learning platform.

“None of us in the UOTeach program could have anticipated a spring term like this,” said graduate student Alice Viles. “I was so excited to begin student teaching full time this term, and when the announcement came that we would not be returning to our students my heart broke. Many of us in the program were not even able to say goodbye to students let alone have the chance to apply all that we had been learning since June of 2019.”

Viles said the UOTeach approach to finding opportunities in the face of the challenges worked well.

“UOTeach turned our virtual practicum class into an opportunity to do what it does best: showing future teachers how to commit to equity and supporting students no matter the circumstances,” she said. “Our virtual practicum course has continued over live, weekly Zoom meetings, allowing us to dissect the challenges of pursuing equity in an online distance learning environment.”

“For me, this was the most helpful and valuable work that we have done this far,” said teacher candidate Russell Arkin. “They made it as painless and stress-free as they could during a time when so many of us are dealing with difficult situations and struggling to maintain the motivation to get schoolwork done.”

The UOTeach instructional team had to rethink how to work with teachers and students who were in crisis. Students’ could not simply come into classrooms and student teach as if they typically would, because the situation wasn’t typical.

“Student teachers couldn’t do all of that and be with their teachers in this crisis mode,” Heffernan said. “Teachers were trying to learn quickly, with guidance also changing rapidly. Parents were frustrated as they were managing so many changes at home, and students were hesitant about the new Zoom classroom.”

Before COVID-19, virtual K-12 classrooms were a rarity, so building an online curriculum to help future teachers navigate distance teaching is like updating an airplane while it’s flying. Both teachers and students have to adjust to using online whiteboards, webcams and instant chat messaging, which has created new expectations of time management and productivity for students and raised issues around lack of access to technology and internet access for some students.

Along with all of the technical challenges, teachers, students and parents were experiencing emotional upheaval as well. Although the social and emotional side of teaching can be overlooked, the UOTeach program focuses on social justice, equity and an understanding of trauma and provides theoretical and practical frameworks for identifying and engaging that critical aspect of instruction. As the COVID-19 crisis grew, UO student teachers needed to incorporate that lens into the translation of classroom practice from in-person to online.

As UOTeach students prepare to be first-year teachers this fall, they are now reflecting on experiences they had in the UOTeach program

“With the uncertainty of what a K-12 classroom may look like this fall, we have been brainstorming and practicing how to include, support and connect with every student no matter what the circumstances,” Viles said. “UOTeach has also continued to provide motivation and inspiration by connecting teacher candidates with local district teachers such as Rachel Hsieh, who recently spoke with us about the challenges of adapting curriculum to reflect and meet the needs of the students in our future classrooms.”

Lily Loftin, who also expects to finish her master’s degree in teaching and curriculum in June, has been working in a high school language arts class.

“The really great thing about Julie’s class is how I incorporate critical pedagogy and also community-building, all within the realm of the computer,” she said. “I’ve been a source of knowledge for a lot of my colleagues”.

Loftin said she was able to immediately put the online classroom training into use in a high school language arts class she teaches with two doctoral students and in a class where she works under the supervision of two experienced English teachers.

After taking the UOTeach class, Loftin said she was able to help her experienced teacher supervisors become more comfortable with using online tools and translating the in-person lessons they’ve been using for years into a digital form.

What grounded Heffernan’s swift adjustment to the program’s curriculum was the faculty’s commitment to preparing future teachers to be architects of social justice within the educational system. The first three weeks of the online curriculum, for example, were on how to maintain personal connections, examine equity issues and prepare instruction for diverse learners.

The teachers in training also engaged in dialogue about their equity-focused reading assignments and online visits from partner K-12 teachers and teacher education scholars, such as educational justice advocate Bettina L. Love, author of “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.”

Starting this fall, the new class of UOTeach candidates will be enrolled in the UO’s distance practicum class. The UOTeach curriculum is intended to support both current teachers and future teachers in training to confidently lead a virtual classroom, while centering equity issues and trauma-informed practices.

“As a faculty, we are always trying to respond to the needs of students within Oregon’s public education system,” Heffernan said. “As our new teacher candidates begin their studies this summer and we plan for their student teaching in the fall, we will focus on connections, care and creativity in all formats of teaching and learning.”

“I can’t think of a more important time to focus on issues such as these as we prepare to teach students who will be entering the classroom with the widest range of academic, social and emotional needs that our schools have seen in a long time,” Viles said.