In spring 2020, when travel, work settings and schools experienced major shifts in operation due to COVID-19, KristiAnna Mathes ’19 took her kindergarten class on a field trip to the San Diego Zoo — a virtual field trip, that is.
A teacher at Julia Lee Moore Elementary in Conway, Mathes has implemented engaging online learning resources this year that she feels confident in using thanks to her undergraduate experience in the University of Central Arkansas’ College of Education.
“All the things that are important for virtual teaching are things we learned at UCA before we even knew we would have to virtually teach,” said Mathes, who moved from being a kindergarten teacher to first-grade teacher this school year.
This fall, she has been utilizing a handful of online resources for both her on-site and virtual students, who she teaches at separate times during the school day. For instance, there’s a program called Seesaw, which gives online and on-site students assignments and allows parents and teachers to interact with their work. Mathes’ district implemented Seesaw this year, and her undergraduate education helped her build confidence in navigating it.
“I will say that UCA 110% prepared me for this pandemic,” she said. “I think one thing that’s really cool about UCA is the iPad initiative and the focus on iPads and technology so heavily within the classroom. [It] really allows me to feel comfortable having to input that this year in my classroom.”
As an Apple Distinguished School, UCA’s College of Education weaves technology into its instruction methods. Students in the elementary, special education, middle-level and most of its secondary education programs are required to have an iPad for classroom use under the college’s iPad Mobile Technology Initiative. UCA is also the only Arkansas university that has an online teaching endorsement from the Arkansas Department of Education’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Dean Victoria Groves-Scott said the college’s inclusion of technology in its pedagogy positions it to be ready to make a difference and lead the way in online instruction.
“We are well ahead of the curve. We’re actually setting the curve,” Groves-Scott said.
Not only do College of Education students utilize technology in the classroom, they also can rely on it when practicing in the field. The college uses Bug-in-Ear technology for some of its student-teachers, allowing its faculty to, while off-site, view the student-teaching experience in real time and provide coaching through an earpiece the student wears. These student-teaching sessions are also recorded on video, and faculty can annotate them to provide further coaching.
Malcolm Pennington ’18, a seventh-grade Arkansas history teacher at Pinnacle View Middle School in Little Rock, instructs both on-site and online students simultaneously this year. He said his experience in the College of Education helped him become more flexible in the face of unexpected challenges.
“I don’t think anybody saw anything like COVID coming,” he said. “When I was in school, we were just taught to be adaptable, to be adjustable.”
In his current role, he uses Microsoft Teams for online instruction and Schoology as a student social networking tool. For many online students, he is the only person outside of their household that they speak to in a day.
“UCA’s education program has to be arguably the most rigorous thing I’ve done academically,” Pennington said. “They demand a lot of you. There’s a whole lot of changes and challenges that come with it. So with that being said, if you take those same principles that they taught you, as far as how to respond to challenges and how to manage stress, and apply them to the classroom, that’s the biggest change I’ve done.”
While the College of Education has been accustomed to using technology with its students, it will likely include more on how to engage students in online K-12 environments in its curriculum in the future, Groves-Scott said.
“I see this as an opportunity for us to really grow and lean in to exceptional teaching pedagogy using digital resources that will allow all of our kids to have greater access to the content,” Groves-Scott said.
Plus, she said, this is a time to give teachers their props.
“I am hoping that this experience will make society in general really appreciate how much teachers care for their students and how much they’re willing to give and sacrifice to make sure that our children in Arkansas have safe and enjoyable and inclusive schools to come to,” she said.
Mathes looks forward to her classroom going back to its traditional format but is glad to have her dream job.
“Even if it is virtual, I’m still able to do what I love,” Mathes said. “Pandemic or not, UCA prepared me for this, and we’ll get through it, and eventually teaching will get back to normal. The world will get back to normal.”