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Blugold excited to begin teaching career despite ongoing pandemic

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Abbi Holzmann has known since she was a young girl that she wanted to be a teacher. The ongoing pandemic has made her more determined than ever to make a difference in the lives of students. Holzmann, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in December, began her first professional teaching job in January at an Eau Claire middle school. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

Abbi Holzmann still remembers getting a big whiteboard and Expo markers for Christmas, the best gift ever for a little girl who already knew she wanted to someday be a teacher.

“I was around 5 years old, and I made my basement into my first classroom and taught silly little lessons to my stuffed animals and Polly Pockets,” says Holzmann, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in December 2021. “For as long as I’ve had a working memory, I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher. My time at UWEC, coupled with the various placements I’ve completed during my time here, has only cemented this dream even more.”

In January, Holzmann’s dream came true as she began her teaching career at Northstar Middle School in Eau Claire.

Holzmann is among the many Blugolds who are beginning their teaching careers at a time when COVID-19 and other stressors continue to create uncertainty in K-12 classrooms across the country.

UW-Eau Claire’s teacher education programs are continuing to attract talented and passionate students who are excited to pursue teaching careers even during these extraordinarily challenging times, says Dr. Carmen Manning, dean of UW-Eau Claire’s College of Education and Human Sciences.

“Our teacher education faculty and students have done an amazing job of recognizing how COVID-19 is changing the K-12 landscape, and they are adjusting their teaching and learning accordingly,” Manning says. “For example, we are working to make sure future teachers can think creatively about new ways to use technology in their teaching, as well as how they might meet their students’ social and emotional needs after so many months of masking and social distancing.”

All about the students

While the ongoing pandemic changed Holzmann’s college experiences, it didn’t change her passion for and commitment to the field of education.

It’s her current and future students who keep her motivated, says Holzmann, who earned a degree in elementary education and a minor in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Even as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on K-12 schools, Holzmann spent time with students in their classrooms and online as part of her teacher education program. She also watched her mother — a third-grade teacher in Green Bay — struggle as she and her students have had to pivot between in-person and virtual learning for nearly two years.

“The impact the pandemic has had on young people motivates me to be a steady adult figure that students can count on no matter what,” Holzmann says. “I am nervous about the role the pandemic will play on students’ overall social emotional needs and skills because of how much ‘normal school’ students have missed.

“As I start my full-time job at a middle school, I know my eighth-grade students have not had a normal school year since fifth grade and this has taken a big toll on their social emotional needs and skills.”

Her biggest wish as an educator is that she will positively impact her students, Holzmann says.

“I want to be a person they can trust, and I want to provide more for them than just academic support,” Holzmann says. “Through my time at UWEC, I’ve come to realize that my main motivation behind being a teacher is the amount of care I have for young people. I’ve fostered my educational philosophy through my practicum experiences and the hours I put in doing work for classes. Everything I’ve worked so hard for points in the direction of addressing students’ social emotional needs just as much as addressing their academic needs.”

Changing focus

The realities of the ongoing pandemic have changed how Holzmann thinks about teaching. After two years of virtual classes, masks, social distancing and other COVID-related protocols that aim to keep students safe, teachers now must focus more than ever on helping meet students’ social emotional needs as well as helping them maintain and grow their social skills.

Fortunately, Holzmann says, UW-Eau Claire’s professors and teacher education program recognized that the pandemic has created many new challenges for teachers. So, as she begins her first full-time teaching position, she feels well prepared to meet her students’ many and still changing needs.

“Looking back, my experiences in the teacher ed program have changed quite a bit since the pandemic started,” Holzmann says. “It feels almost like a different lifetime now.”

During her early years in the program, pre-COVID, there was a lot of focus on how to teach different topics and how to use different teaching strategies, Holzmann says. Once the pandemic hit, faculty began to help the future teachers build the skills they will need to monitor students’ social and emotional well-being while also continuing to be sure they are being successful academically, she says.

“The pandemic forced all of us to be in touch with our emotions, and this carried over into what was being taught in teacher ed classes,” Holzmann says.

Navigating her college courses during a pandemic provided some unexpected learning opportunities, which were especially valuable when Holzmann was a student teacher during the fall 2021 semester.

For example, teachers — much like Holzmann and her classmates — had to work together to figure out how to best navigate the constantly changing and always uncertain days caused by the pandemic. So, when the lead teacher she was paired with during her student teaching semester had to quarantine, other teachers stepped in to offer support and advice, helping her manage what could have been a stressful time, Holzmann says.

Seeing teachers come together to support each other and their students helped her appreciate just how important teamwork is in a school setting, something that will help her in her teaching long after the pandemic ends, Holzmann says.

Today, most schools are looking for teachers who are flexible and adaptable, says Dr. Carol Koroghlanian, coordinator of UW-Eau Claire’s teacher education program.

“I do not believe the general public understands what teaching has been like since March 2020,” Koroghlanian says. “Teachers have incredible, and often conflicting, demands.”

Embracing technology

The pandemic also forced teachers and future teachers to quickly become more familiar with technologies that they can use to help stayed connected to their students and to help students continue to learn in person or virtually, Holzmann says, noting that a greater understanding of and use of technology by teachers is the “one positive that has come out of COVID.”

“The increase in technology has allowed education to be more flexible and for communication between teachers and families to increase because of the different mediums they can use to connect,” Holzmann says. “Although education online doesn’t match the authenticity of in-person education, it’s a way for students to continue learning while also feeling safe and staying healthy.

“This will have an impact on my future career because I will likely be expected to teach online and communicate with my students and families through multiple different formats, virtually and in person.”

Since many UW-Eau Claire classes were moved online at various times during the pandemic, the university students were learning along with their professors how technology could be used successfully in a virtual learning setting, Holzmann says.

“We learned about different online programs we could use to improve virtual learning, and we also learned how to facilitate a lesson online,” Holzmann says. “I remember spending an entire methods class taking turns with classmates, each of us given the opportunity to teach a mini lesson and give one another feedback.”

The best part of UW-Eau Claire’s teacher education program is the connections made among students and professors, Holzmann says. Completing the program and student teaching during the pandemic helped them bond even more than they might have during a more typical time, she says.

“The professors in the teacher ed program are exceptional,” Holzmann says. “The amount that they care about all of us is amazing. The way they care for us and their compassion for us will stick with me forever and will positively influence me as a future educator.”

Looking ahead

In her new position at the middle school, Holzmann is a student achievement specialist, a relatively new position in the district. She has a mentor teacher who is working the same position in eighth grade.

“I work primarily with sixth-graders, doing a variety of methods with the students I'm assigned to,” Holzmann says. “I will work with my students on social emotional needs as well as their academics. I will also be co-teaching with teachers when needed and checking in with the students on my caseload during my free periods.

“I am so excited for the future and for the students I will get to work with and build relationships with. I am excited for how much I’m going to learn from my students and the different experiences I will have as an educator, especially during a pandemic.”

Holzmann grew up hearing about UW-Eau Claire from her dad and other family members who are Blugolds. Her dad’s stories about the opportunities he found on campus were especially inspiring.

“So, when it came time for me to start applying to schools, UWEC was already at the top of my list and, after touring, I knew it was the place for me,” Holzmann says. “I felt the ‘homey’ vibe on campus that I had read about or heard about from other alums as soon as I arrived, and I haven’t stopped feeling it since.”

Holzmann says her college years ended up being much different than she’d expected because of COVID-19, but her experiences as a Blugold still were every bit as meaningful as she’d hoped.

“No matter how cheesy it sounds, I am extremely grateful for my time at UWEC because I was given so many great opportunities, mentors and peers during my 4½ years here,” Holzmann says. “I was offered a job in the area before graduation and was able to use faculty members as my references to get that job. I owe a lot to UWEC, and I hope that aspiring educators currently in the teacher ed program can get as much out of it as I have.”