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Student teaching takes an unexpected turn as schools move online

| Judy Berthiaume

When Sierra Parce began student teaching at South Middle School in Eau Claire in January, she knew there likely would be some bumps in the road.

Thanks to several years of classroom work and mentoring by education faculty, the UW-Eau Claire senior was confident that she could manage the typical challenges that come with middle schoolers’ emotions and attitudes, lesson plans that don’t go as planned or snow days throwing off her schedule.

But a worldwide pandemic that closes all schools for weeks and maybe months?

She had no plan for dealing with that kind of nightmare scenario.

“Kids at South have been making jokes about the coronavirus since the beginning of February, so I think that made it feel hypothetical and distant,” Parce says. “The week before the Eau Claire schools closed is when things started to feel real for me. UWEC closed its campus before South had a plan, so I did see it coming.”

While she expected that the Eau Claire Area School District would eventually move classes online, it surprised her that teachers had just one day in their classrooms to organize and distribute materials and information to their students, says Parce, who will graduate in May with a degree in special education for learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities with a certificate in emotional and behavioral disabilities.

Given the stressful situation, Parce says she was fortunate that her cooperating teacher is Kimberly Rice, an experienced special education teacher at South Middle School and a UW-Eau Claire graduate.

“On the last day that students attended school, Ms. Rice came up with supplemental materials for students in each of her classes to work on over the break, which at the time, was supposed to be for three weeks,” Parce says. “She came up with this great idea for review books for math students, a comprehensive writing project for her reading classes based on the book they’d finished, and supportive resources for students in general education classes that attend support classes.

“I did a lot of teaching that day, and she managed to pull together these resources like some crazy superhero. I was impressed by how calm she stayed to avoid scaring students, or me.”

Rice, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2009 with a major in elementary education and a minor in special education learning disabilities, says nothing could have prepared her or any teacher for the educational landscape that they’re now all trying to navigate.

While she always appreciates student teachers, she was especially glad to have a student working with her as she scrambled to transition so quickly to a virtual school format.

Parce was helpful in preparing materials and in supporting students during a stressful last day in the building, Rice says.

Both say that were happy to learn last week that Parce’s student teacher placement will be extended, so she will continue to work with Rice for the rest of the semester.

“I love having student teachers,” Rice says, noting that she rarely has aides in to assist in her classroom. “All of my student teachers have been amazing. With having different grade levels in classes and students working individually at different paces, it definitely helps to have another adult in the room, especially one who wants to be a teacher.”

Seeing how determined teachers like Rice are to meet the needs of their students regardless of the circumstances has her even more excited than ever about her future career as an educator, Parce says.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, and I was lucky to have some great people in my life that pushed me to pursue a teaching degree at UWEC,” Parce says. “Growing up, I faced some pretty difficult times at home. Being at school and having teachers who went the extra mile made a huge difference in my life, and I want to do that for kids like me.”

While on campus, she found her path within the education field after listening to UW-Eau Claire special education professors talk about their experiences.

“When Dr. Rose Battalio spoke about teaching kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities, she had this fire in her eyes and this excitement about her that made me want to be a part of it,” Parce says of a longtime UW-Eau Claire professor of special education. “After listening to her, I did some volunteering with students with learning disabilities in my hometown of Reedsburg, and I knew it was what I was meant to do.

“Nothing makes me happier than working with diverse learners, and I’m excited to someday have my own classroom as a special education teacher.”

While her last semester as a student teacher is not going as planned, she still has gained a lot of knowledge as well as confidence from the experience, Parce says.

“Being at South Middle School and working with Ms. Rice has been amazing,” Parce says. “I was definitely nervous coming into student teaching but working with her has put any anxiety I had at ease. Seeing how she interacts with students and learning from her teaching style has greatly impacted how I will teach going forward in my career.”

Rice says that while UW-Eau Claire’s education program and faculty are exceptional, there are many things about being a teacher that you can only learn once you’re in a classroom. That’s why she’s so willing to mentor student teachers.

“When I have student teachers, I let them see everything that goes into being a teacher,” Rice says. “I don’t shield them from anything because it’s important that they see how it all works.”

Seeing K-12 teachers move classes online has given her a new appreciation for the online summer and Winterim classes she’s taken as a Blugold, Parce says, noting that because of those classes, she’s already familiar with the technologies Rice and other teachers now are using to build their online curriculums.

“I feel very confident that I can handle whatever comes my way going forward,” Parce says. “I’ve had the chance to experience various feelings and reactions from students at South, and, honestly, going to online teaching doesn’t feel like that big of a deal to me now.

“Is it difficult to provide special education services online? Yes. But I truly believe that most of the crazy situations I will need to handle in the future will occur at school so I’m ready.”

The worst part of moving online is losing the face-to-face time with her students, Parce says.

“I love working with these students, and I’ve had a blast at South,” Parce says. “Being placed at South was a real full-circle moment for my education at UWEC because I had my very first placement there in a sixth-grade special education room, and now I’m ending my experience at South in a seventh-grade special education room.”

Parce also says UW-Eau Claire education faculty have done an excellent job offering information and support as her final semester has taken an unexpected turn, which is making a difficult situation a bit less stressful.

Photo caption: Sierra Parce, a student teacher this semester, is finding inspiration amidst the chaos as schools move online.