By IWP Interns Emily Flores & April Bannister
For the next installment of the Interview-an-Educator project, interns Emily and April conducted a Zoom interview with a Practicum student at the University of Iowa. The interviewee asked to remain anonymous.
Practicum is a field experience during which an aspiring teacher acts as a teaching assistant in a real classroom. This particular student was paired with an English teacher at Liberty High School in North Liberty, IA. Emily and April covered a number of topics in their interview, including how Liberty High is responding to the pandemic, what a typical day of school looks like, and what happens when a student tests positive with COVID-19. The interviewee also detailed her reactions to local, state, and federal pandemic responses, and how she personally has been experiencing the pandemic. Continue reading below for the full transcript!
This interview was conducted on October 28th, 2020.
April: Could you start by telling us what your current role is as an educator?
Practicum Student: I am a Practicum student, so I am there [at school] from 8:30 to 11:30 every day, which is first through third period. I’m there as an observer, but this next week I’m [going to] lead a discussion. I spend a lot of time watching the class, helping the teacher, and helping students during work time.
April: If you’re comfortable sharing, what age group are you working with? You don’t have to say the name of the school if you don’t want to.
PS: Yeah, I’m at Liberty High School. I work with English 9 students first period, and then I believe it’s mostly sophomores second period. It’s a reading strategies class, so it’s a class you have to have a reading endorsement to teach. The students that are in it are the students that need it. So, it’s reading support. Right now we’re readingLockdown, and it’s a 17-chapter book. The chapters are six pages long and it has good—we work on stuff like vocab and stuff that they would use in their daily life. It depends on the grade level for that, because I think we have sophomores and juniors right now, but it could be a range between freshmen to seniors.
April: And it’s the same teacher that you work with for all three periods?
PS: Yeah. She doesn’t have a third period, so sometimes I observe a public speaking class, but it depends on what’s going on that day.
Emily: And do you live in the district where you work?
PS: I do. I live in North Liberty.
April: So as you’ve experienced it, how is your school within this district responding to the pandemic? I know it’s a really broad question.
PS: Generally, they’ve responded by doing a hybrid-type day where we have A- and B-days. It gets split by last name, which can cause some very interesting classes. [In] Reading Strategies, we have five people in class on A-days and one person in class on B-days because that is how the name situation fell. There are other teachers that have 17, 18 kids on one day, and the other day they have three or four. Some of them don’t even have a class on B-days or A-days—whatever the flop is—just because that’s how it’s split by name, which is interesting. I feel like it lends to some interesting teaching strategies having to be implemented and definitely some adapting. When [students] are not in school, they’re doing asynchronous work, so teachers are also assigning that. Students aren’t exactly doing all of it, which is making it really hard for teachers.
So a lot of students—it was forty five percent in the district, so that’s all the high schools—their grades are a D or an F. They have a D or an F in at least one of their classes. That’s almost half of the schools. Like, half the students have at least one D or F, which is rough. That is definitely not normal. I just had this conversation with my teacher today, and she said that they’re responding by wanting to change the grading system by next Tuesday, which is a huge jump. This is something that takes years to implement. They either want to take out honors classes, which I don’t agree with because honors classes are great, or they want to make all of the honors classes embedded in the course. That’s how English 9 Honors is; it’s English 9 and then you have enrichment enrichment activities that you do along with it, so it’s the same teacher the whole time. But English 10 Honors is a separate teacher. U.S. Lit Honors, separate teacher. And you’re all honors students in that class. So next year, they want to embed all of them to make things easier, which would only make things harder for teachers. The grade load would be intense.
The other thing they’re thinking about doing is where you don’t have small activities that you grade. If you did a prewriting activity that you’d normally make 10 points, you might do the activity, but it wouldn’t have a grade. The only things that get graded are the big assignments, so maybe three essays and a test. They’d have four assignments for the entire trimester, so if you do badly on one assignment … right. They are trying to figure it out right now. I don’t know if there’s a right way to figure this out right now, but it’s seeming like there’s better ways than what they’re doing. I don’t want to say that I completely disagree. I understand the situation. But I don’t completely agree. It is interesting. Let’s say that. I don’t know if there’s a better way to respond to all this.
I feel like everybody’s trying to figure it out right now, but I feel like a lot of people’s voices also aren’t being heard. My teacher’s taught for 34 years or something, so she speaks out about this stuff because she taught in Ankeny for six years where they had block classes—basically, you only see students every other day, kind of like what we’re doing now. So she’s had experience with this and she’s like, “This is how we do it and this is how it works. I’m not saying you have to follow my exact things, but maybe you should listen to me.” And then there’s people just tuning her out, saying “Can’t hear you!” and doing their own thing, and it’s not working. It’s kind of sad. I want to help students, and I don’t know how right now. I can’t come within six feet of them, and I can’t touch their computer. I can’t do anything with them without violating [the distancing] I’m supposed to do right now. On asynchronous days, the other thing [my teacher] said as an issue is that—if [students] have English 9 first period and it’s asynchronous that day, they’re supposed to get up at 8:50 when school starts and do their English 9 asynchronous work. But if they have a question on it and they email their teacher, that teacher is teaching another English 9 class while they’re not there, so they’re not going to be able to get back to them until [students] are no longer working on it. This is a problem that arose that nobody expected to arise. This [class format] made sense until [this issue] started happening. There are a lot of little problems that I feel like no one has the answer to right now, but they’re making a really big impact.
April: So even when students are half in-person and half asynchronous, teachers are in-person all the time.
PS: All the time. Yeah. I am there Monday to Friday, every single day, no matter if it’s an A- or a B-day. So are teachers. They’re there the whole time. There’s also teachers teaching online that didn’t want to teach online. They’re teaching half in-person classes, and then all of a sudden they’ll have two or three online classes during the day in the building because that’s what they had to do, because barely any teachers signed up to teach online. And there’s only 430 students that are actually at Liberty total, A and B, which is not a lot. Half the students went online. They decided not to come back.
Emily: I’m surprised more teachers didn’t want to teach online. That would definitely be my choice. If I was a full-fledged teacher, I’d be like, ‘Give me the online, people!’ I’m surprised by that.
PS: I mean, I don’t know what it is in other departments. This is, of course, just in the English department. But I know a lot of teachers prefer to be in-person because it’s easier to run discussions. It’s easier to run things in class. The district didn’t exactly ask teachers if they wanted to teach online. They said, “You have an open period. Take an online class.” It wasn’t exactly the best way to do it. You know what I mean. They said, “Hey, you’re going to do this,” instead of being like, “Could you do this for us? That would be very helpful.” I feel like if they approached it that way, more teachers would’ve been like, “OK, I’ll take an online class or two because I know the district needs me to,” instead of [the district] giving them three or four and being like, ‘This is your life now.” That’s maybe not the best way to handle it.
Emily: That’s so insensitive, yeah. I think you touched on this a bit, but what does like a typical school day look like right now?
PS: Students are allowed in the building at 8:35. School starts at 8:50. Nobody’s allowed in the building except for teachers until 8:35. This problem just arose today where a student needed to come in early and talk about his paper with my teacher. She’s like, “I guess I’ll write you a pass to come in early,” so he can ring the doorbell and say, “Look, I have this pass. Please let me in the school so I can work with my teacher.” I understand [the rule] because they don’t want students sitting in the halls. They don’t want them being in one spot where everybody’s walking past them. The whole school is this one-way hallway the whole way around. At Liberty, you go down a big hallway and it’s like two boxes on top of each other—like, the bottom floor and the next floor up—and it’s all a one-way hallway. You can’t walk the other way during passing time, so if you’re in a class and the main hallway is here and your class is right here (she indicates two places next to each other), you have to walk all the way around and go out the hallway. It’s good for safety. I kind of get why they did it, but … So we come in all 8:35. 8:50, class starts. There are students that just walk around till 8:45 because they don’t want to go to their class yet. The whole point is to get them to go right to their class, but walking still kind of does the same thing. They’re not stopping.
And class sizes are a lot smaller, which is almost nice. English 9 is my first period. There’s nine students on A-days and 14 on B-days. It’s not bad. It’s hard to lead a discussion. That’s what I’m gonna say. It is hard to have a full class discussion with nine children. And right now, one is out with COVID: symptomatic, can’t be here, can’t give them asynchronous work, anything like that. And then you’re down to eight [students]. Numbers start to drop really quick. How do you lead a “full class discussion” with eight kids? It’s interesting. It’s rough. But then B-days, right? I’ve kind of talked about this. We have five [students on A-days] and one on the other day, which is very beneficial for her. We get a lot done. We’re very productive because we can work at the pace that she needs to go at, but she doesn’t get the conversation or hearing how other people read. In Reading Strategies, we read aloud a lot because we work on fluency and being able to pronounce the more difficult words and knowing what they mean and all that kind of stuff, and then applying the vocab words that we get from the book, learning the vocab words and using them, and speaking them out loud in context. But she doesn’t get that or hear it from somebody else. She has to read it on her own unless we’re reading it to her, which—obviously, we can read. That’s not the problem. The problem is helping her read and helping her get better at what she’s doing.
I’m not normally there for lunch, but during fourth period, they’ve split up lunch. So [students] have lunch before fourth period, in the middle of fourth period—that’s always an interesting one—and after fourth period. Those are their three options, depending on what class they’re in. They social distance while they eat because we can’t eat outside or anything, so that’s pretty good. They had taken away the middle lunch period because they had fewer students in the building, but then they had to put it back. You’re doing half a lesson, sending them to lunch, then [doing the] second half of the lesson. It kind of interrupts it. I did that at West; I went to West when I was in high school, and that was how our lunch worked. If you were in that situation—I did it before—let me tell you, you can’t focus [during] the second half of class.
Emily: I remember my high school did that, too. They split some periods. It was strange.
PS: Yeah. I understand why they brought it back: COVID reasons. I get it. But it doesn’t make full sense to try to split up a class. I wish they would have done it during fifth or third or something. I feel like this is the way they’ve done it for a while now, so I guess I get that.
April: It feels like adding a strange thing to a pandemic situation that’s already really strange certainly wouldn’t help matters.
PS: Yeah. I will say that students are doing really well wearing their masks. I was a little concerned going in, but the majority keep it over their nose. I understand the glasses struggle because (she indicates her glasses)there’s a lot of kids that have glasses. [The mask] falls down and they’re like “I’m not fixing it. My glasses are going to fog up.” And I’m like (she motions pulling up a mask), “Put it up.” But I mean, the COVID-related stuff is going pretty well. It’s pretty easy to clean desks. [Students] know to just sit down in their chair and they don’t touch their desk until I clean it. They’re getting used to the cleaning stuff and the ‘wearing their mask’ part. It’s everything else coming with this hybrid schedule that’s really challenging to them. You can see it. As they come in to do a discussion, you can see how they really didn’t want to do that asynchronous work that you gave them. Or they might have really enjoyed it, but they didn’t like this other aspect. You can really see it affecting them. You know there are students that are working full-time jobs or watching siblings on their asynchronous days and that they’re not going to get anything done. It’s understandable, but it sucks for them because you want to help them.
April: Definitely. This is jumping around in our order of questions a little bit, but I know you just mentioned it, so I want to make sure I ask you about it. You said you had a student test positive and they’re no longer coming to class. Has that affected the rest of the class at all? Or even if it hasn’t, even if everyone else is still seemingly okay, does that make you concerned for your safety? Are you generally concerned to be working in a school at this time, or do you feel relatively safe?
PS: So … I don’t know. Complicated answer here. I’ve been working with K-6 students since March. I’ve been doing it all at the after-school program—now an all-day program with all this—through March and into summer, and we did the all-day program during summer. Now we’re doing an all-day program and an after-school program type thing. That helped me resign myself to the fact that I might get sick and that’s okay. My problem that makes me worried is that my fiance has asthma. If I get [the virus] and he gets it, then there’s going to be an issue, and that does concern me. But I do my best, really. I always keep my mask on. I see that my teacher sometimes turns away, like in a corner—definitely not near anybody—to get a drink of water or something. I don’t even bring a water bottle in [to school] to tempt myself. I leave my mask on the entire time because I don’t want to risk it. We all do a really good job of social distancing, too. The students really don’t reach up into their mask and touch their face or anything.
I don’t know; it doesn’t concern me as much as I thought it would because of the way school is. I feel like if we were full in-person, everyone was there, it would concern me a lot more because I feel like we wouldn’t be social distancing enough, and there’d be other students that would get it fairly quickly. If they’re getting COVID, they’re not getting it at school, because we haven’t had a breakout. There’s been one kid—no, two kids—in English 9 total that have gotten it so far, and they are gone for two weeks, and then they come back and things work out pretty well. We still have one kid out that has it. There was a kid that came back today, actually, that was out with COVID. My teacher just extended deadlines [for the student], like, “Okay, here’s how we’ll do this. You turn this in when you have time. We do the revision for your essay.” At this point, you work it out as the moment comes because you don’t know when they’re going to be back. It’s a minimum of two weeks, but that could be a month. It could be a lot longer.
I have to tell my boss every time a kid has COVID that was in my class, and that’s what concerns me. I’m like, “Please don’t take me out of work,” because I don’t come in contact with these kids. I really don’t. I stay six feet away the entire time. I clean—I spray desks and the paper towel has completely covered my hand as I wipe it over. I don’t come in contact with them. I don’t touch them. Please let me come to work. I feel like that’s my biggest thing because work is what gets me to pay the bills right now. But I don’t know; I don’t feel that concerned about it because we’re being safe. If we weren’t being safe, I would have a lot more concerns. I feel like everybody’s doing a really good job being safe. And teachers are making it fun, too. English teachers dance around in the hallway with music playing and with a bottle of hand sanitizer. They did “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, and they’re like, “Just squirt it,” and they’re squirting hand sanitizer to people. They’re making it fun. Kids are actively being safe. It’s awesome. That’s why it doesn’t concern me as much.
Emily: That’s such a good idea. I love that.
PS: Oh, they’ve done so many. Their Halloween costume was “Among Us.” They were all the little dudes from the game “Among Us.” It was so funny because they did it on Tuesday and they’ll do it again on Friday for the B-kids. Every period, a new person “dies,” and they lay on the floor with red construction paper laying by them. You don’t know who the imposter is until the end of the day. It’s great. They are making it fun and it’s great. That’s the great part is they’re making this still fun.
Emily: Still trying to make it bearable and not too scary.
Emily: On a wider scale, what’s your reaction to local, state, or federal government responses to schools during the pandemic?
PS: I appreciate everything that everybody has been doing. However, I think that there could have been quicker responses in getting schools started because we had to push school back two full weeks, just pushing curriculum back that had already been planned over the summer—[pushing it] back two full weeks because they just couldn’t figure out what to do. I feel like the hybrid model had been out for so long and they were saying, “This is what we’ll probably do,” and then they didn’t confirm it for quite a long time.
(Audio cut out)The district is having a meeting [soon]. We don’t have school that day, so all the administrators are having a meeting on that day and will decide what’s happening for second trimester, which starts in December. That [meeting] is a whole month before [school starts], so that is a lot better in my opinion, that we’re gonna know sooner. They’re going to decide: Are we sticking with the hybrid model? Are we going full in-person? Are we going all online? What are we gonna do? People will know a lot sooner. Every student has to “re-register” for school with whatever they decide, if they decide to stick with this model as a hybrid student or an online student. Online students can now come back to school if they choose to, or hybrid students, if their situation changed, can go online. I think they’re doing a little bit better now. We’ll see. I’m curious to see how this next week goes in decision making—how they decide to do things and if they actually come out with a decision on November 4th. If they come out with a decision, I’ll be happy. If they go, “Well, we don’t know. We’re going to have another meeting,” I’m going to be like, “You had all day. And you’ve had a whole bunch of months to think about it. You can come out with a decision.” I feel like they’re making it more complicated than it has to be sometimes.
Emily: You’re more in the camp of, “Whatever the decision is, I almost don’t care anymore. I just want you to decide.”
PS: Yeah. Because if you decide, then I know how to move forward. But if you don’t decide, then we’re all just in the dark. That was [the situation] with the after-school program I work at. For months we were like, “What are we going to do for the fall? You won’t even tell us.” It makes life easier when I know what’s going on.
Emily: I feel you, totally. I want to ask one more question: Beyond your work at the school and practicum, how have you personally experienced the pandemic? How have you been handling it? Are you okay?
PS: When everything started, I pretty much went to work—I either worked in the morning or in the afternoon, one of the two—and the other time I was at home doing online classes or finding other things to do. It was a struggle at first because I didn’t know what to do, because I didn’t want anybody to get sick. I haven’t seen my grandparents and it’s been really tough. Well, I’ve seen my grandparents on my dad’s side twice and my grandma on my mom’s side once. The only reason I saw my grandparents on my dad’s side twice is because my grandma has been in and out of hospital at least 10 times, if not more, since the beginning of summer. She has diabetes, so she’s had gangrene in her foot. She’s had other surgeries. She’s had heart problems. She’s had fluid in her lungs. It’s been all sorts of things. And she did have surgery on her leg back in April or so because there was a blockage, so her blood wasn’t getting back to her heart. She had to do a whole surgery thing in Wisconsin for two weeks. I didn’t get to see her through a lot of that, so I wanted to go up and see her one day. I had to go up there, stay six feet away, keep my mask on the entire time. She’s like, “I want to see your face.” I mean, I’m glad I got to see her, but she’s 80. My grandpa is 88. I’m not taking the mask off.
There’s a whole bunch of things, and it’s just been a lot, but I think now I’m finding a more healthy balance. I go out to my parents’ house more often just to see them. I do my laundry over there so I can spend time outside of my apartment. I was going on walks; now I can’t because it’s freezing cold outside. But it’s been helping to be in the school, to be honest, because I get more interaction with people. When I’m not in school, like before practicum started, I was just like, “I’m a little hobbit in my house.” I went to work and I came back. My interaction was the grocery store. I was really not getting interaction.
April: So beyond your work, the necessity of grocery shopping, and a limited family circle, you had pretty minimal interaction.
PS: Yeah, and also because a lot of my friends are like, “I don’t want to do anything because I want to stay safe, too.” If I do see them, it’s just texting them. It’s all been pretty limited, which kind of sucks. But at this point, I’m kind of accepting of what’s going on because I know we need to stay safe.
Emily: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we may have missed?
PS: Pretty much said what I said. Everyone’s doing their best, and I know they all want to help the students, but I feel like there are ways to do it better. But then again, how do you change somebody’s mind when you’re not even a teacher yet and they’ve been teaching for 20 years? Yeah. But they’re doing their best. They’re playing music in the hallway! They do it every single period, every passing period in the hallway and they all just dance around and it’s really funny. And they went all out for Halloween this year. Like, every single English teacher was a character from “Among Us.” They went all out, and they all brought tools with them too, so some of them were using power tools on the walls. It was fun.
Thanks again to our interviewee for taking the time to share her experiences!