Educators and students across Polk County and the nation have settled into the online teaching and learning environment through the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Graduates of Polk State College’s Elementary Education Program have shared that their move to working remotely has been smooth thanks to the skills they acquired at Polk State as well as the support they have received from Polk County Public Schools.
“Polk State’s faculty and staff have reached out to ask me how I am holding up. They continue to support us,” said Brittiny Pearn, who achieved her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education in December 2018. “The County also continues to provide a lot of guidance and assistance.”
Pearn, a fourth-grade language arts and social studies teacher with Chain of Lakes Elementary School in Winter Haven, is in her second year of teaching. Like many, Pearn is juggling her job and childcare from home. She encourages teachers and families to find schedules that work best for them.
“The classroom management and communication skills we learned at Polk State continue to come into play, even though we’re not physically in our classrooms,” she explained.
Pearn hosts a live virtual class each weekday morning, which is optional for students to attend due to restrictions individuals may have such as technology and scheduling. Each session is recorded and can be viewed when it is best for each student.
She spends the rest of the day hosting small-group or one-on-one sessions online or by phone for students who have questions or need help with the curriculum. She also spends time planning future lessons and communicating with parents.
“I’ve received a good response from the parents and kids,” she said. “It’s important to be creative in your lesson planning and to make each lesson engaging for the students. Polk State taught me how to design elaborate lesson plans efficiently, which has really helped during this time.”
All the while, Pearn helps her daughter with her first-grade class and her son, who is in prekindergarten, with learning numbers, letters, and sight words.
“My biggest advice for parents is to come up with schedules that work for them and to communicate with their teachers,” Pearn said. “Some parents may feel like they are left to do the teaching or to explain the lessons, but we are here for them.”
Bethany Strickland, a December 2019 graduate of the Polk State Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education Program, shared similar advice and experience.
“With my class plus my own two kids, I can spend eight to 10 hours a day teaching,” said Strickland, a kindergarten teacher with Floral Avenue Elementary in Bartow.
Rather than holding live lessons, Strickland’s classes are in the form of YouTube videos. For Earth Day, for example, she held a virtual field trip to the landfill to teach students about pollution and recycling.
She holds office hours in the mornings to connect with students online or by phone, and spends the rest of her day planning, creating content, grading assignments, and communicating with parents.
“Oftentimes I am reaching out to working parents after hours when it is better for them,” she said. “I can still be working at 8 p.m. on a Friday, but it’s a work of heart.”
Strickland added that the rigorous courses and field experience she participated in through Polk State prepared her well for the demands of the job.
A critical lesson she learned was to create a “classroom family.”
“Before students can learn, they need to feel safe,” she said. “That remains true in the online environment and that requires a lot of parent communication.”
“Taking attendance can take all day,” she added, “but it’s about being flexible and working with our parents and students.”
That includes assisting students beyond their lessons. Strickland secured a $1,000 grant through DonorsChoose to provide her students with supplies they would need to learn from home, including whiteboards, markers, pencils, paper, and more.
For Brandy Cannoy, a fifth-grade reading teacher at Jesse Keen Elementary in Lakeland, ensuring students have the materials they need to learn from home has been critical.
About half of her students from the Title I school do not have access to technology to complete lessons online. She provides them with paper packets of the same lessons students are receiving online during lunch distribution at the school. Parents take photos of the completed paper packets on their smartphones and send them to her electronically.
“I still hold a video meeting once a week, but it’s not lesson based,” said Cannoy, a May 2019 graduate of the Polk State Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education Program. “It’s just to see their faces and to keep that connection with the students.”
As a first-year teacher, it would be expected that Cannoy may be having a challenging time and that the COVID-19 emergency would not be making it easier.
“But I have felt very prepared and comfortable because of Polk State,” she said. “Ultimately it comes down to the professors at Polk State – they are gifted and experienced in their areas.”
She credited Professor Milton Huling for his STEM expertise, called Professor Sharon Moser a “reading genius,” and noted Professor Rebecca Pugh’s knowledge of diverse instruction methods.
“They gave me a strong foundation,” Cannoy said. “I don’t feel like I’m struggling as other first-year teachers may be.”
Melanie Vandervort, a current student in the Polk State Education baccalaureate program who serves as a paraprofessional with Polk County Public Schools, said she does not feel like the quality of education she is receiving is suffering from the transition to the fully online learning environment.
“Both my college world and my working world have moved online and there have been some challenges, but it is actually very interesting to see how it is all playing out and serving as a great learning experience for us as future educators,” explained Vandervort, who is heading into her final semester.
Polk State Education students participate in a 12-week internship with Polk County Public Schools in their last semester.
Patty Linder, Director of Polk State Education Programs, explained that the internship component is what truly develops teachers who can think on their feet and exhibit strong classroom management skills.
With the uncertainty of when schools will reopen due to COVID-19, Polk State is in communication with the School District as well as other Florida institutions about how to provide the internship experience in the virtual setting, Linder said.
“The internship and field experiences are what really prepare our students for the real world,” she added. “That is why our graduates who are now teaching are illustrating such great flexibility and adaptability, especially during this time.”
Polk State Education encourages students to be forward-thinking and gives them the tools to be creative, engaging, and adaptable to different learning situations, even the unexpected such as the current public health emergency.
Polk State is the only public post-secondary institution in Polk County offering state-approved teacher education preparation programs and has built-in measurements for state-mandated standards developed in collaboration with Polk County Public Schools to produce graduates who are ready to immediately and successfully lead local classrooms.
“Our professors are connected with what is happening in the classrooms and are in tune with the needs of our teachers,” Linder said. “Many of our courses are cocurricular and we embed technology, giving students a great bank of resources, strategies, and ideas to build their toolboxes.”
Vandervort said she is looking forward to learning more strategies as she completes her Polk State degree.
Students and graduates agreed that although this unprecedented time is challenging, it is a learning opportunity for educators and students alike.
“This experience will be beneficial for students in K-12 and in college by showing them how they learn when they have to be independent,” Pearn said. “It will allow them to become more responsible for their learning.”
“We need to remain positive and continue to support each other,” she added. “We will all come out stronger from this.”