First-year teachers get a crash course on dealing with chaos and change in pandemic

A teacher stands in front of a white board in a classroom.
Katie Koppy teaches a kindergarten class in September at St. John's Catholic School in Little Canada, Minn.
Courtesy of Katie Koppy

Updated: 9:35 p.m. Oct. 28

Katie Koppy thought she was prepared for her first year as a teacher — but she soon discovered nothing could have prepared her to start her career in the trenches of a pandemic.

Managing classroom chaos — and anxiety — are just some of the usual challenges that come with being a first-year teacher. But this year, those new teachers also have to master remote learning and managing all of the extra health protocols.

Many of them never finished their student teaching last spring.

While they were still able to graduate, they missed out on the full experience of a crucial aspect of their education — teaching in a classroom, on their own — before embarking on their careers this fall.

“So the first day of school was just like, ‘OK this is just me, this is my room, I’m the teacher,’ ” said Koppy, who teaches at St. John’s Catholic School in Little Canada, Minn. They’re following an in-person model this fall.

Sophie Van Patter teaches third graders in Forest Lake using the hybrid model — some in-person classes and some remote.

“I hardly had to do anything online, I never had a Zoom call, I never had to tell a student to sit down on a computer,” Van Patter said of her training. “The only time I used technology in my student teaching experience was students would take an iPad and maybe listen to a story read out loud to them. I only had iPads out for like 15 minutes a day.”

Isabella Haeger teaches her third grade students completely online at Lake Harriet Community School. She said the weeks of student teaching she did manage to complete last spring gave her a glimpse of her potential as a teacher — even amid the extra challenges of the pandemic.

“From the beginning of student teaching, seeing all the growth that all of us have made as teachers” is impressive, she said. “You get to take it on as your own and (say), ‘wow, I can get my students from point A to point B.’ And to carry that into this was great.”

A woman sits in front of a laptop at a table.
Third grade teacher Isabella Haeger teaches her students in a remote setting from her home classroom.
Courtesy of Isabella Haeger

As Haeger, Van Patter, Koppy and other new teachers take their training into this first year of teaching, they’ve been facing a combination of two major challenges. The first is just learning the basics of a new job.

Mary Green works with new teachers in St. Paul Public Schools, helping them grow into their identity and their role in the classroom.

“Some of the big pieces with the mentoring I do is establishing the resilience it takes to sustain a first year of teaching. Because, again, there’s more to school than teaching,” Green said. “How do we set up relationships so that we know who we are and we know who we are in the context of our practice?”

The second challenge is managing this “unscripted territory” of the pandemic, with many schools moving classes online or to the hybrid model.

Cynthia Zwicky is an elementary education professor at the University of Minnesota. While teachers can go through lessons with their students online, she said it’s just not possible to holistically teach younger students in a remote setting. It’s even tougher for new teachers.

“Eighty-five percent of our communication is nonverbal. When I'm seeing children behind a screen, I'm missing so much of what they’re communicating without saying, about their social and emotional needs and how to help support them,” Zwicky said. Teachers in schools who need to use online classes have to find workarounds to identify and address those needs.

Yet, in the midst of those obstacles, new teachers also see reasons to be hopeful.

First and foremost, for their students. Koppy said her kindergartners will grow with resilience.

“It will make them stronger students as they go through school and upper grades,” Koppy said of overcoming the challenges of school during the pandemic. “I think they are just gonna be way more adaptable as people and students.”

Van Patter said the multimedia learning platforms that launched last spring and continue this fall will give her third graders an extra boost in mastering technology.

“Their generation is going to be so far advanced in technology,” she said. “It was kind of a hard reality or a slap in the face that they had to learn how to use a computer in second grade.”

And as students gain resilience — their teachers do, too. Van Patter says overcoming the hurdles of this year is making her a better educator.

Haeger wants to use this year as a building block for the rest of her career.

“Being a brand new teacher, there’s a lot of different things you need to learn each day,” she said. “I have learned to take it day by day because it truly is making me grow as a teacher. So I am just trying to enjoy this experience of learning and teaching through a computer.”

Van Patter said her career can only go up from here.

“I try to stay positive that this will be the most challenging of teaching,” she said. “I am still learning the same amount. I'm not being held back by anything. If anything this is making me a better teacher.”

And as homes become classrooms for many students, the U’s Zwicky said she hopes more people gain an appreciation for the challenges and resilience of students — and their teachers.

“How can we elevate this job of teaching so that people can really see that it is a noble profession that is hard and complex and changing everyday,” she said. “And they are doing it every day. They are getting up every day and preparing things for their students to engage and connect with them, and they are doing it from behind a screen.”

Correction (Oct. 20, 2020): Previous versions incorrectly identified the schools of two of the teachers. The above story and audio have been updated.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.