The European Quality Chart on Internships and Apprenticeships describes higher education and vocational school practices in participating companies and entities as a training-oriented component of students’ coursework (European Youth Forum, n.d.). In the educational realm, these experiences help teacher education candidates develop and refine their professional competencies and provide them with an easier transition to the job market, increasing their chances of finding quality, stable jobs (European Youth Forum, n.d.). These practices are known in Spain as the practicum.
The practicum, a required subject in the coursework of both early childhood and primary education BA degrees, consists of a series of collaborative activities between teacher training and education colleges and professional development schools, aimed at offering student teachers the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the realities of teaching in the early grades en route to adopting and developing their own teaching styles. Its formative objective is to provide student teachers with the opportunity to apply the knowledge acquired in their academic training to real classrooms and thereby acquire the necessary skills and abilities to foster their professional preparation and improve their employability prospects (Real Decreto 592/2014, 2014). To regulate the experience, universities sign MOUs with the Departments of Education of the different regional governments describing, among other things, the role of student teachers in the delivery of instruction and classroom organization, the duties of supervising school and university mentors, and the number of credits earned at the completion of the experience. Student teachers are also required to participate in university seminars as part of the practicum to reflect on aspects related to the realities and challenges of the job, their own performance during classroom presentations and explanations, and discrepancies in the theory–practice connection (Guía del Practicum, 2021).
While the benefits of the practicum for student teachers have been documented, information on its impact for placement school mentors is scant. Obtaining more information on the latter was therefore the objective of two of the authors, professors at the University of Extremadura in Spain. They decided to investigate the extent of student teachers’ cooperation with, and support for, their respective mentors in Extremadura during the extended nationwide COVID-19 mandated lockdown, when online teaching was the only instructional delivery mode allowed, as well as when a decrease in the spread of the virus permitted the regional government to lift the restrictions and allow a return to face-to-face instruction. Participants were 15 early childhood and primary education veteran school mentors with student teachers in their classrooms. Their responses appeared to point to the following three areas:
Support for “fatigued” teachers: One year after the beginning of the pandemic, the mentors agreed they were experiencing “fatigue,” described by Michie, West, and Harvey (2020) as “a presumed tendency for people to naturally become ‘tired’ of the rules and guidance they should follow to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” They alluded to episodes of fear and anxiety due to both the expansion of the pandemic and the unexpected recurrent virus spikes, as well as overwhelming stress caused by their having to adopt and incorporate into their teaching routines instructional delivery modes and technological resources most of them were not familiar with. As the lockdown was progressively lifted in Spain and they had to return to the classroom, they began to show psychological effects similar to those seen in health-care workers in potentially unsafe conditions (TFA Editorial Team, 2020), namely exhaustion and fear (Duffy and Allington, 2020). These effects were especially prevalent among veteran teachers, many of whom decided to resign and apply for early retirement. In fact, according to Núñez (2021), 2020 early retirement figures in the region showed a 30% increase over those in 2019. It was not therefore surprising, given this context, that the mentors interviewed appreciated having additional help in their classrooms, as the presence of student teachers provided much-needed assistance controlling students and making it easier to pay more individualized attention to those needing extra help or identified as having learning difficulties or disabilities. Moreover, the energy, novel approaches to teaching, and innovative tech tools, software, and activities brought and implemented by student teachers helped their respective mentors partially overcome their own tech deficiencies, acting as a singular vaccine against the latter’s previous fear, exhaustion, doubts, and even apathy.
Support with virtual learning and IT: The teaching force in Extremadura is aging. Thus, during the 2013–2014 academic year, 33% of its teachers were more than 50 years of age and just 2% of the total were under 30, compared to 25% and 12% respectively in 2004–2005 (Moral, 2015). A subsequent report placed Extremadura among the autonomous communities with the fewest young teachers in both primary and secondary education (Infoempleo, 2017). Despite significant efforts reinforcing the importance of the integration of information technologies in the educational system of the community (Fundación Maimona, 2014), many veteran teachers still have difficulties incorporating tech resources into their teaching routines. Fortunately, the student teachers in this project were able to offer their struggling mentors ongoing individual, specific support that allowed the latter to revamp numerous lessons for use in both synchronous and asynchronous meetings. They taught their mentors the basics of innovative software and tech tools such as Flipgrid, Genially, ClassDojo, TED, The Primary Box, Educaplay, MapTool, Kahoot!, Mentimeter, and eXeLearning, among others. Student teachers also helped their mentors incorporate project-based learning, flipped classrooms, and gamification into their lessons, creating a more engaging and appealing classroom environment that increased the motivation and interest of students, who were equally tired of the pandemic. As an added perk, thanks to their familiarity with the above tools, student teachers confined at home continued to be able to support their mentors remotely and even lead lessons in some cases, as seen in the example graphic above, created with eXeLearning by one such student who was commissioned to teach an art class on impressionism.
Support with logistics: Student teachers had to add logistical help to their academic duties, given mandated restrictions and safety protocols inside and outside classrooms and schools to prevent the spread of the virus among students, staff, and parents. Some of these daily tasks included ensuring students maintained the required social distance while entering and leaving school grounds, playing in the yard, and during bathroom breaks; checking students’ temperature, distributing hydroalcoholic gel, and disinfecting lunch areas at required times and on an as-needed basis; monitoring students during individual and small-group work; managing small and large group configurations; working with students needing additional help in homogeneous ability groups; providing specific individual reading, writing, and academic instruction; reporting assigned students’ progress at the end of the school day; or observing students’ socialization and interaction patterns during whole-class instruction in order to identify students needing help as well as those able to help others during follow-up assignments.
The practicum is beneficial for all parties involved. Feedback from mentor teachers helps the Teacher Training and Education Colleges at the University of Extremadura improve the student teaching experience. Mentor teachers enjoy the benefits of student teachers’ additional help managing their classrooms and introducing them to innovative tech tools to create more engaging lessons for their students. Student teachers gain practical experience and become more attuned to the realities of the classroom. In the time of COVID-19, student teachers constitute a valuable resource for an exhausted teaching force working under strenuous circumstances. Mentor teachers should be encouraged to openly communicate with them, request their help when needed, and take advantage of the opportunity to learn about new resources and methods that can make their lives easier.
Duffy, B. and Allington, D. (2020). “The Accepting, the Suffering and the Resisting: The different reactions to life under lockdown.” King’s College London: The Policy Institute. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/Coronavirus-in-the-UK-cluster-analysis.pdf
European Youth Forum. (n.d.). European Quality Chart on Internships and Apprenticeships. https://www.youthforum.org/sites/default/files/publication-pdfs/European%20Quality%20Charter.pdf
Fundación Maimona. (2014). Estado de las TIC en Extremadura. Badajoz, Spain: Fundación Maimona, CREEX, Fundación CRESEM.
Guía del Practicum (2021). Prácticas externas: Curso 2020–2021. https://www.unex.es/conoce-la-uex/centros/profesorado/informacion-academica/practicas-externas/practicas-externas-20-21/practicas-externas.-curso-2020_2021
Infoempleo. (2017). Evolución del empleo por edad. Mercado Laboral. https://www.infoempleo.com/guias-informes/empleo-educacion/mercado-laboral/mercado-laboral-empleo.html#reparto-comunidad
Michie, S., West, R., and Harvey, N. (2020). “The Concept of ‘Fatigue’ in Tackling COVID-19.” BMJ Opinion. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/10/26/the-concept-of-fatigue-in-tackling-covid-19/
Moral, G. (2015). “Uno de cada tres profesores de la región supera los 50 años de edad.” El Periódico Extremadura. https://www.elperiodicoextremadura.com/noticias/extremadura/uno-tres-profesores-region-supera-50-anos-edad_883609.html
Núñez, C. (2021). “Las prejubilaciones de docentes se doblan en Cáceres a causa de la COVID.” Hoy. https://www.hoy.es/caceres/prejubilaciones-docentes-doblan-20210122074948-ntvo.html
Real Decreto 592/2014. (2014). Real Decreto 592/2014, de 11 de julio, por el que se regulan las prácticas académicas externas de los estudiantes universitarios. Madrid, Spain: BOE.
TFA Editorial Team. (2020). “Tackling COVID-19 Fatigue as a Teacher: How educators can build resilience amid the pandemic.” Teach For America. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/tackling-covid-19-fatigue-as-a-teacher
Francisco Ramos, BA, MA, MSc, PhD, is a professor at the School of Education, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches courses on bilingual education, bilingualism and biliteracy, and methods of teaching in L1 and L2 in bilingual settings.
Gemma Delicado, BA, MA, PhD (University of Chicago, 2007), is currently the director of international affairs and a professor in the English Department at the Teacher Training College, University of Extremadura (Spain), where she teaches courses on bilingual education, English, and Spanish language and literature for U.S. study abroad students.
Laura Alonso-Díaz, BA, MA, PhD, is the director of internships and employment and a professor in the Education Department at the Teacher Training College, University of Extremadura (Spain). Her research interests revolve around teacher training, virtual educational environments, training for employment, internships, and bilingual education.