Meenakshi Sharma, Mercer University
The pandemic heightened many existing challenges (such as work-school balance, working multiple jobs, family obligations, etc.) for non-traditional preservice teachers. To support this student population, Dr. Sharma integrated virtual mentoring as a key part of her science methods course curriculum.
The science methods course focused on preparing non-traditional teacher candidates as effective elementary science teachers according to the vision of the Next Generation Science standards. Therefore, all course activities and examples illustrated ways to engage elementary grade students in scientific sense-making of natural world phenomenon using science and engineering practices. Virtual mentoring was used as a tool to support this goal during pandemic and curb learning challenges.
Supporting Non-Traditional Teacher Candidates with Mentorship
During the Spring of 2021, Dr. Sharma provided virtual mentoring support to teacher candidates in an online, blended 8-week science methods course. The main idea was to humanize a traditional science methods course and be responsive to the academic needs of adult non-traditional learners. Research literature reveals non-traditional students have high drop-out rates, difficulties with adjusting and socializing to campus life, educational and learning gaps, and difficulties in adapting to new ideas in a field . There are calls for making university coursework more suited to the needs of adult learners to address such challenges. Virtual mentoring was used as a response to such calls to facilitate socialization into the teaching profession by easing conversations with current teachers and peers.
Actions taken to facilitate mentoring:
- Non-traditional students who had already completed a science method course were invited to serve as mentors.
- Mentors and mentees met on Zoom. However, because of scheduling challenges with jobs and family care, some of the synchronous course meeting time was devoted to hold large group discussions with mentors.
- Mentors shared their own classroom experiences, lesson plans, reflections, and learnings as science teachers. This offered adult non-traditional teacher candidates an online community with their peers where they could openly discuss their feelings about teaching and reflect on their own science learning experiences.
- Mentors were also requested to shared experiences with the culture of science teaching and learning in their schools to provide a bigger picture about elementary science teaching.
While scheduling time to meet outside of class was a challenge for mentors and mentees, the virtual mentoring was a positive experience for adult learners’ preparation as science teachers. Mentoring meetings provided a space where mentees could ask questions freely to their peers. Mentoring also enabled deeper understanding of course themes. In their written reflections, mentees recognized learning to be a science teacher as a complex and ongoing process. For example, mentors discussed examples and ideas on using science phenomena to teach meaningful science. It also allowed adult learners to compare their past science learning experiences with current views of science education.
Implications Beyond the Pandemic
Although this idea began during the pandemic, it clearly defined an ongoing need for responsive online teacher education courses and pedagogies that introduce non-traditional learners to the joy of science teaching. Virtual mentoring encouraged social interactions with peers while also exposing pre-service teachers to the landscape of science teaching and learning early in their careers. Additionally, the experience engaged learners in a flexible manner and allowed students to share their stories and experiences with peer mentors. Overall, the virtual peer mentoring program is something Dr. Sharma hopes to continue to develop beyond the pandemic.
Mentor and Mentee Feedback:
The following quotes are from mentees’ written reflections:
“Now, knowing that Science is not just Science. It is Science and Engineering Practices that do make a difference in learning Science in the classroom. Students are the ones asking the questions to have a meaningful understanding of the world around them.”
“For someone like myself, who has only taught PreK, teaching science to my students has, until now, been a challenge. It has been a challenge because I would think, ‘Oh, they won’t be able to do that’ or ‘They won’t be able to understand what all of this means.’ Now, I know differently. They can do it, and so can I. I appreciate the opportunity that was given for me to be able to meet teachers who are currently teaching, who have taken this course, and who are striving in the classroom during this pandemic.”
“This exercise helped me to open up to a traditional teacher with experience. I was able to ask any questions I had and get a straight answer.”
The following quotes from mentors provide a glimpse of mentees’ struggles:
“Most of my mentees were either uncomfortable or had negative experiences with science at some point in their education.”
“Use of phenomena during instruction—mentees didn’t understand that the purpose of phenomena was more than a ‘hook’.”
“It was very challenging getting several of the mentees to participate. There were also a few bad attitudes about why they needed to be doing this or learning these types of methods.”
Mentors insights were found to be coherent with the discussions pertaining to non-traditional adult learners within research literature. In general, non-traditional learners have poor schooling experiences and find it challenging to adopt reform-oriented and transforming teaching practices . Scheduling time outside of class was a persisting challenge for mentors and mentees; however, despite the challenges, virtual mentoring had positive influence for adult learners’ preparation as science teachers, as seen in the quotes in the above section.