Voices from a Virtual Internship

Joanne Baltazar Vakil, Ohio State University

The Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators’ (AMTE) Standards for Preparing Teachers of Mathematics presents a vision of supporting pre-service teachers (PSTs) by programs offering quality, practice-based clinical experiences that are “carefully designed and sequenced” (AMTE, 2017, p. 91). However, COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and social distancing mandates resulted in a wide-scale disruption of traditional clinical experiences of PSTs. During the early pandemic period, PSTs found themselves engaged in emergency remote instruction, or they were simply relieved of their student teaching placement duties since some mentor teachers were not comfortable hosting a PST at the time. For those PSTs who continued student teaching, the pandemic provided a context for insights into aspects of online instruction framed within the temporary, unplanned constraints of a crisis (Hodges et al., 2020). Presented here is a pilot study for a larger inquiry capturing the voices of STEM teacher educators (TEs), K-12 teachers, and secondary STEM PSTs (most were focusing on mathematics), who were navigating the virtual teaching world. The findings illuminate lessons learned and strategies for teacher educators to consider in order to increase support for PSTs.

Related Literature

The roles of online teachers are extensive. Ferdig et al. (2009) describe the virtual teacher as not only a teacher, but also a course facilitator, instructional designer, local key contact, mentor, technology coordinator, guidance counselor, and administrator. Though the past 3 decades have seen an emergence of virtual learning (Samuelsohn, 2015), research has documented the challenges of developing and implementing online courses, which can “overwhelm even experienced instructors” (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1030).

Studies show that teachers who work in virtual schools generally lack online teaching skills (Charania, 2010) or have limited preparation for online teaching (Hawkins, Barbour, & Graham, 2012), despite the numerous roles they assume (Davis et al., 2007). The role of the teacher has been stretched even further during the pandemic. For example, in one school district in Oregon, the superintendent prioritized social emotional checks of students, with instruction as a secondary goal for teachers (Miller, 2020). These regular assessments of students’ emotional well-being could include providing students time each day to indicate how they feel by marking a 5-point scale or selecting an appropriate emoji, writing a short journal reflection, or scheduling a live phone or video check-in (Gilbert, 2020).

Teacher preparation plays an important role in the development of a PST’s emerging professional identity (Cattley, 2007), as do TEs and mentor teachers (Wideen et al., 1998). Alsup’s (2006) study of millennial PST discourse found narratives of balance and the flexibility to “use many tools, as needed, in a particular space for a particular outcome” (p. 130), likening the ability of PSTs in this generation to Gee’s (2004, p. 105) notion of “shape shifting.” The rapidly changing landscape brought forth by the pandemic calls for teacher preparation programs to take advantage of this shape shifting propensity to prepare PSTs for the myriad of roles they may soon assume. 

Theoretical Framework

This study was guided by the theoretical lens of boundary crossing (Bakker & Akkerman, 2013), wherein the boundary represents a “socio-cultural difference leading to discontinuity in action or interaction” (p. 133). Akkerman and Bakker (2011) outline four dialogical learning mechanisms that occur at boundaries: identification, coordination, reflection, and transformation (see Figure 1). First, there is an identification of a boundary between two practices. Then, a coordination of boundary spanners, objects, and artifacts occurs that bridges both worlds (Hobbs, 2014). During the final two dialogical mechanisms, reflection results in a reconstructed identity leading to a widened perspective or transformation that “informs future practice” (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011, p. 146). Outcomes may then take the form of crystallization, described as the development of “new routines or procedures that embody what has been created or learned” (p. 148).

Figure 1. Boundary Crossing


This pilot study is for a larger inquiry that examined how STEM TEs, K-12 teachers, and STEM PSTs rapidly adapted to online student teaching during the early stages of the pandemic. The following research questions guided this study: (1) What forms of resources and support assisted STEM TEs and STEM PSTs in transitioning to remote instruction? and (2) What boundary spanners, objects, and artifacts assisted PSTs in supporting their own students?

An affective survey instrument (27 items with short answer and 5-point Likert scale responses) capturing attitudes and feelings was developed over a 3-month period. Items focused on prior experience with online teaching and learning, comfort with online learning, assessment of self-directed learning, types of synchronous and asynchronous tools used, emotions felt before and after the online teaching experience, types of administrative, school, or university support offered, and overall satisfaction with the online teaching experience. Two mathematics educators having expertise in online instruction reviewed the survey, and 10 cognitive interviews were conducted to diagnose any problematic questions. An Exploratory Factor Analysis was performed to confirm that a single construct of educator satisfaction with the online teaching experience comprised the survey. Items were positively correlated, and a Cronbach alpha coefficient of .917 reflected reliability.

In addition to collection of survey data, semi-structured interviews were conducted. Descriptive and second-order coding categorized “first impression” phrases (Saldaña, 2015) that emerged from the interview data. The data went through two coding cycles by the author. In a few cases in vivo coding, which is the use of words in the participant’s own language, was employed (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Analysis through grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) revealed common themes frequently appearing among the corpus of data.

 This article focuses on the pilot study data (n=34), rather than the national study responses (n=109). Survey participants included 34 STEM TEs and STEM PSTs. The majority were female (74%), and they also identified as 72% White, 10% Black, 7% Asian, and 7% Latino. Most were mathematics educators (62%), followed by science (23%). When asked if they had previously taught an online class, 73% responded no. Fifty-five percent indicated no formal preparation for remote instruction. Interview participants were selected from the 34 survey respondents and included two TEs and two PSTs. Each online interview lasted up to 1 hour and was video-recorded on the Zoom platform.


Challenges Faced by PSTs

In response to the survey question “What challenges did you face as a teacher concerning the lesson planning?” several PSTs checked off the box: “Finding online curriculum for students to reference,” paralleling the two PST interviewees who reflected on the challenges in finding online material for their students. A comment illuminated this difficulty as: “Preparing lessons appropriate... to complete independently online, without much parental assistance.”

One PST described the challenge of supporting her students with limited access to laptops and tablets by creating math YouTube videos viewable on smartphones. To make them even more accessible for her ELL students, she asked “a friend to translate my speech, so I could put captions in their native languages when possible.”

This same PST was surprised how her students were not as tech savvy as she assumed: “I realized… they do not necessarily know how to use it [technology] to their advantage. For example, students did not know how to use google calendar to organize their time.” This realization prompted her to think of ways to best prepare students “to use technology to the fullest when they are out of high school.”

Technology Support for TEs and PSTs

Survey respondents cited a number of sources for teaching support and online resources during the pandemic, including the use of STEM website repositories (38%), Facebook (24%), Twitter (10%), and Instagram (5%). Drawing from these resources, one PST interviewee created “videos for everything”, from technology related instructions and content to responses to questions students asked via email. She also created a weekly video that provided an overview of topics students would learn. This PST described how her mentor teacher was impressed with her use of the discussion platform Padlet, a resource she had learned about in her teacher preparation program. For another PST interviewee, despite his own struggle with video production, he felt “well prepared” by a technology course that was required for his licensure degree. The course immersed him in using online audience response systems, platforms for collaborative work, and recording a video using a green screen, all which helped him “engage with these different tools and realize that there’s a lot of technology that can be taken advantage of.”

“Who Is Sitting in the Dark?” 

One of the TE interviewees noted that she made it a priority to check-up on the well-being of her PSTs during online teaching. She described her technique of scanning the live videos of class participants to see who might need emotional support: “You can see in Zoom all of your students, who's sitting in the dark… it [support for well-bring] relies on people to take that step on their own to contact someone they need, you know, for help. Like that was like my first clue... Who is sitting in the dark? And, who has been coming to class from their bed?” After realizing “college students almost never come to my office hours”, she provided PSTs support by revamping her office hours system to provide more flexible, one-on-one “talking appointments”, encouraging PSTs to sign up for a time slot convenient to them on a Google doc. Additionally, she was aware of the anxiety and frustration PSTs felt about not knowing how they were going to “get their [placement] hours”, or if they were going to be able to obtain their degree. She strived to respond promptly to any questions and concerns her PSTs had as a means of support.

Frequent Communication: PSTs and Mentor Teachers

PSTs frequently interacting with mentor teachers was described as important. A PST interviewee recalled how she and her mentor teacher “texted off and on” and collectively attended department meetings where staff members discussed ways to implement technology. An adjunct TE and mentor teacher found himself texting “all day” with his mentee, and a PST interviewee described how he used Zoom often to meet with his mentor teacher, a high school Algebra teacher. The mutual exchange between mentor teacher and PST was described by a PST interviewee as: “He [her high school Algebra mentor teacher] was just really grateful to have somebody else that kind of could use things like that [online platforms]... So he was like, wow, this is kind of nice having just someone to bounce ideas off of.”

“Lucky Enough” with a Virtual Internship

While one of her fellow PSTs “worried that her mentor would say he no longer needed her,” this PST interviewee expressed feeling “lucky enough that [her mentor teacher] wasn't that way.” She and her mentor teacher shared a Google account so that they could efficiently communicate about things, such as grades. Unlike some PSTs who were given an opportunity to “put together a learning module” but not “a whole lot of original teaching”, a PST interviewee was expected to work on unit planning, creating lessons and lesson materials to be implemented in the daily online setting. He reflected that he and his mentor teacher “had a pretty good division of labor”, where the mentor teacher handled grading and attendance.

 A PST interviewee found that the internship duties of creating weekly summary videos before that week’s lessons helped improve her own teaching. This opportunity positioned her to practice “saying it out loud… making the video before I went in… that way I could kind of maybe see where students might have questions.” Noting how “before [the pandemic], I went into a classroom and just kind of winged it”, the PST’s experience of recording online videos supported a solid pedagogy for virtual teaching, as well as face-to-face teaching in the future.


Through the lens of boundary crossing, this study documents the identification PSTs made between the differences of a traditional clinical experience and that of a new virtual one. Though physically isolated from TEs and mentor teachers, PSTs engaged in the process of coordination (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011) by leveraging an artifact, referred to as a boundary spanner or boundary object (Star, 1989), in the form of online mentor teacher support, technological knowledgeable others, and website resources, which helped them to effectively bridge the physical and virtual worlds. Through reflection, PSTs recognized the critical role of TEs as boundary spanners in preparing PSTs as online course designers, a role which overlaps their identity as an emerging online teacher. The continual guidance and support of their mentor teacher through constant communication brought forth a clear division of online responsibilities, a mutual exchange of online teaching pedagogies, and a solid experience in lesson planning while teaching online. The virtual teaching internship offered to PSTs prompted them to reconstruct their identity and undergo a transformation as an emerging mathematics teacher practicing in a virtual classroom. Preparing PSTs with these valuable experiences and having TEs who provide flexibility, availability, and wellness checks, are ways to support future teachers delivering instruction in hybrid/blended models, or completely online synchronous or asynchronous formats.

Considerations for Teacher Preparation

The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic behooves teacher preparation programs to reconsider current methods of supporting PSTs. Opportunities for virtual field experiences remain very limited, with a study finding that only 4.1% of responding teacher education programs across nine states offer such experiences (Archambault et al., 2016). Providing the option of a virtual internship for PSTs is a practical means to address issues of temporary physical school closures, while concomitantly preparing them for potential full-time remote teaching positions. The continued partnership focusing on online instruction between teacher preparation programs and school-based personnel supports “candidates’ skills as related to the needs of schools” (AMTE, 2017, p.8). Additionally, as teachers are expected to “clearly value, advocate for, and understand the unique characteristics” (p. 114) of their students, TEs should engage in this practice of being supportive and responsive to their PSTs’ distinctive emotional needs during the pandemic. Along with offering opportunities for a virtual field experience where PSTs feel valued and engaged, TEs need to continually keep abreast of the latest online instructional tools, such as online manipulatives and geometry visualization apps, video production tools, collaborative platforms, and accessible mathematics curricula to help prepare their own PSTs for lesson planning and teaching in virtual settings.  


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