Class act

How Concordia is schooling the teachers of tomorrow
March 11, 2021
By Ian Harrison, BComm 01

Kindergarten art Kindergarten art courtesy of Bancroft Elementary School in Montreal

If there’s a belief that sustains the Early Childhood and Elementary Education (ECEE) program at Concordia, it’s that learning begins — and can only begin — when students feel secure. 

This applies as much to the roughly 160 undergrads enrolled in the program as it does to the children whose learning needs they’ll be entrusted with, both as student teachers and, eventually, as professional teachers with classrooms of their own. 

The challenge over the last year has been adjusting to create an optimal learning environment during a pandemic. It’s a responsibility that ECEE director and faculty member Nathalie Rothschild had to confront when COVID-19 abruptly compelled the university and schools across Montreal to close last March. 

Rothschild manages classroom internships, where student teachers are paired with a cooperating teacher for weeks at a time. The coronavirus threw this experiential cornerstone of the program into disarray. “We had to go through some very quick changes to our courses and, in my case, with students who were just starting their final internships,” says Rothschild. 

“We had to think of alternative ways for them to develop the competencies required of teachers, but in a completely different context. 

“Our approach had to become more theoretical. It was a difficult shift for faculty and students. Our first Zoom class after the lockdown was very emotional.” 

Sandra Martin-Chang, a professor whose research focuses on childhood cognitive development with respect to reading, was moved by her students’ grace under pressure. 

“They handled the change with a lot of courage. ECEE tends to attract very bright and high-quality people. Everyone asked, ‘How can I help?’”

A new way to evaluate 

The program promptly adapted to ensure that students on track to graduate could do so remotely. 

Then, over the summer, after it was announced that Quebec’s primary and secondary schools could reopen, Rothschild thought a lot about other pivots the program could make. One of the most significant required a tech assist from the Department of Education’s Technical Office. 

With children back in classrooms as of September, ECEE students could resume their internships. But because of COVID-related protocols, Rothschild and other supervisors couldn’t evaluate them in person. Enter remote observation kits. Provided by the Faculty of Arts and Science, the kits — which consist of an iPad, tripod and microphone — have proven remarkably effective. 

“We can see the entire class, which is great because when students teach a lesson they’re often not staying in the same place — especially in kindergarten,” says Rothschild. “I can also hear my students when they’re having individual conversations with the children, or when they’re talking to themselves about what to do next. When I’m there in person, I don’t pick up on that.” 

Sandra Martin-Chang and Nathalie Rothschild Early Childhood and Elementary Education Professor Sandra Martin-Chang (left) and Program Director and Professor Nathalie Rothschild.

After the pandemic, Rothschild anticipates a hybrid model where the advantages offered by the kits are leveraged, particularly at schools at a remove from Concordia’s downtown campus.

‘Kids are constantly learning new things’ 

Still, technology is an imperfect substitute. Effective teaching involves trust and emotional connectivity. 

The pandemic has interfered with this in a number of ways. Many four-, five- and six-year-olds started school in the fall for the first time, only to be met by teachers wearing expression-masking personal protective equipment. 

“We’re talking a lot about how this year has been different for kids,” says Rothschild. “Play looks very different because of the sharing of materials and the physical space required for it. Teachers can’t convey an encouraging smile the same way, or give a reassuring hug or pat on the back.

“A lot of kindergarten kids in Montreal are in a second- or third-language context. And it’s very difficult to understand your teacher through a mask, particularly when it’s not your mother tongue. But many teachers have found very creative solutions, like recording themselves reading a story. They show the video in class and turn the pages so the kids can track their facial expressions and see their mouth moving.”

While the pandemic has provoked a lot of anxiety, Martin-Chang has faith in the natural resilience she’s observed in children as well as teachers.

“Children are like water, they cut a path where there is none. And the best teachers know how to facilitate this. I’m confident most kids will come out of this having learned what they need to learn.” 

The key, notes Martin-Chang, is to first address their emotional needs. “The first need is safety and connection. Are they surrounded by adults who care about them and who know what they’re doing? Once that’s in place, kids thrive. Think about it. Kids are constantly learning new things. Their rate of experiencing change far exceeds that of an adult.”

‘Developing deeper connections’

Jonathan Bécotte, BA 20 Jonathan Bécotte, BA 20

Two recent ECEE grads, Jonathan Bécotte, BA 20, and Melina Murray, BA 20, can relate to this kind of swift adaptation. Both had internships cut short because of COVID-19, celebrated convocation in absentia and embarked on teaching careers during the pandemic.

Bécotte, who was awarded the Sara Weinberg Award for Excellence in Teaching when he graduated, teaches a grade five-six split class at École Saint-Émile in the Montreal neighbourhood of Rosemont. 

His challenges have included replacing a beloved teacher and teaching remotely for two weeks because of a COVID-19 case at the school. “Not even experienced professionals were prepared for this,” Bécotte says. “Which is kind of reassuring — to see veteran teachers just as overwhelmed. The pandemic has fostered even greater collaboration because we’re all in this together. We’re developing deeper connections as colleagues.” 

In order to deepen the connection with his students, Bécotte had to strike a balance between preserving some of their former teacher’s ways and establishing his own identity. It wasn’t easy. “I got emotional in class one day. I said ‘Look, these are my rules — typical rules about respect. But now it’s your chance. What are your expectations? How can I make you happy?’ I wanted them to know that I had empathy for what they’ve had to go through. 

“I keep an emotional thermometer on the wall for when they feel anxious or upset. It’s a good tool for when they don’t feel comfortable to tell me out loud. When a few of them indicate that they’re feeling sad, we talk about it.” 

This compassionate style of classroom management is a direct result of the ECEE program and great cooperating teachers, says Bécotte. It’s a sentiment echoed by Murray, whose career also began last fall, at Harold Napper School in Brossard, on Montreal’s South Shore. “The program emphasized the importance of connection and safe spaces,” she says. “This has become even more important this year.” 

More than just a job

Melina Murray, BA 20 Melina Murray, BA 20

Like Bécotte, Murray has had to employ some novel tactics to prime her grade four class for learning. 

“Unfortunately, my classroom doesn’t have windows. That was a concern for some parents. It’s a strain, but we’ve adapted. I’m constantly disinfecting. And every morning I find an image of a window and project it on the smart board to give my students an emotional lift.” 

Murray also uses a colour-coded system — similar to a traffic light, with green, yellow and red — so her students can subtly, and voluntarily, indicate their emotions. 

“If they’re feeling overwhelmed they can change the colour, which is a visual cue for me to know if something’s wrong.” 

The prototypical ECEE student at Concordia sees teaching as more than just a job. In Murray’s case, it’s a calling that runs in her family. Her father, Don Murray, BA 17, graduated from the program the year she started and also teaches grade four, at a school not far from her own. 

“You have to have passion and drive to be a good teacher,” she says. “I’ve always known I wanted to do this, from kindergarten on.” 

That’s exactly what the program wants to nurture and cultivate, says Martin-Chang. “The reason why our program is one of the strongest in Canada is that we focus on the innate needs and emotional development of the child and on the content knowledge of the teachers. So teachers need to be 100 per cent about caring and 100 per cent about knowing how to teach the content they need to teach. 

“We have world-renowned experts teaching in their areas of expertise. You can’t overestimate the power of that knowledge. It sets us apart. And then we get great people — people like Jonathan and Melina.”

Meet ECEE student Gabrielle Lacoste 

Gabrielle Lacoste

A fourth-year ECEE student at Concordia, Gabrielle Lacoste began her third internship last fall in a kindergarten class at Bancroft Elementary School in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough (some of the art she created with her students is featured above). 

How have you adjusted to virtual coursework? 

My professors at Concordia have been very considerate. I find I have more time for myself now because I can better organize my time and my schedule. The virtual environment is less structured, which I enjoy. 

What is it like to wear PPE and teach kindergarten kids? 

Very difficult at first. I had been home for months — my Bancroft internship was my first time in public since the pandemic began. But over time the visor and the mask became part of my uniform and I forgot about them. My focus was on my relationship with the kids. 

How do you feel about the kit Concordia has used to observe and evaluate student teachers remotely? 

I think it’s a great alternative. I was a little nervous that it would feel weird, but it didn’t. You forget that it’s there — even the mic. It just fades into the background and you lose yourself in your teaching. 

Has the pandemic imparted any lessons about classroom management that you can put to good use when you start your career? 

My cooperating teacher at Bancroft (Catherine Cyr, who mentored Jonathan Bécotte as well) set up her classroom so that each student had their own individual bin of materials. Before the pandemic she had a more communal approach. I thought it worked quite well — it gave them a sense of autonomy. That’s something I might take away from this experience and use in my future classroom.

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