Haring Center

June 16, 2021

First-Year Teaching in a Pandemic

The UW College of Education (CoE) 2020 graduating class entered the teaching workforce during a tumultuous time.

“As a first-year teacher, you’re learning the job, but you’re learning a different job,” says Lik Qi Lim, who received her Master of Early Childhood Special Education from CoE last May.

Em Dandridge, who also graduated with a Master of Early Childhood Special Education during the pandemic, explains the newly minted educators were starting jobs that looked like nothing anyone knew.

Dandridge started as a special educator in early intervention at Kindering, a comprehensive neurodevelopmental center providing services to children from birth to age three in King County, in March 2020. In this role, they build foundational language and play skills with children and coach parents to support their children. Until a recent transition to a hybrid model, Dandrige’s work has been exclusively remote.

“Three days a week we do an interactive virtual circle-time class,” says Dandridge. “I use virtual backgrounds and will put myself literally inside of a book to point to things, and play with Zoom features to make myself bigger or smaller. We also do movement-based activities like yoga classes, as we all know no kid has gotten enough movement in the past year.”

Lim also started the school year remotely but moved to a hybrid model after about a month. Lim is a preschool head teacher at the EEU, educating children aged three to five, and explains there have been a variety of challenges this year.

“I had to get to know the kids, my team and the families all online. Some kids struggle with online learning, so we were supporting parents through that,” says Lim. “Getting to know the kids through their homes was a hard start, but also really interesting because we got to learn a lot more about their home life.”

“Then we came back in-person with a hybrid model,” Lim continues. “We had to set up our classroom with COVID regulations — there were materials that couldn’t be used. Play looked different, large group looked different, everything looked different.”

Lim explains that establishing a routine for the children has also been challenging. Some of her children learn in-person twice a week on back-to-back days. She says often they will work hard on something and a child might show progress by the second day, but after five days away from physical school, it can feel like starting over each next week.

For Dandridge, the differences of the online model can be more nuanced.

“In some ways it’s the same — you’re reading the Zoom room to figure out which kids are tuned in and which kids aren’t. You’d be doing the same thing in a physical classroom, it just looks a little different,” they explain.

Both Lim and Dandridge remark their time at CoE helped them succeed in this tough first year on the job.

“I started at the EEU in 2018 as a practicum student and graduate staff assistant,” says Lim. “I could draw back from my practicum experiences and knowing the community has helped me feel supported this year.”

Dandridge cites the cohort model as fostering a strong bond among the graduating students. “Getting through the tail-end of our program in a pandemic together really solidified that bond,” they explain. “The sense of teaming is emphasized heavily in our program and has carried on as we’ve continued to support each other through a challenging first year of teaching.”

The cohort’s collaboration continues formally for Dandridge too. In addition to conducting family sessions, working with children and collaborating with other providers, Dandridge works on Kindering’s equity team. They join another special educator from their graduating cohort to present staff trainings around concepts like neurodiversity and the intersections of gender identity and various neurotypes.

Lim and Dandridge agree being a first-year teacher during the pandemic has also come with some silver linings.

“I’ve had so many extra support factors, because everyone is just an easy message away,” says Dandridge. “We’re as distant as ever, but we’re also closer than ever before because we reach out to each other to try to make those connections.”

Lim says the different relationship with families has been valuable.

“In a typical year, you could easily chat with families during drop-off or pick-up in the classroom,” she explains. “Trying to establish the bond with families at the start was definitely harder, especially remotely, but the silver lining to it is that you get to know more of what is going on behind the scenes at home and build stronger relationships with them.”

Lim also says she is able to create more of her own lessons with the online and hybrid models.

The day-to-day of next year still holds plenty of unknown for educators like Lim and Dandridge. Lim will continue as a preschool head teacher at the EEU, and expresses a longer-term goal of increasing access to inclusive early childhood education worldwide.

“I wish there could be a community and school and place like the EEU all over the world, that anyone can access, and where everyone is included regardless of who they are,” she says.

Similarly, Dandridge hopes to work in education policy in the future, to make publicly-funded education accessible and inclusive for younger ages, but plans to continue to grow in their current role.

“This is a role where you never stop learning,” they say. “That’s one of the beautiful things about working in education, especially with kids this young. Every kid is so unique.”

Despite the tough circumstances for their first year, Dandridge and Lim say they love their jobs.

“You can still see the community being built. Under those masks, the kids are still enjoying school — they love their friends, they love the place they come to, they have so much fun playing and building a community,” says Lim. “Even though some days it’s so intense, at the end of the day the kids go home and have a big smile on their face. That makes the job worthwhile.”