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Kyle Bluhm has been a student teacher of a second-grade class at Brooklyn Center Elementary School since September. During distance learning, he's bonded with his students over virtual field trips and in online breakout rooms, forming strong connections with the group.

Next week, after careful consideration of health risks and with some nervousness, he'll go back to the classroom with them when the school transitions to hybrid learning.

"It's important enough to me that I stay here and see the rest of this year through with these kids," said Bluhm, a University of Minnesota graduate student.

Like Bluhm, aspiring teachers across Minnesota have navigated an unusually complex situation as they finish their own education. They've had to juggle the ever-shifting demands of teaching during a pandemic, including the possibility of catching COVID-19, while trying to refine and develop their skills before entering the workforce.

The Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) oversees student teachers, field experiences and licenses. In response to the pandemic, it implemented changes to its guidelines for the 2020-21 school year.

Student teachers are usually required to teach in person for 12 straight weeks and complete a performance assessment that includes recording lectures. The board unanimously decided to wave the in-person and continuous requirements and scrapped the test.

Alex Liuzzi, the PELSB executive director, said the changes will help prevent the state's teacher shortage from deepening and provide students opportunities to develop online teaching skills.

"We wanted to make sure that we were not putting anything in the way for those teachers to be able to complete their programs and become licensed teachers for next year," Liuzzi said.

Student teachers given the option to teach in-person are generally taking the opportunity, even if they have concerns.

At the U — where students must petition to do an in-person practicum — 81% of its elementary education teacher candidates have appealed to do in-person teaching this spring.

"I have been wondering if, should I maybe wait until things sort of calm down? Am I going to get everything I would get out of student teaching if it was in distance learning?" said Alex Rincon, a graduate student at Metropolitan State University who is student teaching in person at Bridge View School in St. Paul. "So I hope to stay in the classroom enough time to just get the feel of a classroom and what it is to run a classroom."

Many college faculty and student teachers say classroom management is the biggest skill student teachers are missing out on that is difficult to develop online.

Sarah Bodin, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, taught in-person at Hermantown High School last fall and said being able to do classroom management was "pretty valuable."

Allison Kavanagh, a U graduate student, said she would focus intently on the skill when she starts in-person teaching soon.

Payton Stites, a graduate student at the U, is spending the spring semester teaching eighth-grade global studies at Minneapolis' Sanford Middle School and does not expect to do in-person instructing. She said she is disappointed to miss out on the in-person experience.

"While I grieve not being able to experience that in-person environment with kids," Stites said, "I think that this experience, not only for myself but for kids, too, is hopefully going to create a new way to look at education and to look at kids' needs."

Field directors across the state have been impressed with student teachers during this time.

Some highlight the creative ways student teachers are engaging with students. Others emphasize the flexibility and adaptability student teachers are demonstrating.

Many believe student teachers' new skills in technology will serve them well for years to come.

Jenny Bouchie, the field placement officer at UMD, said she has been "continually impressed" by her student teachers.

"They're going to come out of this more resilient and more adaptable because they've had to do so many things to be effective educators in a pretty short amount of time," Bouchie said. "I'm a pretty optimistic person in general, but I'd like to think that this will help strengthen our teaching profession in the long run."

Peter Warren • 612-673-1713