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Changing careers, following my passion, and student teaching during the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 29, 2020 12:00 PM
By: Camilo Lopez-Medina

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Hi, my name is Camilo and I am just a guy in my late 20's following my dreams and learning from my mistakes along the way. My passion is to teach. I hope to be a teacher that inspires students to follow their dreams, learn about themselves, and the world around them.

When I was younger, I wanted to be an accountant. My father and my aunt worked in accounting and it always seemed like it was the right career choice for me. I took accounting classes in high school and enjoyed them. When I went to college, I immediately gravitated towards accounting. I saw the projected income and knew that this career was stable and offered job security. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Temple University and began my first accounting job. Fast forward. Four years, 2 jobs, and in a different city, I was burned out of accounting; it was no longer a career I enjoyed. I worked 50-60 hours per week and did not enjoy what I was doing. I knew that I could have easily gotten a different accounting job, but that was not it. When I had introspective conversations, I simply could not see myself in this field any longer. I did not enjoy it, and could not see myself doing it for the rest of my life.

Around the same time as this realization, I became dedicated to paying off student and car debt. One of my friends told me about her side job teaching online and how she was able to use this money to pay off her debt. I was initially skeptical. I had tutored in the past and liked it, but it was not something that I thought I would enjoy. Nonetheless, I went through the hiring process and began to discover that teaching was something that interested me. I would wake up at 4 am and work for a few hours before going to my full-time job. I also taught at night and on the weekends. After about 8 months of working full-time at accounting and paying off debt, I found more joy in teaching early in the morning, at night and on the weekends than what my full-time job was giving me. As I began to have less debt, I felt like I had the financial freedom to pursue a career that made me happy. I could make a change in students' lives, and I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life. For the first time, I was thinking about more than just a salary. I put myself and my passion before money, followed my heart, and decided that I would become a teacher.

Camilo Lopez-Medina on a Zoom call with other teachers.

My family and I discussed a career-changing strategy, and I decided that I would go through the education program at Lycoming College to complete my certificates in Early Childhood Education and Special Education. This was a two-year program that I undertook while continuing to work online during the morning, nights, and weekends. This was a career that I was enthusiastic about and the sacrifices were worth it. At Lycoming College, my dream of becoming a teacher began to seem like a reality. I remember before teaching my first lesson to my classmates, I was nervous, I doubted my decisions. I asked myself: “Is this the right career for me? Did I make the right choice?” Although I was still nervous presenting, I clearly remember thinking to myself: “This was the right decision.” From that day forward, I continued to learn as much as I could from my professors, my classroom observations, and experiences. I had finally found something that I was completely, joyfully, passionate about and could see myself doing for the rest of my life.

At the beginning of January 2020, I began to get ready for my student teaching semester. I was so nervous and very excited, but I knew that my professors and student teaching supervisors had prepared me to get into the classroom and be the best student teacher that I could be. Since I was double certifying, my placements were split into two, seven-week placements. My first placement was in a 3rd Grade regular education classroom, and my second was in a 4th and 5th Grade learning support position. During my first seven weeks, I learned a great deal from my cooperating teacher and students. I worked on my classroom management, pedagogy, and how to connect with students. I was able to practice different teaching techniques, create different activities on the Smart Board, and work on my classroom management. As I reflected every week I always came back to the same conclusion, "This is the career that I am meant for, teaching makes me happy."

Camilo Lopez-Medina teaching in his classroom with a student at the digital board.

On March 9th, I began my second placement. I had an amazing cooperating teacher, who trusted me and allowed me to jump in immediately with small group instruction, administering tests, and making homework modifications. I remember that whole week we were talking about COVID-19 during breaks. We were aware of what was going in the world, but we are not ready for how quickly things would change in our district. That Friday as I was leaving school, I remember hearing an announcement that the school would be closed for the next two weeks. I was shocked because I was not expecting it. Little did I know that day was the last day that I was going to be in the school, or see my students and cooperating teacher, in-person.

Camilo Lopez-Medina reading a picture book to his class.

The next few weeks were filled with a lot of confusion, and many Zoom meetings. During this time, I stayed in communication with my cooperating teacher and took part in meetings while the school district was determining their next steps. At this time, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and my future seemed in limbo. I had so many questions running through my head: "Am I going to be able to finish my student teaching online?" "Will PDE make us meet the required twelve weeks of student teaching?" "Will I be able to get my certifications and get a full-time job in the fall?" Most of these questions were answered when Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera, changed the 12-week student teaching requirement. When I heard the news that I would still be able to complete my student teaching semester, I was relieved but had a sense of emptiness. Although I’d had eight weeks of being in the same space with my students in my first placement, I mourned the lost time and experiences that I would have had in my second placement. There were days when I was down and felt like I’d been robbed of an experience of a lifetime. There were other days when I felt optimistic and excited to be able to get experience teaching remotely, work on my adaptability and communication. I am happy to say that most of my days were the latter. It is important to recognize that we all went through, and still aregoing through, times that are challenging and unprecedented. At the end of the day, we can only do the best we can do.

During this time of uncertainty, I stayed in constant communication with my cooperating teacher. We held Zoom meetings with our students and were able to use break-out rooms to go over the enrichment/review packets that they had obtained from the school district. I was able to utilize my online teaching experience to assist my cooperating teacher as we transitioned to online teaching. At times it was hard to keep students engaged, but I was impressed with how easily students adapted to online instruction. It was an amazing learning experience for me to be part of a community, in which teachers worked together with the same vision, to help connect to students and provide them with the best education possible given the trying times.

A digital device with the mathematical order of operations on the screen next to a computer.

There are many things that I will take away from my experience being a student teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most important being the value of making connections with students. I remember during our Zoom meetings we spent a few minutes going around and sharing what we had done the day before, how we were feeling, etc. Being able to talk to the students about how they were feeling, and just hearing about the things that they did the day before, made us all feel connected, even though we were not together in the same physical space. It was even great to meet some of the students' pets! I am sure by now, we all know which students have a pet, and more facts about their home life than we ever thought we would know.

I learned the importance of communication and community. Having open communication among parents, teachers, and other staff allowed the school district in which I student taught, to quickly transition to online instruction. My cooperating teacher and I had great rapport. She was able to send me a quick email, text or call, and we could talk about any ideas that she had or any ideas that I had. This is something that I will take with me as I start teaching this fall. I want to have open lines of communication with my grade team, principals, parents, and most importantly students. This will be key as we go back to school and get used to our new normal. It is salient to remember that we are never alone and that we are in this together. Even when we feel like we are alone, it is beneficial to take a step back, look around, and lean on those who are part of our learning community --we can request advice, or just ask them to listen to us.

As I close this blog post, I want to leave a few thoughts with you: follow your passion. I discovered my passion is teaching and working in education. Things were not easy at first, I had to work a bit harder than the rest, but the effort paid off. I am now in a career that brings me joy, and my work no longer feels like a job. These days I think to myself: Is this what makes me happy? Do I see myself doing this for a long time? And my answers are yes! I love teaching and working with students. I can see myself in this career for many years to come.

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