Interview project helps share wisdom between teachers and students

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Ryan Cowden chats with a second-year social studies teacher from Southern California.

As COVID-19 shut down schools, education majors have lost out on observing teachers in their classrooms, an important part of their training. Ryan Cowden, a doctoral student in the Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies program, is trying to make up for that loss with interviews from social studies teachers across the country.

Cowden has been the host of School of Thought, a podcast for educators, since 2018, so the project is a perfect fit for him – and for students’ needs.

“Teaching is a tremendous profession that you can never completely master, and I was surprised at the level of authenticity these teachers brought to these interviews. They really opened up and talked shop and shared things that you don’t always hear about,” Cowden said. “As a teacher, you spend so much time in your own classroom that you don’t always know what your peers are doing. I’ve been good friends with some of these teachers for many years, and I was still surprised by some of the things they shared. And I wasn’t asking rote interview questions either. I was asking questions I wanted to know the answers to, and I was learning along with our students.”

I know that a series of podcasts can’t fully replace the experience of sitting in a physical classroom watching real teachers and students interact ... but in my opinion this comes pretty close. I wish I had a resource like this when I was training to become a teacher.

Ryan Cowden

The interview project was originally an idea of Assistant Professor Alex Cuenca. With limited opportunities to practice teaching in classrooms, he and Cowden recognized that there would be a need to approximate the wisdom often shared between mentors and teacher candidates.

“We considered interviews with experienced educators as the ‘next best thing’ to the formal and informal conversations that often happen between an mentor and a teacher candidate during field experiences,” Cuenca said. “One student, Olivia Kegely, emailed me after we asked students to listen and reflect on the collection of podcasts and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I just completed this week's module assignments and I thought it was some of the most engaging and beneficial work that I have done so far this semester. Being able to hear from teachers who are living and teaching in the current climate and circumstances helps me feel more confident and prepared to tackle anything that comes my way in the classroom.’”

Cowden said he’s very grateful for the teachers who were interviewed.

“I know that a series of podcasts can’t fully replace the experience of sitting in a physical classroom watching real teachers and students interact. However, sometimes classroom observations can be hit and miss. You can spend all your time in one classroom, and that teacher may not be a good example of best teaching practices. The benefit of this project was that, instead of watching one teacher teach for several months, these students got to hear from some highly-accomplished teachers in their own words,” Cowden said. “Listening through this series, they were definitely exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives and it should help them clarify what their own core beliefs are. Again, this doesn’t replace what they missed, but in my opinion this comes pretty close. I wish I had a resource like this when I was training to become a teacher.”

Although the pandemic gave rise to the project, Cuenca and Cowden will continue to build the collection of interviews to benefit both teacher candidates and candidates in social studies teacher education program at other institutions.

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