As Savanna “Dani” Arthur looked out over the 15 young faces staring back expectantly across the classroom, she had to fight back just a little bit of panic. The senior education major had been student teaching at George Stone Elementary for a little more than a month when her supervising teacher went home sick halfway through the day and left Arthur in charge.

“I learned to be flexible,” said Arthur, who had previously been teaching three classes and now had to adapt to teaching all the classes for grades 1-4 for several days. “And little did I know that would really prepare me for what happened next.”

At spring break, Arthur was scheduled to switch to Lincoln Public Schools to teach fifth grade. But as COVID-19 swept across the world, Union College and LPS were forced to move all instruction online.

For Arthur, that meant staying with George Stone, Union College’s on-campus laboratory school, but exchanging the well-equipped multigrade classroom for her college dorm with just a laptop, a whiteboard and a light, “so students can see me.” Each day she taught Bible and language arts to 11 students in grades 5-8 and math to a smaller group of fifth and sixth graders.

She believes she was blessed to work at George Stone because they continued to have regular classes via Zoom, while many schools either canceled classes or offer limited teacher interaction. “I had to learn that this isn’t regular distance learning—it’s crisis learning,” Arthur said. “Students were suddenly forced out of the classroom, and they also are dealing with all these other stressors in their lives. I have to reach their hearts, not just teach the curriculum. That is always the goal in the classroom, but now I have to be even more intentional.”

The first couple of weeks proved challenging as she helped students grapple with using the technology at home. “But now it’s all been falling together,” said Arthur as she recalled a discussion about metaphors in language arts class. She saw the “lightbulb” go on as students understood the connection between a metaphorical battered piñata and the girl in their story. “It has been great to see that even though their world has changed, they are still connecting with new ideas.”

George Stone Elementary equals great multigrade teaching opportunities

Even in a crazy semester like this, Arthur believes her Union experience has paid dividends. “I came to Union because of the education program,” Arthur explained. As she considered pursuing a career in teaching at Adventist schools, she talked to the Adventist education superintendents in her home state of Michigan. “They told me they look for Union graduates first because of their experience in multigrade classrooms.”

Having George Stone Elementary right on campus provides great opportunities for education majors to teach in a multigrade classroom all four years of their program. Arthur said they chose to keep having regular classes online this spring in part to accommodate the student teachers who needed to complete their practicum requirements.

Since she already taught a number of classes in the school, Arthur was able to approach her student teaching experience with confidence. “I had a better understanding of students as individuals and how they interact with each other and with me because I had been working with them in the classroom even before my student teaching,” she said.

Switching to the upper grades for her second quarter of student teaching also allowed Arthur to learn from both supervising teachers at the school—Jackie Simpson and Jeanie Kriegelstein. “I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work with both,” she said. “They have very different styles and they are both fantastic. They have taught me a lot.”

For Arthur, connecting students to new ideas is the best part of the job. “One day I was trying to teach second graders how to add three-digit numbers and several weren’t getting it.” She remembered a suggestion to use colors to help students with math, so she gathered some colored pencils and encouraged the students to use a different color for each value place.

“You just made math fun!” one of the students exclaimed with a smile as he grasped the concept.

“Math was never my strongest subject, but now it’s one of my favorites to teach,” Arthur admitted. “It was great to have that validated by one of my students.”

She finished her student teaching experience and graduated from Union College on May 10. Next up: move to Dayton, Ohio, to prepare for her new job teaching fifth and sixth graders at Spring Valley Academy—a position she secured back in February.

Thinking back to all of her teaching experiences—especially tackling all the unexpected challenges this spring—Arthur knows it all came together to prepare her to be a great teacher. “I gained a lot more confidence in my ability, which helped me do better in my job interview and get my dream job!”

And if social distancing ever closes schools again, she’ll be ready.