CWU News

CWU Early Childhood Education Students Thankful to Have In-Person Opportunities

The 2020 fall quarter was always going to present some challenges for Central Washington University’s Early Childhood Education program.

But the situation became even more complicated in September when the Ellensburg School District decided not to allow any in-person practicums due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

That change of plans left the CWU department scrambling to find in-person teaching opportunities in Kittitas County for its students. Fortunately, two spots opened up — one in the Kittitas School District and one at Jack & Jill’s House Preschool in Ellensburg — giving two aspiring teachers a chance to work with students in a true classroom setting for about two months.

Senior Emily Carroll said she feels grateful to have had the opportunity since many of her classmates missed out.

“I just got lucky that I was placed in Kittitas and that they stayed open for hybrid learning,” said Carroll, who worked in a kindergarten classroom for six weeks. “I hope more of my classmates have an opportunity to do this next quarter.”

Senior classmate Odalys Esparza, who spent the past two months at Jack & Jill’s, said the experience has been invaluable as she trains to become a professional educator.

“This experience really helped me feel more prepared because I actually got to work with the kids in person,” said Esparza, who plans to work alongside head teacher Melissa Gillaspy again this winter before student-teaching in the spring. “I was definitely nervous that I wouldn’t get this field experience before I started student-teaching, but now I feel much more comfortable.”

Carroll said she appreciates being able to learn from an established teacher like Katy Bremner, who has given her a better understanding of what it’s like to oversee a classroom full of energetic youngsters.

“It’s been really valuable to see how she has handled having a hybrid classroom,” she said. “Even though I was just observing most of the time, I noticed a lot of little things. Katy has shown me some good strategies and techniques, and I’ve also learned how important it is to interact differently with every kid. They all respond in different ways, and it became clear to me that you have to get to know each of your students individually.” 

Esparza came away with a similar understanding of the teacher-student dynamic and said Gillaspy has been an excellent mentor.

“I’ve learned how to be patient and how to adapt my approach,” she said. “Sometimes the kids don’t want to sit still, so we will move on to something else. Other times, we just make something up so we can keep them engaged.”

One of the ways Jack & Jill’s mixed things up this fall — both to keep students entertained and meet safety protocols — was to introduce weekly nature walks for the 4- and 5-year-old class.

“The preschoolers struggle to keep their masks on the whole day, so the nature walks are a way to give them a break,” said Esparza, who is minoring in bilingual education. “The teacher is always coming up with new activities, and she has showed me how to adapt to different situations when they come up.”

Carroll said she hopes to return to Bremner’s classroom next quarter, but she also wants her classmates to have a similar opportunity. Whether she receives any additional in-person teaching experience this year remains to be seen, but between her CWU training and the in-person practicum, Carroll says she will be ready.

“This program gives you a lot of opportunities to go to different classrooms and teach lessons, so you really get used to being there,” she said, referring to her experiences prior to the shift to mostly remote learning. “You have a lot of chances to practice and receive feedback. They don’t just lecture you and tell you how to do things. You get to hear a lot of perspectives and figure out what works best for you.”

CWU senior Odalys Esparza reads a story to a group of students at Jack & Jill's Preschool in Ellensburg, where she has been doing her practicum work this fall.

Lessons for the Future

CWU Associate Professor Dia Gary is among the faculty responsible for training future educators like Carroll and Esparza. Just like her students, she has had to make more than a few adjustments during this highly unpredictable year.

While it has been difficult to overcome the lack of in-person practicum opportunities, Gary and her colleagues have taken advantage of tools like video conferencing to critique their students and prepare them for a real-life school setting.  

“We’ve been doing more things online and trying to think more outside the box,” said Gary, a former kindergarten teacher who has been at CWU since 2012. “This experience has made me more creative. I’m always thinking to myself, ‘How can I make this as hands-on and constructive as I can?’ It has stretched all of us, but it has also been a growing opportunity. Both the professors and the students have learned a lot from doing things this way.”

One unit that worked well for Gary’s early childhood education students was when they prepared a lesson plan and presented it on video to their families, friends, or roommates. The students then presented their video projects to the class and received real-time feedback.

“We usually have them go to preschools and teach for the day,” Gary said. “But since we couldn’t do that this quarter, we had them improvise with their friends and families. … That unit worked so well that we may not change it in the future. It was a lot easier than having to transport all of our supplies to Black Hall. Plus, everyone had fun doing it.”

No one believes that a virtual/hybrid structure could replicate the in-person learning experience, but under the circumstances, the new learning format has given educators a vision for the future — even for the relentlessly social 3- to 5-year-old age group.

“We are learning that this system does work,” Gary said. “It’s not ideal, but it may even be better for some students. Some kids learn better in a smaller class setting, and those who need more time to run around outside can do that in between Zoom meetings. From what I’ve seen, it’s been working out well in the schools.”

Most importantly, the Early Childhood Education program at CWU has found a way to overcome the current setbacks while continuing to provide students with the training they need to excel in their own classrooms after graduation.

“We teach them to ask the kids a lot of questions — get them to think and come up with their own solutions,” Gary said. “The most important thing is to get them to talk with one another and with you. You also need a lot of hands-on activities that involve each of the five senses. Get them interested, get them focused, and get the language flowing.”

Carroll said what has impressed her most about the CWU program is the wealth of resources available to her and her classmates. She says anyone considering the Early Childhood Education track at CWU should know they won’t be alone.

“The faculty always has your best interests at heart, so just knowing that there’s so much help available has been nice for me,” she said. “It’s nice to know that when you have a question or you are stressed out about something, you can reach out to your advisers and they will help you get through it.”

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs,, 509-963-1518.