A Lifeline for Local Teachers

Watson College outreach programs provide educators vital guidance through the pandemic

By Tracy Vogel

Donelle Pistorino ’21 was worried. With COVID-19 driving classes online, she was about to meet her fall semester tutoring student for the first time through a computer screen. A teaching assistant for the past decade, Pistorino is working toward her master’s degree in the Watson College of Education with a goal of becoming an elementary school teacher. She knows how important it is to connect with a young student on a personal level.

“It’s definitely easier when you’re sitting next to someone,” she said. “I’m always looking for characters on backpacks and shoes and clothes, and when you only see them from the neck up, it’s hard.”

Despite observing social distancing measures, Pistorino wasn’t on her own to find a way forward. She was working through WCE’s Betty Stike Education Laboratory, whose staff showered Watson student participants with resources, including crash courses in how to use Zoom and its best features. They pointed out where to find online children’s books and how to create personal interest inventories to help make those connections.

“I didn’t know you could share a computer mouse and play video games online with students,” Pistorino marveled. “They really set us up for success.”

For Pistorino and hundreds of other teachers and teachers-in-training, the COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated the tangible impact the Watson College has on the local education system through programs like the Ed Lab and the Professional Development System. It’s a role the Watson College has played for educators and schools for more than 30 years.

“We use our partnerships not as a one-way street but as a way we can create mutually beneficial and sustainable impact over time,” said PDS Director Somer Lewis. “At a lot of institutions, that work is very one-way: ‘I’m a faculty member and I need this kind of data, so I’m going to give you my expertise for time, then leave.’ That’s not how it is here at UNCW.”

The pandemic also illustrated the Watson College’s flexibility in responding to a rapidly changing environment for teachers and students alike. For example, the PDS assessed educators’ needs early in the pandemic. They then held a conference in April that tackled topics like the basics of online teaching and how to provide feedback in virtual environments. It was a natural move for a system focused on the practical needs of educators.

“I think for the teachers, PDS allows them to feel this kind of continuum of support,” said Erin Green ’08M, a former high school teacher, current doctoral student and graduate assistant in the PDS office. That’s particularly important during a pandemic, when teachers are balancing a multitude of professional and personal tasks.

Because of its longstanding partnerships in the school systems of New Hanover and the surrounding counties – in part because of the many Watson College graduates who work in them – the PDS has a finger on the pulse on the needs of teachers like no other organization. That knowledge benefits not only practicing teachers but also pre-service teachers enrolled in the Watson College.

“Education is constantly changing,” said Dorian Barnes ’04, ’10M, a PDS master teacher, instructional coach and site coordinator. “You can talk about it and teach about it all you want from behind a desk, but if you’re not out there in the field, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Expanding the depth and reach of programs like the PDS and Ed Lab is a key priority of Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW. Philanthropic support enables these programs to provide rapid and robust support for the education community in times of crisis. In calmer times, it can help teachers attend conferences and training and bring Watson College faculty into the community instead of requiring them to travel to Wilmington.

For Pistorino, the Ed Lab’s resources have already made a world of difference, allowing her and her tutoring student to make progress during these unusual times.

After creating a series of slides to help uncover her student’s interests, Pistorino bonded with the 7-year-old over her stuffed dragon, Miles.

“We had to do a writing piece so, obviously, we had to write about Miles. It was really a lot of fun,” she said.

And her student isn’t the only one benefiting from their lessons.

“I think what I’ve learned in the Ed Lab, including how to utilize different websites, is a great skill set to bring to the classroom,” Pistorino said. “The face of education is going to change after this pandemic.” 

Visit uncw.edu/give to learn more about how you can support community engagement programs like no other.


Read more in the Winter 2021 issue of UNCW Magazine