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How Las Vegas Student Teachers Are Honing Their Craft in Virtual Classroom

Virtual Learning Las Vegas.jpgJohn Lessner’s first experience as a teacher has featured some comical moments.

Lessner, a Nevada State College student doing student-teaching at Walter V. Long Elementary, has encountered students with a television on in the background during a virtual class. There have also been interruptions from a playful dog and a loud sibling or two.

In the final step to earn an undergraduate degree, student teachers spend a full semester getting on-the-job training with a certified teaching mentor. 

And while the pandemic has pushed the process exclusively online, Lessner says the experience is invaluable in learning the profession. If anything, he says, it will make him a better teacher when students return to in-person learning.

“The online instruction has made my classroom management skills a lot better,” he said. “It’s forced me to get out of the box with my teaching because lessons must be more engaging and students must be even more present, not just sitting behind the screen and listening to me lecture. They’re not going to get anything out of that.”

Kelly Perez never imagined her first experience as a teacher would look and feel like this. She rarely sees a child in person.

The student teacher shows up to Doral Academy-Saddle, a Las Vegas charter school, to help instruct children remotely four days a week. Her mentor sits across the empty room with a mask on, as they combine to teach kindergarten from afar.

Perez’s mentor can only help so much in the special circumstances of a pandemic, which has brought virtual learning since mid-March. Perez is learning how to teach in a digital setting — same with her mentor. 

“I’m trying to be flexible with everything and taking it as it is,” Perez said. “Experienced teachers feel really overwhelmed right now. They are anticipating the differences and how it’s going to be regular, in person. I’ve just been following their lead.”

A normal student-teacher experience would be heavy on learning how to control a classroom, which when dealing with toddlers is easier said than done. There’s also the bond developed with seeing students every day. 

Instead, they only see each other when students are on campus to grab homework packets.

“They’re kind of starstruck when they come. I imagine it’s like when you see someone on TV then you see them in real life,” Perez said. “They’re so chatty on Zoom. They want to talk the whole time. When they come and pick up their packet, they’re real quiet.”

The Clark County School District coordinates with about 10 universities and partners to place a little over 200 student teachers in schools a year, said Steven Flak, the CCSD director of recruiting. About 90% of student teachers who get their experience at CCSD stay once they become licensed, Flak said. 

“Nothing has really changed as far as the volume of student teachers,” Flak said.

The school district vets student teachers, fingerprints them, performs a thorough background check and coordinates with principals to assign them a mentor, Flak said.

Mentors are chosen by their principals based on their performance and experience. 

Joseph Nannini, director of clinical experience and assessment for UNR College of Education and Human Development, said UNR relies on recommendations from principals to pair college students with a mentor. Nannini said UNR also has a program in which teachers are trained on mentoring new teachers in conjunction with Washoe County School District and the Northwest Regional Professional Development Program, an organization that provides training for teachers.

Nancy Brown, a faculty member at the UNLV College of Education who works closely with student teachers, said a mentor teacher typically needs three years of teaching experience and comes highly recommended by a school administrator.    

“We’re not the only university so I really appreciate CCSD helping us and mentoring teachers who are willing to take on a student teacher when they are teaching virtually,” Brown said. “They are learning as much as we are. To help our students learn with them, I really appreciate that.”

The students need 600 hours of student teaching to get their bachelor’s degree in education from UNLV, which pays those who volunteer to mentor student teachers a $300 stipend.

At UNR, a student teacher receives 10 formal observations — five from their mentor and five from a college supervisor, which is usually a retired principal or teacher. Student teachers are evaluated on their professionalism, preparedness and engagement using teacher observation standards similar to those used by school districts to evaluate professional teachers. 

At each observation, student teachers and their supervisors go over a plan for improvement. Student teachers also complete weekly reflections on their planning, instruction and interactions with students. 

At UNLV, if a student teacher’s performance is unsatisfactory, they can be dropped from the course or receive an incomplete.

Perez said she was gradually given more duties and lessons to teach until she had full control of the online classroom. She also writes lesson plans and meets with peers over Zoom to discuss their experience teaching.

“I enjoy it because I get to hear their ideas and how things have been going for them,” Perez said.

Natalie Glynn, Perez’s mentor, has been teaching for 12 years. She said Perez is a quick learner.

“She’s definitely picking it up and flying with it. She’s doing an amazing job. It’s great to see someone who wants to teach. She definitely has it in her heart to be a teacher,” Glynn said.

Glynn said she mentored a college student in the past in person when it was easier to give students individualized attention. It’s difficult to do that virtually. For the past 12 weeks, Perez and Glynn have been teaching all the children in the class the same lesson at the same time, without much room to work with students one on one.

Also, Glynn had no experience teaching live virtually. In March, classes were pre-recorded.

“It was new for everyone and we didn’t have anything to go off or to compare it to. Last year, we had done all recordings when we went remote,” she said.

Glynn said regardless of the challenges, she’s enjoyed mentoring Perez.

“We figured out some bumps in the road and we’ve ironed them out and we’re kind of in a really good routine right now. It’s a lot of fun to share the things I love about teaching,” she said.

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