In her first encounter with an online teaching environment, UNLV education major Angela Williams didn’t get as much out of it as she had hoped.
But then, in a virtual classroom far away, Williams found what she had been missing.
A Chilean kindergarten teacher showed Williams how to effectively manage an online classroom full of young students — an immersive experience in teaching English to students in a bilingual school that was made possible through the Nevada Institute on Teaching and Educator Preparation (NITEP) at UNLV.
“It was the best month I ever had in my life,” Williams, a third-year NITEP fellow, said. “I learned so many classroom management skills from her. She showed me the true power of routine and the power of setting expectations for your students. I was so awed by it.”
The experience is just one component of NITEP’s five-part approach to building up Nevada’s teacher workforce with educators who are committed to researching and finding the “next” practice, all in an effort to elevate educational outcomes for K-12 students.
“We don’t do best practices at all. We do ‘next’ practices,” said NITEP Program Director and UNLV College of Education professor Kenny Varner who, along with NITEP Program Manager Sara Shaw, recently revamped the program’s vision.
“What we’re thinking about is, we already know what we think is effective from research today. But through our research, and our community engagement, how can we prepare teachers to take the ‘next’ step and make the ‘next’ decision? What’s the ‘next’ practice that I can engage in? What’s the next thing I can learn to be a more effective teacher?”
That’s exactly what Williams, a senior education major, took from her experience with the kindergarteners in Chile.
“I want to research teaching practices in other countries,” she said. “I want to learn what we can do as American teachers to make the quality of teaching better. Teaching is never a stagnant profession — research-wise and practice-wise. There’s always something better out there, or an improvement that can be made.”
Funded by the Nevada legislature in 2017, NITEP is focused on preparing future teachers like Williams to meet the realities of the 21st century in schools across the Silver State all while engaging local communities, and facilitating next generation educational research.
The fellows follow their traditional coursework to obtain their education degrees, but they also receive a scholarship stipend each year as they engage in the five components of the program. There are currently 51 fellows enrolled in the program, with the first cohort set to graduate this spring.
“We’re trying to provide an experience that not only provides our students with unique opportunities while they’re in the program, but one that makes them highly competitive to meet the needs that Nevada has for a teaching workforce that’s culturally responsive and culturally sustaining for kids,” Varner said. “Our commitment is around the needs of the communities we serve, and how we can prepare teachers who are not just ready to become teachers, but are ready to become teacher-leaders from day 1.”
Community and research engagement
Following her work last fall with the Chilean kindergarten classroom, Williams — along with the other NITEP fellows — will participate in one of four community embedded service-learning opportunities this spring.
Some fellows will run a homework hotline through Zoom for middle school students and another group will engage with elementary school students through an e-pen pal project to foster student writing development. Others will plan sessions for workshops where families will learn how to better support their child’s learning at home, and conversely, fellows will learn how to better understand and interact with families in supportive ways. A final group will work on science engagement with historically underrepresented groups.
“We don’t just try to refine our craft, we also want to do things that serve the community,” Varner said. “It’s fully service-learning oriented.”
A third component of the program involves the fellows participating in a professional development opportunity — a different one for each year of the program. Varner says the NITEP fellows will tackle topics like tribal sovereignty in Nevada and the U.S., and racism. And in another component of the program, fellows will tackle tough problems through faculty-led research projects.
One research venture involves investigating laws and policies related to ethnic studies, multicultural education, and diversity in Nevada. Another is taking a deep dive into statewide retention issues for math and science teachers.
For first-year fellow Fae Ung, the latter project piqued his interest.
“The biggest takeaway from my first year in NITEP is that there are problems that need to be fixed in education, and those problems should be solved through continuous research,” Ung said. “This is what makes NITEP necessary.”
Varner said NITEP has dedicated $120,000 to support the research programs. They’ve also dedicated a portion of the state funding to developing a micro-credential program — the fifth component of the program that will be made available to recent NITEP graduates.
“One of the commitments that NITEP has is developing our fellows and mentoring them even as they move into the profession,” Varner said. “We’re piloting the micro-credential with current NITEP students, but the idea is that, once they graduate, they’ll be able to take this program for free at their own pace.”
The micro-credential, which will prepare fellows to better support students in Title I schools, will also eventually be made available to teachers in communities across the state, both in rural and urban settings. A school is considered Title I if it has a large concentration of students from low-income families, and about 70% of Clark County schools qualify to receive additional federal funds to support the educational outcomes of students, according to Varner.
“What it boils down to is that we’re committed to equity and excellence for all students, particularly students that have been the most marginalized and the most vulnerable,” he said.
To that end, the micro-credential program will focus on multicultural education, vulnerable and homeless youth, English-language learners, family literacy, and learning analytics.
“We want our teachers to be armed with the skills to support students who are vulnerable — whether it’s their housing needs or their identity needs,” Varner said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for social justice following the police killing of George Floyd has only sharpened NITEP’s goals in this area.
“I’m really concerned about the growing inequities for Black and Brown students in schools,” he said. “We have the opportunity to double down on our commitment in the College of Education through programs like NITEP, to say: ‘how do we prepare you to teach children who might not look like you, who have diverse needs, who are in settings where many complexities exist?’”
Best and brightest
It’s this commitment that originally drew Varner to taking the helm at NITEP.
Growing up in a Title I setting himself, Varner said that even as a young student he could feel that his teachers didn’t think highly of him and his classmates.
“I was in an environment where the expectation was that we wouldn’t go to college or do much,” Varner said. “What appealed to me about NITEP was that this program facilitates a pathway to put the focus back on a population that happens to be my own school experience.”
The program’s mission also dovetails perfectly into his research of the school-to-prison pipeline.
“If we want to break cycles, we have to start figuring out how we invest our money in kids,” Varner said. “And how we do that is by investing in education. So to me, the state was very wise to have directed significant funding into NITEP.”
In total, NITEP’s five-part approach is being supported this year with $750,000 from the state. The funding provides scaffolding for NITEP’s goals, and also gives each NITEP fellow a $25,000 scholarship divided over the four years of the program. The stipend starts out at $2,500 for freshmen, but increases as their commitment to the program deepens over the four years.
“By offering this competitive program, the idea is to attract the best and the brightest to Nevada, and keep the best and the brightest of Nevada already here,” Varner said. “The idea is to have them fall in love with Nevada and want to stay here, serve our students, and contribute.”
Ung doesn’t need to fall in love with Nevada; he already has.
As a Las Vegas native, and a graduate from the pre-medical Magnet Academy at Rancho High School, Ung has firsthand experience with Nevada’s education system.
He didn’t think he wanted to be a teacher at first, but after his experience in his high school calculus class, he learned the magic of math.
“That’s when I got inspired to be a math teacher,” he said. “I started to really struggle with math in high school - falling off in algebra I and II. But my high school calculus teacher showed me that math is actually really fun, and that I could do it. I want to be there to help students who were like me — students who were really good in elementary and middle school math — to continue their confidence in math in high school.”
And he’s confident he wants to do so in a Las Vegas high school.
“I want to teach in Nevada partly because our education system is known for being near the bottom,” he said. “I’m hoping in my career, I can at least try to fix it and help turn it around.”