Patience, acceptance, respect — those are the core values at the center of Ellie Edgar’s third grade classroom at Vail Pittman Elementary, and from where all learning flows.
In Kenny Brown’s classroom at Sierra Vista High School, collaborating with fellow educators to develop innovative curriculum is at the heart of his teaching strategy.
While they teach different grade levels and at different schools, both Edgar and Brown exemplify what it means to be a new educator of the year in the Clark County School District (CCSD), and the effectiveness of UNLV’s Alternative Route to Licensure (ARL) Program.
“A lot of times the ARL program might be labeled as a ‘fast-track’ to teaching, and there can be this notion that ARL students aren’t as well prepared for the classroom,” said Iesha Jackson, assistant professor of teaching and learning at UNLV. “But I think the ARL pathway can be a wonderful opportunity to enhance the profession when we recruit candidates like Kenny and Ellie who show amazing potential from the very beginning.”
Earlier this month, CCSD honored Edgar as a New Educator of the Year in the elementary (grades 3 to 5) category and Brown with the same award in the high school category. Both were surprised in virtual presentations during Teacher Appreciation Week.
“It’s surreal,” Brown said of the moment he learned he was chosen for the distinction. “There was so much I didn’t get to do, and so much that I could get better at. I did something special because everyone one of the kids I teach is special. It’s amazing and I’m so grateful.”
Brown is a ninth-grade English teacher at Sierra Vista, where he began his teaching career in 2018 as a substitute teacher.
He came to the profession after earning his bachelor’s degree in film at UNLV in 2010, and working as a magazine editor at a travel agency, where he eventually found that the best part of his job was training interns.
“I was nervous at first about being trusted with interns and training them how to do my job, but it turns out, I actually got pretty good at it,” Brown said. “I enjoyed seeing the successes of the interns, based on the habits that I taught them.”
Brown began the ARL program at UNLV in 2018, and quickly ingratiated himself with students and fellow teachers at Sierra Vista. After just one semester of teaching, principal John Anzalone asked him to create a brand new African American experience course for the 2019-20 academic year.
Jackson, who taught Brown in her pedagogy class at the start of his ARL program, said she wasn’t surprised to hear that he was chosen to develop a new course.
“He reached out to me asking for feedback, and to talk through the syllabus,” Jackson said. “He sought out scholars locally and across the nation, and was trying to personalize the course as much as he could. That’s what great teachers do — they seek feedback from colleagues, and bounce ideas off of their peers.”
In the introductory pedagogy course, Jackson also observed how he intentionally considered how to tailor his lessons to meet the needs of each individual student.
“That’s what a great teacher should strive to do,” Jackson said.
Finding what works best for each student is at the centerpiece of Edgar’s third-grade classroom, too.
“She knows her students’ strengths and challenges, and she teaches them from there,” said Anna Maria Behuniak, who served as Edgar’s site facilitator during her field experience courses. “She makes sure she hits on what each individual student needs.”
Edgar began the ARL program in 2018 and quickly found that she fell in love with teaching kids after working in what seems like a polar opposite career — animal caretaking.
“People have asked me how does that correlate? And you’d be really surprised,” Edgar said. “With children you need patience, the ability to multitask, and communicate in a different way, and those were all skills I learned in my previous career.”
Edgar worked at a nonprofit animal sanctuary in Texas, but when she and her husband moved to Nevada for his job in the U.S. Air Force, she needed to find a different career.
“I was thinking of a career that would fulfill me, and that I could do anywhere,” Edgar said. “I’ve always loved learning, and have always been an avid reader, so what better way to continue learning and growing than to teach others?”
The teaching, and subsequent learning part — Edgar soon understood — came from cultivating a sense of community within her classroom.
“If you create a strong culture of patience, acceptance, and respect, and model that, the learning will come easier,” Edgar said. “Building trust within the classroom is key.”
Edgar said the moment she first began to feel like a successful teacher came towards the end of the year, when she began to see some transformations within her students.
“It was amazing to watch my students from where they came in to where they were when we left,” she said. “They began to search out opportunities to help each other, and support each other.”
Edgar and Brown continue to take courses at UNLV as part of the ARL program and are both on track to graduate in May 2021.