Training Teachers to Lead Virtual Classrooms

Training Teachers to Lead Virtual Classrooms

The University of Central Florida is preparing educators to teach in classrooms where there are no pencils and no books. Instead, these teachers-in-training are on call 24/7, and their students can learn from any location.

Rather than the traditional classroom internship, students in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance are getting hands-on experience in online education through a partnership with the Florida Virtual School.

“The myth says you’re at home in your jammies, but that might be because you’re working from the moment you get out of bed until the moment you get back into bed,” said Stephen McPherson, a FLVS teacher and adjunct professor who advises UCF’s virtual school interns.

“Virtual teaching is still work, and a lot of times you work even harder than you do in a regular class,” he said.

FLVS interns complete traditional teacher tasks, such as providing instruction, meeting with parents and grading student work. However, teaching in a virtual classroom also requires a different set of skills.

“It’s kind of like triage in an emergency room,” said McPherson. “Virtual teachers need to determine who needs what first; instead of kids attending your class, you’re tending to them. It’s a complete flip in the instructional model.”

Since there’s no bell schedule, students learning to become virtual teachers are taught to be organized and flexible. Virtual school students come into each course with different levels of knowledge, there’s a heavy emphasis on content and being savvy with different subjects.

And then there’s the technology.

“At first, I was totally lost,” said Sara Sabillón, who is interning with FLVS as a high school Spanish teacher.  “The technology seems overwhelming, but FLVS is very accommodating. The supervising teachers are very knowledgeable, and they help you grasp information a little at a time.”

UCF’s partnership with FLVS was piloted in 2009 with six students in order to prepare and train teachers as education shifts from the traditional classroom model to a blended environment that uses technology to deliver learning.

Since then, more than 170 UCF students have completed semester-long internships with FLVS, which serves nearly 150,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

Enrollment in FLVS is free and open to public, private and home-schooled students in Florida. A state requirement passed in 2011 mandates that all Florida high schoolers complete at least one FLVS course before graduating.

That’s why it’s so important that teachers-in-training work virtual classrooms into their repertoire, said Bryan Zugelder, the College of Education and Human Performance’s executive director for Undergraduate Affairs & Partnerships.

“Teacher-preparation programs need to be ready to adapt to changing learning environments, and I’m glad that UCF is ahead of the game,” said Zugelder. “With policy-makers mandating virtual learning, we don’t know what’s to come, but we do know that our graduates will be just as savvy with technology as they are with content knowledge.”

At UCF, Internship I junior students spend seven weeks shadowing traditional classroom teachers and seven weeks apprenticing with a virtual educator, working with students one-on-one and learning how to meet students’ different needs. During Internship II, seniors train on FLVS virtual system and then move into full-time teaching.

For Sabillón, who completed her first internship at a traditional brick-and-mortar school, one of the draws of the virtual school experience is the one-on-one interaction she gets to have with students and their parents.

“You have such a connection that you don’t always get at a regular school. My supervising teacher allows me to communicate directly with students and their parents, and they share so much with us,” Sabillón said. “In FLVS, we’re also able to look at student records and see where their strengths are. Regular schools don’t keep that kind of background in foreign language.”

FLVS internships also are unique in that they are offered during the summer, when traditional schools are closed. That helps UCF students meet their requirements and stay on track to graduate.

“Ultimately, UCF students leave these internships with a better understanding of diversity and human learning,” Zugelder said.