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Teaching the Teachers

Through its training of tomorrow’s teachers, UW’s College of Education impacts the lives of children across Wyoming

Volume 14 | Number 3 | May/June 2013

By Steve Kiggins
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The voice of a young girl breaks the silence inside Chelsey Lybeck’s classroom at Deming Elementary School in Cheyenne.
“Miss Lybeck …,”

Her right arm outstretched above her head full of brown hair, the third-grader wiggles her fingers in the thin air as she waits for her teacher. A moment later, Lybeck is squatting by the child’s side and listening to her question. As soon as Lybeck stands, there’s another little hand waving from the next table. “Miss Lybeck …,” a girl calls out with urgency.

"Miss Lybeck …,” a boy says from another table as he shoots the arm of his bright orange sweatshirt into the air.

This type of scene transpires each day in classrooms from Lusk in the east to Cokeville in the west, Dayton in the north to Baggs in the south. The developing minds of Wyoming’s youngest citizens are thirsty, so eager to grow that what they've already learned is not enough. They want to read with greater skill, write with more fluidity, add and subtract with complete accuracy.

These boys and girls who represent the future of this far-reaching state are full of questions. They get so many of their answers from graduates of the University of Wyoming’s College of Education who have dedicated their careers to building a better Wyoming.

“I remind our faculty all the time that there may be 25 students in their class, but that the potential for each of those students to teach and impact the lives of others is limitless,” says Kay Persichitte, dean of the college that has long been the state’s largest provider of elementary and secondary education teachers. “If one of our students becomes an elementary school teacher, they'll likely impact 1,000 young minds during their career. If they become a high school teacher, that number is closer to 4,000.

“I ask them, ‘What’s your influence going to be? What’s your potential to impact our state and the world?”

The UW College of Education, which has been continuously accredited since 1954 by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, offers undergraduate, master’s, doctoral, and certificate and endorsement programs to prepare graduates for rewarding but demanding careers in schools. The college’s undergraduate curriculum is highlighted by practicum and student teaching experiences that provide UW students with opportunities for real-world training throughout their teacher education program.

“I always said, especially since I grew up in Cheyenne, that I was going to leave Wyoming and that I wasn’t going to the University of Wyoming. But I am so grateful that I did,” says Jordan Christopulos, a 2012 graduate who teaches first grade at Pioneer Park Elementary School in her hometown. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I think employers do look to see where someone went to school, and I think UW has a nice reputation.

“I’m happy to be here, I’m happy I went to UW, and I’m happy I stayed in Wyoming,” she says through an infectious smile. “And, holy cow, I never thought I would say that, but I really am!”

 

As the ringing of the dismissal bell echoes through the hallways of Coffeen Elementary School in Sheridan, Debra Williams and Mikayla Smart say their goodbyes to a group of second- graders that has been especially boisterous on this February day.

When the last student bounces out of the classroom, Williams can’t stifle a smile. “And this,” she says, “is where we go, ‘Aaahhh!’”

Smart smiles and nods her head in agreement, knowing that the teaching twosome had survived one of those afternoons when extraordinary patience was as required as the lesson plan. “It might have looked like chaos some- times,” says the UW senior from Green River who is majoring in elementary education. “But it was controlled chaos.”

Teaching is not an easy job. There are longtime problems like bullying and tantrums, plus auditory and neurobehavioral challenges that only seem to multiply by the year. The number of children with ADHD, for example, has risen by a whopping 24 percent since 2001, according to a January study published online in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Every day is different,” says Lybeck, a 2012 UW graduate whose parents, Chad and Jayna, are also teachers in Cheyenne. “They can throw you for a loop some days.”

The unpredictability of children cannot be taught in a textbook. It’s a facet of teaching that must be lived, and that’s why UW students and graduates alike single out the university’s commitment to student teaching as a precious component in their educational journey.

The semester-long, hands-on experience places UW students in a live classroom, where they have opportunities to both assist and lead daily instruction, while being mentored by experienced teachers. There were 266 UW student teachers working throughout Wyoming and in Denver during the 2013 spring semester.

“My mentor teacher just said, ‘Go for it!’ and threw me into the classroom. As scary as that was, it was practical, because you know what, I’m a first-year teacher now and I was thrown right into it,” says Christopulos, who was one of the first students to take advantage of UW’s budding relationship with the Denver Public School District. “She was great in the sense that I was able to do what I wanted. I’d obviously run it by her first but she would always say, ‘Try it.’ And, every day, we’d talk and she’d say, ‘What went well?,’ or ‘What’s something you would change?’ Those conversations are invaluable, and you don’t have those conversations unless you’re in the classroom.”

As she rests in the teacher’s lounge at Coffeen Elementary following yet another busy day as the student teacher in Melissa Rasmussen’s first-grade class, Megan Weisshaar says her experience at the Sheridan County school has only reaffirmed her late-blossoming desire to become a teacher.

A senior elementary education major from Lingle, Weisshaar switched majors at the beginning of her sophomore year after she says she realized her person- ality and disposition, coupled with her affection for children, made teaching a fit.

“I wouldn’t change my decision,” she says. “You couldn’t pay me to change it, no way.”

“This is just an invaluable experience,” Smart says from her seat next to Weisshaar. “The more time you spend in the classroom, the more you know you want to be a teacher.”

The student teaching program is also a boon for mentor teachers, who rely on the UW students to help deepen the educational experiences in their classrooms. And, for UW graduates like Williams (’91), there’s another perk.

“This is such a wonderful way to give back to the College of Education, because you’re helping the student teacher with what is really the most important part of their learning experience,” she says. “There are obviously things that you can’t learn in a classroom at college that you learn when you’re right here with these kids. Plus, I think all of the classes you take make more sense once you’ve been in the classroom.”

In the quiet of her classroom, which only minutes ago had been filled with youthful chatter and noise, Williams dryly adds, “It’s always nice to have two adults in the room, too.”

 

There are tears in Bailey Gregorich’s pale blue eyes that threaten to run down her cheeks.

“I’m a dangerous person to talk to about this,” she warns, “because I might get a little emotional.”

Gregorich wipes her eyes. She takes a deep breath and exhales. “There’s nothing like it—at all,” the 2010 UW graduate says. “There’s no way to truly describe it, unless you’ve stood in front of a classroom, especially a classroom that’s your own. The kind of community that happens in the classroom is really, really powerful.”

The fifth-grade instructor with flowing black hair could be the poster child for teaching, a job that requires the investment of a piece of yourself in each student who walks through the door. It’s the only job Gregorich wanted from the day she wore a blue dress with puffy sleeves to her first day of kindergarten, and she says the elementary education program at Wyoming’s university only intensified her resolve.

“What I remember most about college is the passionate professors and how I felt inspired by them,” says Gregorich, who teaches at Coffeen Elementary, a school flush with UW graduates. “I knew how knowledgeable and experienced they were, but I also knew how deeply they cared about us as future teachers.”

Michael Thomas, a 2011 secondary education graduate, got the same feeling. In addition to its emphasis on student teaching, which he describes as “vital” to an aspiring teacher’s success in the workplace, Thomas says UW’s College of Education isn’t resting on its laurels.

His mother, Kay, an elementary school teacher in South Dakota, and his half- brother, Aaron Hinton, a world geography teacher in Casper, also graduated from UW. Their experiences were also positive, he says, but differed from his own.
 
“That’s because I think UW is listening to people in the field and trying to make adjustments for the future and become even better,” says Thomas, who teaches U.S. history and American government at Rock Springs High School, where he works with about 175 students each day. “I don’t think there’s any program that’s going to get you 100 percent ready to teach. But I think UW is constantly changing to try to become that program, whether it’s through greater technology or more classroom experience.

“They do a good job,” he says. “There’s no 100 percent program. But they’re sure close.”The day is nearly over at Deming Elementary, and Chelsey Lybeck is preparing to welcome her 20 students back from the library. But they’ll depart as quickly as they return, with pencils and folders in their backpacks until the next day. “When I was doing my practicum,

I remember thinking, ‘How do you spend all day with the same kids?’” the first-year teacher says with a laugh. “But, now, I don’t feel like I see them enough.”

Lybeck looks around her colorful classroom, a space she decorated in the weeks leading up to the first day of school last fall, and a smile lights her face. “The more time I spend here, the more I want to do for them,” she says. “They have so many questions.”

She sighs and says, “The days just go by too fast.”       

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