In January, Gayle Buben's class at Soldotna Elementary School welcomed a new student.
But Ann Bower differs from the two dozen third-graders already in the room. The 45-year-old mother is a student teacher from Kenai Peninsula College and, starting this week, she will take over the reins of the class.
"You almost have to fly by the seat of your pants," she said of her first days in front of the children.
College education courses convey good background information and teaching tips. But only when a teacher faces a room full of pupils and enters into the dynamic interaction with them as individuals does the information come together.
"It is weird," she said. "You are constantly reevaluating what you are doing in class. ... I was so exhausted my first week."
Bower said the student teaching is going even better than she anticipated.
The biggest challenge she has found is trying to include enough variety in her lesson plans to teach all the necessary information to all the children at their diverse learning levels. Third grade is an important time for mastering reading, learning cursive writing and tackling math concepts such as multiplication and division.
"Now I can see what my lesson has done to effect the 24 kids in the class," she said.
The interaction with children, families and colleagues has been Bower's favorite part of the experience so far. She has made friends with the children and found ways to share fun in class, and last week she met their parents during conferences. She also enjoys the school staff.
"Everybody has been willing to jump in and help," she said.
Bower first met Buben several years ago and admired her work. Now she considers herself fortunate to be assigned to learn alongside such a mentor.
Bower began substitute teaching last year and started visiting Buben's class first semester. Since Jan. 7, she has been phasing in more and more lessons. Starting this week, she will run the class on her own for seven weeks. During that time, Buben will teach Spanish and sign-language lessons in the class before taking it back in April.
"She misses these kids already," Bower said of Buben.
"But she is willing to let me do things and spread my wings."
The host teachers also reap benefits from the student teachers. They get an extra pair of eyes and hands in the classroom, more breaks and chances to work on special projects. But the biggest contribution comes in the form of fresh ideas.
"What is really great is getting two brains in there," Buben said.
Buben relishes the chance to discuss the class and plans with an on-the-spot colleague, she said.
Bower is one of nine student teachers from the college serving in peninsula elementary schools this semester. Others are at Kalifornsky Beach in Soldotna, Mountain View in Kenai, Sterling, Ninilchik, West Homer and Paul Banks in Homer.
Student teaching gives fledgling teachers a chance to try out the real job and learn from direct experience.
"This is kind of their last change to figure out if they can do it or not," Buben said. "I can definitely tell Ann is going to be a good one."
Buben praised Bower's maturity and experience, saying they are valuable assets for a new teacher. She contrasted Bower with herself, a generation ago, when she student-taught as a young college student.
"I am real thankful having someone who is not starting from ground zero, like I was," Buben said. "She already has a sense of order about her."
Bower said she worked for years in retailing, but felt it was a dead-end career. She went back to school seeking a new career and found her interests, concerns and personality leading her into education.
Sherril Miller, who coordinates the elementary education program at KPC, said most people in the program at the college are looking for second careers. She estimated their average age is about 35.
Next fall, even more people will step in front of area classes. The university has changed its elementary education program, and the last of the students under the old system will graduate at the end of 2002. Miller estimated that KPC will send out 27 for the final batch, before the new system takes hold.
After the reorganization, student teachers will spend their last year in and out of elementary schools simultaneously with the college class studies, rather than the current immersion.
The semester students now spend teaching is their final step before graduation. Each week they gather for a seminar to discuss their experiences. They work with a university supervisor, usually a retired educator, as well as with the host teacher.
Bower described her fellow KPC student teachers as skilled, realistic and motivated individuals. The current turmoil in area schools does not deter those who have stuck with the program.
"They are doing it because they want to be teachers," she said.
"I would be honored to be (working) in a building with any of these guys."
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