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The Value of Practice

By Marti Elford, Ph.D.

Most teachers I talk to remember with great clarity their first class – the excitement, the hope, the nervousness, and the surprise. Time after time teachers share that they are so surprised at how different their first teaching experience is compared to what they thought it was going to be. Many confess to being underprepared, and some say they were completely unprepared. Every teacher I talk to agrees that some things just cannot be learned until you do them.

Traditionally, teacher preparation programs focus on developing teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge. Usually, future teachers complete at least one course in classroom management. Teacher preparation usually includes field experiences and microteaching experiences, and practice teaching (Elford, James, Smith, 2013). With content and pedagogy and field experience, why do many teachers report feeling unprepared for their first teaching experience? Maybe it is because they haven’t had enough opportunities to practice.

In many other professions, practice or rehearsal is part of the preparation. For professional athletes practice occurs on the playing field of their sport before they face the pressure of the game. Actors and dancers rehearse on stage until their performance warrants applause. This practice takes place to prepare for the performance, when the act of doing the work really matters. Even surgeons practice surgery in a simulation before the possibility for error presents risk for the patient. Until recently, there has been no way to really practice the performance of teaching until teachers were in classrooms in front of students. Enter TeachLIvE – a virtual learning environment made for teachers to practice the science and the art of teaching before they face the weighted responsibility of shaping the learning experience of the students under their care.

TeachLivE, the product of collaboration between the departments of education, computer science, engineering, and simulation technology at the University of Central Florida, offers a practice environment   Toss in some very talented interactive performers and 10 Beta sites, like KU’s Department of Special Education, for testing this new technology, and several years later, a simulation for teacher preparation exists. In this simulated, virtual learning environment teachers practice and rehearse delivering content and managing behaviors before they face the high stakes of performing those important tasks with actual students.

TeachLivE is better experienced than described; it’s even better experienced than viewed on video or as a member of an audience. The quality that makes TeachLivE unique lies in the suspension of disbelief that occurs when a person steps into a simulation and becomes part of the scene (Elford, 2013). This suspension of disbelief commonly occurs when people get caught up in a movie or a book, and the characters seem to become “real people”. We find ourselves thinking about them and talking about them as if they are part of our lives. Suspension of disbelief can only occur if certain elements of reality are constructed in the new environment. Filmmakers and directors and people who make video games are experts in this area. I’m no expert, but I’ve seen it happen again and again with more than 500 students at KU who I’ve guided through a teaching simulation in our TeachLivE Lab.

For the last four years, I’ve been privileged to partner with faculty and course instructors, (and the skilled professionals at UCF) to design situated learning scenarios for students who aspire to become teachers. In KU’s TeachLivE Lab, student face a large projection screen, the participant-teacher interacts in a spontaneous manner with a group of ethnically diverse student avatars sitting at their desks in a middle school or high school classroom. An X-box Kinect reacts to the participant-teacher’s movements around the classroom by altering his or her visual perspective on the student avatars. This effect simulates the classroom management technique of proximity and enhances the suspension of disbelief. The participants actually “feel” like they are in front of a group of students. Throughout the 10-minute interactive role-play session, the participant-teacher experiences the effects of a virtual learning environment as a teacher who organizes, manages and instructs virtual students. This virtual simulation provides future teachers the opportunity to practice evidence-based classroom management techniques relevant to any subject-specific lesson before applying them in actual practice with real students (Dieker, Hynes, Huges & Smith, 2008).

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The student-avatars projected on the screen may seem a little cartoon-like at first, but each one exhibits behaviors so typical of adolescents, that in a short time, participant-teachers find themselves discussing music or movies or fashion that interests teenagers, as they build rapport with the student-avatars. By the end of the 10-minute interactive role-play session, the participant-teachers have made connections with the student-avatars, (Ed, Sean, Maria, C.J. and Kevin) and they seem less virtual and more real.

It is hard to describe what happens in a simulated environment, but if you’ve been to Disney World, you know that there are rides that make you feel like you’re flying, even though you’ve never left your seat. People have varied reactions; some are scared; some cannot wait to do it again. I’ve seen the same reactions in the TeachLivE Lab. Of the 500+ students who have taught the virtual students, only a few reported that they “never want to do that again”. The resounding responses include: “when can I do that again”; “that was really fun”; “that was not as scary as I thought”; “that was so much more valuable that practicing in front of my peers”; “why don’t we get to do this in all our education courses”.

A body of research is emerging that confirms the value of simulation for teacher preparation. Since the development of the virtual learning environment known as TeachLivE, research investigating its use and establishing best-practice has begun to appear in conference proceedings, dissertations and peer-reviewed journals. A list of a few of these documents is included below. Much research remains to be done concerning the use of TeachLivE in teacher preparation. A few future discoveries include: a) how the experience of the virtual learning environment transfers to the actual classroom; b) how many practice sessions in TeachLivE produce sustained teaching behaviors; c) what important lessons do teachers learn about themselves and their teaching behaviors as they interact with student-avatars. No doubt more questions will arise as answers emerge. However, the cry for experiential learning methods in education coursework is a loud one. With the technology available to provide the experience, evidence-based practices must be researched and established.

Most of the students who participate in TeachLivE agree that the experience helps them prepare for their actual classroom. Some students who were already doing their student teaching expressed frustration about not having had the opportunity to practice in TeachLivE earlier in their education program. TeachLivE may not be the perfect solution to teacher preparation, but it offers one more way for prospective teachers to practice the instruction and management skills needed to become effective teachers before they stand in front of their first classroom.

Document List

Dawson, M. Lignugaris/Kraft, B.(2013). TLE TeachLivE™ vs. role-play: Comparative effects on special educators’ acquisition of basic teaching skills. In A. Hayes, S. Hardin, L. Dieker, C. Hughes, M. Hynes, & C. Straub. Conference Proceedings for First National TeachLivE Conference. Paper presented at First National TeachLivE Conference: Orlando, FL, University of Central Florida.

Dieker, L., Hynes, M., Hughes, C., & Smith, E. (2008). Implications of mixed reality and simulation technologies on special education and teacher preparation. Focus on Exceptional Children, 40(6), 1–21.

Dieker, L.A., Rodriguez, J., Lingnugaris-Kraft, B., Hynes, M., & Hughes, C.E. (2014). The Future of Simulated Environments in Teacher Education: Current Potential and Future Possibilities. Teacher Education and Special Education 37(1), 21-33.

Eisenreich, H., & Harshman, K. (2014). The influence of TeachLivE on anxiety levels in preservice and inservice mathematics teachers. Proceedings from Ludic Convergence, 19.

Elford, M. D. (2013). Using tele-coaching to increase behavior-specific praise delivered by secondary teachers in an augmented reality learning environment. (Order No. 3559157, University of Kansas). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 133.

Elford, M., James, S., & Haynes-Smith, H. (2013). Literacy instruction for pre-service educators in virtual learning environments. In A. Hayes, S. Hardin, L. Dieker, C. Hughes, M. Hynes, & C. Straub. Conference Proceedings for First National TeachLivE Conference. Paper presented at First National TeachLivE Conference: Orlando, FL, University of Central Florida.

Enicks, A.N. (2012). Using TeachLivE™ to improve pre-service special education teacher practices. Ph.D. thesis, Western Michigan University. (pp. 1-123).

Gregory, S., & Masters, Y. (2012). Real thinking with virtual hats: A role-playing activity for pre-service teachers in Second Life. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(3), 420-440.

Hayes, A. T., Hardin, S. E., & Hughes, C. E. (2013). Perceived presence’s role on learning outcomes in a mixed reality classroom of simulated students. In Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality. Systems and Applications (pp. 142-151). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Hayes, A. T., Straub, C. L., Dieker, L. A., Hughes, C. E., & Hynes, M. C. (2013). Ludic learning: Exploration of TLE TeachLivE™ and effective teacher training. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS), 5(2), 20-33.

Peterson, M. B. (2014). Pre-service special education teachers’ frequency of opportunities to respond in the TeachLive virtual classroom.

Rabuck, L. B. C. D. D. How TeachLivE is Helping Kennedy Krieger Build Model Classrooms. Proceedings from Ludic Convergence, 11.

Rodriguez, J. (2011). Comparison of Feedback Methods for Pre-Service Teachers Delivering Mathematics Lessons in the TeachLivE Lab. Proceedings from Ludic Convergence, 28.

Straub, C., Dieker, L., Hughes, C., & Hynes, M. (2014). Mixed-reality computer simulation: A new paradigm for higher education. Presentation delivered at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy Conference on higher education pedagogy.

Whitten, E., & Wallace, L. (2014, March). The Trifecta Model: Teacher Preparation with Technology. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (Vol. 2014, No. 1, pp. 2690-2693).


Dr. Marti Elford is the Program Designer for the online High Incidence Teacher Education Practicum program at the University of Kansas.  Dr. Elford has experience as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, and an instructional coach.  Dr. Elford earned her Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas as a doctoral fellow with L-TEC, Leadership in Teacher Education Core.  As a post doctoral fellow, Dr. Elford supervised two research projects:  a Poses Foundation grant studying Instructional  Coaching, and TeachLivE, the use of simulation in teacher preparation programs.

Dr. Elford’s research interests include the impact of coaching for pre- and in-service teachers on professional growth, using virtual learning environments, such as TeachLivE, for teacher preparation and professional development, and using technologies such as bug-in-ear to deliver immediate feedback to teachers and students.

Here I Am

By Kelly Lee, M.S.Ed.

With great thanks to my dear Grandmother Nellie Mae Tebbenkamp, for her influence.

I always wanted to be an educator. Since a very little girl, I played school like no other—mostly with imaginary friends and stuffed animals (all very well behaved)—and dreamt of the day I’d become “Miss Tebbenkamp.” Twenty-four years have passed since the spark ignited in my heart to work in special education.

It was 1991 and I was a junior in high school. I had an amazing opportunity to spend a portion of my school day at a local elementary school to further prepare myself for the field of education—an opportunity I am quite grateful for. The sponsor asked if I’d be willing to assist in a special education classroom and although I knew little of what to expect, I took the leap. I swiftly fell in love with the students and with the profession and entered my undergraduate degree in the field.

I began my adventure as an educator in 1996 and although I wasn’t fully prepared (how can one truly be?), I rocked it, and I felt at home in my new profession. I found myself weaving positive social and emotional skills into a lot of my academic lessons—a bit “out of the box” at the time. When teaching math, for example, I found a way to weave in self-esteem, self-advocacy, sharing, problem solving, and many other of the millions of social, emotional, and behavioral strategies youth foundationally need. I believed in teaching social skills in the same fashion one would teach academic skills—directly, with practice opportunities, and with positive feedback.

Did I mention I was “rocking it?” Well…I was until I met Justin, my first student with Asperger syndrome in 1997 shortly after the diagnosis was added to the DSM-IV. I adored him yet I quickly realized that I needed more tools in my toolbox to meet his unique needs. This is where the University of Kansas entered my life. Thanks to the outstanding leadership at KU and a fabulous grant that was available, I acquired a graduate degree with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Within my graduate studies, I became involved in Camp Determination as a volunteer, Director, then volunteer again (getting married and having children will cause one to step back from commitments a bit). Camp Determination provided an overnight camp experience for youth with ASD across all fifty states and provided me an opportunity to see how powerful a comfortable, natural, accepting atmosphere can be to encourage social development and increased independence and self-esteem. It also gave me the chance to see some of the numerous challenges parents face. My eyes were opened to new ways to educate and support children and also to encourage, love, include and give abundant grace to parents.

My graduate studies ignited an even stronger passion—one to specifically serve and advocate for individuals on the autism spectrum. My studies were also coupled with an unmatched experience as a respite care provider for a teenager with autism. We focused on every day experiences—from greeting Mom in a friendly, non self-focused manner when she walked through the door after a tiring day of work to budgeting and accessing the community. Through our shared experiences, he had a huge impact on me—professionally and personally. I was honored when he attended my small wedding (wearing his treasured Power Ranger gloves) and even more touched when he called me in the hospital as I held my first-born and he expressed, “I knew you’d be proud that I used the telephone book.” I often wonder if he and his family know how remarkably and positively he impacted me. Perhaps I’ll share that this Saturday as I treat him to lunch in honor of his thirtieth birthday.

Post graduate school, I organized and facilitated community-based social competency groups, returned to the classroom for a while then became an Autism Specialist at a local school district. In that role, I assisted with program development, trained staff members, served as a resource for parents, modeled strategies, and assisted with the development of individualized program supports. My love for providing support and solid programming to individuals with autism deepened. I thought for certain I would always enter a school and call it my “home.”

That grounded certainty was shaken in 2006. I received a call from a parent of one of my previous campers that the nonprofit that hosted Camp Determination would be closing its doors due to lack of funding. The family was crushed, fearing that the key positive experience her son had through the year, the one he counted down to, was no longer available. She begged that I consider taking action to keep an overnight camp for youth with ASD available in Kansas City. I was a new mom, loved my part time gig as an Autism Specialist and although my heart was broken for the loss of Camp Determination, I hung up the phone with tears in my eyes and a deep desire to help, yet also had absolute resistance to take action.

My resistance softened after thinking it through, receiving additional phone calls, and having the support of my friend and colleague, Dr. Kaye Otten. Together, we listened to prior campers and parents say that no one could “take the reigns” and bring a camp to life without knowing the numerous details involved in overseeing the lofty task. Together, we thought about the lives changed through the camp, reflected on our own childhood summer camp experiences, and decided we couldn’t sit it out. Hand in hand, we created By-Laws, developed a Board of Directors, and cofounded a nonprofit, Camp Encourage. Never would I have imagined that we could have jumped in and taken care of all of the ground-up details, but we did. Faith, hope, and a strong belief in the power of something very good will do that to you. And, never would I have imagined that I would step away from working in the school environment. Yet, I did and HERE I AM. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Camp Encourage was founded in 2007 with a mission to encourage social growth, independence, and self-esteem in youth with autism spectrum disorder through a quality, overnight camp experience located in the greater Kansas City area.” Since then, our small grassroots nonprofit has provided over 450 slots to campers in Kansas and Missouri, has positively impacted the peer model campers and volunteers in ways we could not have imagined, and has ever-so-proudly raised and distributed more than $350,000 in scholarship funds to campers that would not otherwise have been able to attend.

We strive to provide a place where each camper: feels proud about who he or she is, can shine by exhibiting his or her talents, is able to share positive experiences with others with similar interests and abilities, can connect and keep in touch with new friends, and knows that there is a place where judgments and teasing are absent.

Key components that make Camp Encourage unique include but are not limited to:

  • a whopping amount of love and acceptance
  • the teaching of social and emotional competency
  • sensory supports
  • visual strategies
  • positive behavioral supports
  • the involvement of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students
  • the inclusion of peer models
  • adventure based programming (ropes course and/or ziplining)
  • traditional camp activities such as horseback riding, archery, fishing, swimming, hayride, art activities, and singing by the campfire
  • and activities tailored around the individual campers’ interests (past offerings have included lego construction, music therapy, theater, chess, yoga, and more).

Further, Camp Encourage provides parents, siblings and other family members with much needed respite for four days and three nights.

If you would like to gather more details about this stellar nonprofit in our community, visit our website at campencourage.org or contact me directly at klee@campencourage.org. Open enrollment is currently underway through February 22nd for potential campers with ASD between the ages of eight and 18. Due to interest, a lottery will take place shortly after that date. Further, applications for PEER MODEL CAMPERS and VOLUNTEERS can be found on our website and are encouraged to be submitted no later than April 1st.

Join the goodness this summer! I have a feeling that once you do, you’ll say, “HERE I AM” while surrounded by the magic that is Camp Encourage for years and years.

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Kelly (Tebbenkamp) Lee received an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in Learning Disabilities, Behavioral Disorders, and Cognitive Impairments (K through 12). At the University of Kansas, she obtained a master degree in Special Education with an emphasis in autism. Prior to her present role at Camp Encourage, Kelly served as an Autism Specialist for six years, taught in the special education setting for seven years supporting students with various exceptionalities in the elementary and high school settings, designed and facilitated community-based social development groups for children ages twelve through eighteen, worked as a counselor at a local outdoor and diversity education camp through two summers, and served active roles for seven years of Camp Determination as a volunteer, counselor, and Director. She resides in the midtown area of Kansas City with her husband and two daughters.

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