Story and Photo by Stefanie Jackson – Accomack County Public Schools offered junior and senior students the Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow elective and dual-enrollment course for the first time this school year, which instructor Mikki Sturgis recommends not only to students interested in becoming teachers but any student who envisions taking on a leadership position someday.
Teaching is the “profession that leads to all professions,” Sturgis said.
She intended to move to the Eastern Shore to retire after teaching for 26 years, including about 15 years teaching the Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow course in Virginia Beach.
Through a casual conversation between her husband, who is a retired firefighter, and his colleagues, some of whom have ties to the Shore, word got back to Accomack schools’ Director of Human Resources Clara Chandler, and Sturgis was recruited to introduce Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow to Accomack County.
She’s based at Nandua High School and is teaching 10 students this semester – seven from Nandua and three from Arcadia High School. The Arcadia students normally attend class virtually through Zoom video conferencing, but occasionally they are bused to Nandua for special class activities.
Friday, March 25, was one such occasion, when the students participated in simulations of various physical disabilities to promote empathy. They performed tasks such as grasping objects with tongs to simulate functioning with a prosthetic arm and reading aloud with giant marshmallows in their mouths to simulate speaking with a speech impairment.
Sturgis focuses many of her lessons on current educational issues and trends such as special education, learning the difference between equality and equity, and correcting biases and stereotypes.
She considers the class “project-based,” which also includes the students doing research on colleges.
Sturgis said Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow “really helps them figure out who they are” and whether or not teaching is the right career path for them.
The class has two levels that can be taken over the course of two semesters. (The semesters can be nonconsecutive, but Level 1 must be taken first.) Both Level 1 and Level 2 provide internship experiences. Level 1 students complete a 20-hour internship and Level 2 students complete a 35-hour internship.
The internships are particularly beneficial because the high school students acquire authentic teaching experience in the classroom early in the career selection process.
By contrast, college students who major in education typically do not complete internships until they are nearing graduation and have already invested much time and money preparing for a career they may not enjoy.
The student internships are completed at select “feeder schools.” For example, an Arcadia High School student could intern at Kegotank or Metompkin elementary schools and a Nandua High School student could intern at Accawmacke or Pungoteague elementary schools.
The high school students get official Accomack County Public Schools ID badges to wear throughout their internships.
The interns start by observing teachers in the classroom and learning about student discipline. The interns work up to helping students in small groups and eventually writing and teaching their own lessons. Level 1 interns teach two lessons and Level 2 interns teach five lessons.
Students in Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow learn about barriers to education that their future students might face, such as poverty, homelessness, or caring for terminally ill family members.
They learn the basic principles and theories of education, as well as teaching strategies. The course is like “Education 101,” Sturgis said.
She explained that taking foundational courses in education is helpful to students who want to pursue any type of leadership position, not just in teaching, because they learn about “understanding people and figuring out who they are, what makes people tick,” which also has applications in the business world.
As Sturgis continues to develop Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow in Accomack, she wants to create opportunities for students to do community projects. For example, she would like her class to partner with the DECA club, which collects books, and the Badger Technical Center to build “mini libraries,” aka little free libraries, and install them in communities.
Eventually, she also would like the teaching interships to count toward the 40 hours of community service required of every Accomack student to graduate.
Besides teaching the class, Sturgis actively recruits high school students throughout Accomack County, including Chincoteague and Tangier.
She said the guidance counselors have been instrumental to her recruiting efforts; Sturgis distributes Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow flyers and explains the program through a PowerPoint presentation, and the guidance counselors recommend the course to students who may be interested in it.
She aims for the class to have a broad appeal, interesting students in becoming teachers who can be a positive influence for children of diverse backgrounds.
For example, Sturgis said more teachers of English language learners or ELL students are needed, and male teachers are still far outnumbered by female teachers.
She said, “Kids really need that … that positive role model.”