News | July 5, 2017

Teach for America Teachers Reflect on Their First Year in the Classroom

In August 2016, Las Vegas Sands hosted a group of new teachers through Teach for America Las Vegas Valley for a meet-and-greet with local executives from Las Vegas Sands. As part of the Sands Education Council, a public-private partnership of like-minded organizations, Teach for America helps address the challenges faced by the local school district and to identify opportunities and help improve education to make the community a better place to live. Teach for America teachers are placed in challenged schools where skilled teachers are needed.

“My summary of the first year is to embrace the bad and unexpected,” Pamela Cates, Special Education teacher at Equipo Academy, said. “Embrace what’s going wrong, reflect and then move on. You have to get through the awful parts, and when you do, you come out better on the other side.”

Cates said that the school year has been exciting and humbling all at the same time. Her students taught her more than she taught them, from her perspective. She instituted a curriculum that included reading novels from Edgar Allan Poe and titles like Don Quixote to elevate their understanding and help them enhance their reading levels.

“They loved it!” she said. “I would give them text at their level and then the pictures to help them understand the novel at their actual level of reading. I have access to comparable material for them to understand. With Special Ed, they all learn differently so it allows me to have some creative problem solving so they all learn the same things, just in different ways and at their own pace.”

Challenges for Cates came in the form of not knowing what was coming. Her students ended up teaching her not to take herself so seriously and to laugh at certain situations. Laughter became important in her class.

“Skill-wise, I hope they take self-advocacy away with them,” Cates said. “I’m proud when they prove me wrong. I want them to also remember that it’s okay to be your authentic self. In middle school they just want to fit in and I just want them to be comfortable with who they are. For next year, I’m excited about what books and projects they want to cover. I really like to base the curriculum on the students’ interests.”

For Stephen Barney, sixth grade teacher at O-Callahan Middle School, his school year turned out to be more challenging than expected. Before becoming a teacher with Teach for America, Barney had taught kids at a summer camp, but never in a classroom setting. He found it challenging to make sure they understood what he was teaching.

“I look forward to working on ways that I can make them understand better,” he said. “I hate having to backtrack and see where the misunderstanding was. You have to find other routes to get them to learn sometimes.”

For next year, Barney said he wants to be more of a teacher and person in charge rather than their friend.

“All of us will grow better if there’s a better understanding of our roles in the classroom,” Barney said. “I hope I can change things up for the better and we can all grow together. My favorite part of this whole experience was my after school Equality Club. I got to know a lot of my students on a personal level where they could be open about their identity. We had some really good conversations and I think that helps them be better students.”

Teachers and students in a classroom