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McKay School student shares insights from teaching in immersion program

Clarissa Buckhoff’s Experience

clarissaClarissa Buckhoff, a McKay School teacher education alumna, recently returned from an immersion experience in student diversity.

Buckhoff spent this past winter semester in Houston, Texas, student teaching in a full-day pre-kindergarten class in the Aldine Independent School District, well known for the racial and cultural diversity of its students. She shared with the McKay School a little about her experience, her reasons for going out of state, and the top three lessons she learned.

Lesson #1: Work Hard

A typical day for Buckhoff started at 7:00 a.m., an hour before school began, and ended at 5:00 p.m., three hours after her students had gone home, allowing her enough time to prepare projects and lesson plans for the following day. “The schedule for the school [was] very structured because of Aldine’s strong focus on academics,” said Buckhoff. Each day consisted of five rotating lessons which included math, various reading and writing activities, and occasionally science and social studies lessons. Besides these lessons, students also rotated among centers during the day. Also, Buckhoff would join her class in the lunchroom and eat two meals with them. On Mondays and Tuesdays students had recess; on the other days they attended music or physical education classes during that time period.

Despite the demanding schedule, Buckhoff wouldn’t trade her experience working in Houston. “It forced me to work harder than ever before to be an effective teacher,” she said. “With each challenge I tackled, I gained confidence in my teaching abilities.”

Lesson #2: Adjust to Differences

On her first day of student teaching, Buckhoff realized she was no longer in Utah. Of her class of 25 students, 15 were African American, nine were Hispanic, and one was Asian. After the first bell rang, the four- and five-year-old students stood to recite both the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge. Then her cooperating teacher informed the students that the temperature that day would be 62 degrees Fahrenheit. She asked the class, “What kind of weather is that?” The students immediately responded, “Cold!”

Because most of Buckhoff’s students came from inner-city neighborhoods and diverse backgrounds, she had to develop different classroom management styles than she might use in suburban Utah. “Many of my students had been exposed to dangerous . . . things from a young age,” remarked Buckhoff. “As I taught and interacted with [them] . . . I realized that many had only experienced harsh, public discipline at home. While still using praise and being positive, I had to learn to use a firm ‘teacher voice’ to help my students understand when their behavior needed to change.”

Lesson #3: Use Other Teachers as a Resource

Focusing on high test scores, the Aldine School District superintendents gave a strict timeline within which teachers had to explain and demonstrate certain concepts. Many of the teachers shared lesson plans in order to cover the required amount of material in a similar way. Although Buckhoff has chosen to return to Utah, she hopes to continue her practice of collaborating with her fellow teachers.

“I would definitely say [the experience] was worth it,” said Buckhoff. “It was different than anything I had experienced in Utah. It gave me a whole new capacity to love the children I teach. If you continue to love your students, you will work hard to teach them effectively. You will connect with them, and they will want to do their best.”

The National/International Student Teaching Program

According to the Education Advisement Center at the McKay School, over 200 students from the Teacher Education Department complete their student teaching every semester, but only a handful take advantage of the opportunities offered through the National/International Student Teaching Program (NISTP). The program offers student teachers a chance to experience new teaching situations and prepare themselves for diverse classroom settings, according to Kathy Janzen, NISPT director. Students can teach in Houston, Texas; Washington, DC; or China.

In addition to teaching diverse students, NISPT student teachers are able to enjoy local amenities and attractions. This past semester, student teachers in Houston have enjoyed going to Rockets games, sailing the Houston port, and participating in other local activities. Many of them were offered jobs and have decided to stay in Houston for the upcoming school year.

To find out more about NISTP, contact Kathy Janzen at or visit the program’s homepage.

Writer: Whitney Wilcox

Contact: Cynthia Glad (801) 422-1922