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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

October 18, 2021

Part Three: The WGU Community of Care

From Coursework to Classroom and Career

This is the third installment in a three-part series about the web of student support WGU provides each student. We highly recommend reading Part One here, and Part Two here, before beginning Part Three. This series is by Dr. Stacey Ludwig Johnson, VP of Operations for the WGU Teachers College.

Field Experience

It’s worth noting that WGU is the only university we are aware of that places students in clinical and student teaching experiences at the scale we do. Between our advanced programs and our initial licensure, we place more than 7,000 students a year in field experiences, across all 50 states. Our Field Experience team comprises 70 people who are constantly working to identify high-quality student teaching classrooms close to the communities in which our students live. We currently have more than 2,600 partnerships with school districts across the U.S. and are always in discussion with new incoming ones. We seek out very diverse settings for the best learning experience for our students yet focus on keeping them within a reasonable drive of their homes.

In non-pandemic times, the entire student teaching experience is done live in a classroom, but in the last year, we’ve seen many of our students’ classrooms shut down and go remote with very short notice. The interesting thing here to note is the feedback we’re getting about our students is off the charts positive because they learned from us online, so they have tremendous experience and familiarity with best practices in online education, and they adapted quickly. They’re very skilled at navigating that space and providing the support students need. COVID opened up a lot of educators’ eyes to the need for teachers whose education prepared them for different learning modalities and a deeper understanding of educational technology. The result from last year is we’ve been able to place students – at scale – even during COVID.

I also want to point out something important about that classroom experience. At WGU, rather than waiting until students are nearing the end of their degree program to expose them to the classroom experience, WGU offers up mini-clinicals or pre-clinical experiences as early as the Professional Core – our group of newly designed foundational educational classes students take at the beginning of their degree program. This helps them decide if teaching is right for them early in their programs so they can redirect to other careers in education if they discover they don’t have the disposition to find leading a classroom rewarding.

Clinical Supervisors

In addition to helping each student get placed in a great learning environment near where they live, our team works with each school’s principal to also place clinical supervisors into those schools to observe our students during the demonstration teaching. Of course, the student teacher also has the benefit and mentoring of the host teacher who led the class throughout their student teaching. Clinical supervisors typically are former teachers, principals or superintendents, or current faculty members. There are very high-quality standards the clinical supervisors must meet, including classroom experience, to ensure our teachers gain the maximum usefulness from their 12-16 weeks of student teaching and get that important feedback with wise advice in real-time.

student teacher with mentor

Last year, when the pandemic was forcing school closures with little notice, we carefully vetted a third-party provider so we could keep the clinical supervisor role intact as classrooms shifted to emergency remote learning. In those cases, the clinical supervisor can view video of the student teacher captured securely and within privacy guidelines. From these video clips, supervisors can provide quick feedback to improve teaching practices in those learning moments where it matters most. 

This is especially helpful as a significant number of our students demonstration teach in remote or rural districts where it may be more difficult to place a clinical supervisor in the classroom. Student teachers can also access their video to see first-hand what the host teacher is referencing.

Principal and other Leaders as Partners

At the end of demonstration teaching, our team at WGU surveys each principal or school district leader and typically also speaks directly with the host teacher and clinical supervisor to get feedback about the quality of our teacher candidates and the expertise and value they brought to the classroom. The feedback, again, has been overwhelmingly positive. I think a strong factor in this compared to other colleges and universities is the scrutiny we put into continuously improving our programs and curriculum, our use of technology where it makes the most sense, and the fact most of our teacher candidates are adults who have had experience either in business or in schools as paraprofessionals. They have work and life experience and have selected to fulfill a calling to become a teacher. That commitment and clarity typically shows in their approach to their classrooms. They’ve worked hard to commit their hearts and times to this purpose, and their students benefit from it.

Assessment Support

For most programs, our students will complete state content exams prior to entering the field experience portion of their program; however, these assessments may be completed after demonstration teaching as well. In either case, WGU is pleased to offer an array of faculty support and student resources to help students successfully complete licensure requirements for their program whenever they are ready to begin.

Licensure and Compliance Teams

It is important to understand this: no university in the country grants a teaching license. That is issued by the state, and requirements do vary slightly from state to state. We have an entire compliance team at WGU that monitors ever-changing state requirements and enables our teams to advise our students of exactly what they need to do to secure their license. The process can have complex rules and regulations, so having a team to help navigate that based on that student’s unique home state is critical. We can talk more about the licensure process in future articles, but there are direct licensure and reciprocal licensure routes, and we help students know their choices and prepare them to earn their license and enter their classroom. WGU has licensed teaching graduates in all 50 states.

Career and Professional Services

WGU students are working, and may find themselves needing career and professional development support and guidance during their course of study. WGU’s CPD professionals offer a wide variety of services that uniquely address WGU’s student and alumni needs, whether they are career starters, career changers, or career advancers. CPD services include support in areas of career exploration, job search strategies, application guidance, interviewing, salary negotiations, regional labor market data, and more.

professional woman on call and laptop

This may be 1:1 coaching, monthly virtual workshops, robust self-serve resources, and employer connection events such as job fairs. CPD will be taking a more regional approach on virtual job fairs and employer connection events and look to offer up this kind of service to both employers and students on a state-by-state basis on the road ahead.

That said, for many of our teacher candidates, there’s an offer on the table shortly after demonstration teaching - within that same school or district. Student teaching is actually one of the best ‘interviews’ a student can participate in. When our placement team is choosing the location for the demonstration teaching, they are looking at that student’s location and career aspirations to try to provide them with not only the best learning environment but also a great launching pad for their career should their principal decide to keep them on.

Commencement

WGU celebrates each student’s victory by hosting live in-person graduation ceremonies where students come, often with their family and friends, and don cap and gown to walk the stage and receive their diploma. The weekend is filled with events that often include seeing students meet their mentors face-to-face. WGU does not require in-person attendance, and creates opportunities for those students choosing to participate remotely. Multiple regional commencements also allow students to celebrate closer to their home state.

Lifelong Learning

WGU is currently expanding its professional development and non-degree offerings including stacking microcredential programs so teachers can continue to hone their craft and improve their practice. Read more about our new Next-Gen Teaching series here as one example. Additional content for on-demand, free professional development may include stories and articles, webinars, and webcasts and can be found in the WGU Teachers College Learning Community at wgu.edu/learningcommunity.

In addition, many of our initial licensure program graduates opt to come back to WGU for one of our many Master of Arts in Teaching or Master of Arts in Science programs, in addition to the ongoing professional development resources.

Alumni Services

woman smiling on phone call

WGU offers up robust alumni services nationwide, creating a community that our graduates can look to for peer support and personal or professional connections at any time. Regular newsletters and regional events keep the fires of learning ignited and help our graduates network and build friendships in the communities in which they live and work.

In addition to the continuation of student interest groups and clubs, the Alumni Services team purposefully engages the Night Owl Network, providing graduates a way to stay connected to WGU and each other, in addition to promoting and providing learning resources and benefits that create a continuous learning environment. This allows our graduates to continuously upskill and stay competitive in high-demand workforce areas. Our alumni base is currently more than 250,000 graduates strong!

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is there is a drastic teacher shortage in this country, and one of the only ways we can successfully address it is by providing working adults flexible, accredited educational pathways with a web of support at each step of the way to help them learn while they earn and manage very complex busy lives.

At WGU, this happens with caring and compassionate human capital that is now coupled with technology and systems to help unite these various faculty, staff, and services in a unified approach to meet each student where they are. It’s incredibly complex, and I’m a process or systems thinker who thrives on these kinds of challenges. At WGU, we are always working to make sure our next 20 years preparing educators is as successful as our last, and that means being open to new technologies, new processes, and continuously expanding our community of care so that every student has the pathway to opportunity opened to them, and barriers to success removed.

With 60,000 graduates now from the WGU Teachers College, we’re certainly committed to doing our part to place highly qualified teachers into classrooms nationwide. We also strive to help each future education professional, whether a teacher or not, live that passion and purpose and ensure they are receiving the knowledge and skills to succeed. The future of our nation depends on their success.

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Since 2017, Stacey Ludwig Johnson has served as Vice President of Academic Operations for WGU’s Teachers College.  In this role, she leads the largest competency-based Teachers College in the nation with responsibilities that include guiding the faculty operations, field experience, and enrollment. Stacey joined WGU in 1998 as an early pioneer of competency-based education.  She was privileged to enroll and mentor WGU’s first cohort of students.  In roles ranging from Director of Financial Aid, Registrar, and Associate Provost of Academic Services, she led the design and build of the key student experiences in financial aid, records, orientation, library services, career services, alumni relations, field experience, and student services. Stacey has dedicated her career to WGU because she firmly believes in the mission to change the lives of individuals and families. The Teachers College provides a unique opportunity to extend this mission beyond the boundaries of WGU into classrooms and communities across the nation. Stacey holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Innovation and is relentlessly focused on increasing access and student success.   

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