Nearly 100 educators from across the country gathered at the University of Central Florida this week to learn some big lessons from five middle schoolers who have a lot to say but who aren’t actually human.

The teachers were part of the College of Education and Human Performance’s second national TLE TeachLivE™ conference, and the students are named Maria, Ed, CJ, Sean and Kevin. They’re all students in the virtual classroom simulator known as TeachLivE, which was developed at UCF to better prepare teachers to handle the rigors of leading a classroom.

Teachers-in-training and existing teachers can step into the simulator to practice targeted skills, such as classroom management and content pedagogy, in what’s called “virtual rehearsal.” An “interactor” from UCF controls all five avatars, which each have distinctive personalities that mirror what teachers might see in the average classroom.

Actress Cheryl Hines, a UCF alumna, kicked off the conference with a presentation about improvisation and how those skills can be applied to the classroom.

“It would be very difficult as a teacher to communicate anything with a student without connecting with them. The only way you can improvise is if you’re a good listener, so you have to listen to what someone else says, because there’s no script,” said Hines, a graduate of the Groundlings, the revered improv comedy troupe based in Los Angeles.

Hines, the star of television shows including “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Suburgatory,” spoke about the importance of playing along, assuming a relationship and making bold choices to both actors and teachers.

“With teaching, if a student has an idea or a thought or a question, you can’t shut them down and say ‘That’s a bad question,’ ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about’ or ‘Why weren’t you listening,’ any of those things. It has to keep moving in a positive direction,” said Hines. “In improv, you have to stay in the moment. You can’t plan what’s going to happen next because you don’t know. I think it’s that way with teaching.”

Throughout the two-day conference, educators attended workshops and discussions about how TeachLivE can be used as a stimulating way to prepare all different kinds of teachers.

Breakout sessions targeted math, science, preschool, counselor and other educators. New developments in TeachLivE, including a parent-teacher conference scenario and the creation of an avatar with Autism Spectrum Disorder, were also introduced.

Just 10 minutes in the simulator forces teachers to think more about their practice, said Karla Auzenne, a science instructional specialist for the Houston Independent School District, which has used TeachLivE as a preparation tool for rookie and veteran teachers.

“Even when I first met the TeachLivE students through Skype, I forgot I was talking to avatars,” said Auzenne. “They become kids to you. They come off the screen into real life. It’s a game-changer, right then and there.”

TeachLivE was created eight years ago by education professors Mike Hynes and Lisa Dieker, College of Engineering & Computer Science professor Charles Hughes, and an interdisciplinary team that included members of the Synthetic Reality Lab at UCF’s Institute for Simulation & Training.

Today, TeachLivE is delivered to more than 10,000 teachers at 37 partner universities and at other sites including the school districts in Orange, Seminole, Lake and Volusia counties. A team of more than 25 at UCF supports the technology, development and partnerships.

The theme for this year’s TeachLivE conference was ludic convergence, or playful collaboration, a celebration of what the TeachLivE team calls “sandbox technology.” One group of children could come into a sandbox and create distinct castles or shapes. When they’re done, another group of kids could come in, tear down what was there and build something completely different.

That’s the nature of TeachLivE, which can be completely customized depending on the user’s objectives. What stays the same, however, is the realistic nature of the classroom.

“I’m not great at technology, but what I saw today was fascinating,” said Hines. “This is so great. You’re actually talking to a real person—different characters, but a real person.”