What’s a teaching intern?(Part II)

Cathryn Creno is a middle school Spanish teacher for the Tempe Elementary School District.


I’ve been answering questions about my teaching certificate since the summer of 2016.

Can you really teach in a public school without first spending four years earning an education degree?

Don’t you have to be a student teacher before you get your own classroom?

Will a school pay you to be a teacher if your certificate says you are just an intern?

In Arizona, the answers to those questions are yes, no and yes.

I’m what the Arizona Department of Education calls a teaching intern — someone with a bit of life experience and a college degree in a subject area that schools are short of.

Arizona deemed me worthy of having my own middle school Spanish classroom after it took a look at my Department of Public Safety clearance, my college transcripts, a score on a standardized test showing I really do know Spanish, and a letter from a school district promising me a job.

Interns typically make the same amount that first- and second-year teachers do. We are, after all, doing exactly the same work.

In exchange for my certificate, I promised to complete a state-approved secondary education degree and teach for two years under the supervision of mentor teachers who would send regular evaluations of my work to my school district and my college.

Phew! The process claimed most of my working hours and free time for nearly two years. It also cost slightly more than $6,000, when I add up tuition, textbooks and school supplies, and the bundle I have spent on teaching certificates. 

One of my proudest accomplishments

Now that I am done, I can categorically say that earning my teaching degree has been one of my proudest accomplishments.  And teaching Spanish to sixth, seventh and eighth graders in the Tempe Elementary School District has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life.

If you know teachers or have kids in Arizona public schools, you probably have run into a teaching intern. You might not have realized it — school districts call interns things like “teachers in residence” — but interns are teaching subjects like advanced high school math and science, elementary school special education, music, drama and more.

The state education department has certified about 1,500 of us right now.

Typically we teach subjects that other teachers don’t want or are not qualified to teach. In my case, I had my pick of job offers both in 2016 and 2017 because even though Arizona is a bilingual state, few people actually have college degrees in the subject.

I have a master’s degree in Spanish and spent more than three decades using Spanish on the job as a newspaper reporter before I decided to share my knowledge in the classroom.  Long-term substitute teachers filled my job for several years before I was hired by the Tempe Elementary School District this school year.

All of my peers in Rio Salado College’s Teacher-In-Residence program have similar backgrounds. One was a college theater professor before he decided it would be fun to try high school, others are visual artists, some are heritage speakers of Spanish who want to teach as a second career. I’m not mentioning engineers or business professional because they have their own program for STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — teachers.

Teaching is a joyful way to make a living

As I write this, thousands of Arizona teachers have walked off the job in protest of their low salaries and poor working conditions as part of the #redfored movement.  While I wholeheartedly support #redfored — my pay is a little less than half of what I earned when I wrote about education for Arizona’s largest daily newspaper — I also worry that future interns and education will be put off by stories of low wages and poor working conditions.


Cathryn Creno visits La Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, while doing summer research for her Spanish classroom.

Yes, my salary is low. but it is comparable to what I would have made in an entry-level marketing and public relations job — another field where my newspaper skills would have easily transferred. And I don’t have to work 12 months a year for my salary.

Yes, I spend time after hours grading, doing lesson plans and exchanging e-mails with parents. But I don’t find any of these tasks difficult. I used the same writing and editing skills at the newspaper. I know many other workers would find use for their skills and knowledge in a public school as well.

But those things really don’t matter to me. After a long, stressful career covering the news I now wake up excited about — instead of dreading — the day.




For better or worse, teachers get grades too


Arizona is buzzing with news about the latest state school report cards — district and charter schools get letter grades based on kids’ performance on AzMERIT and other factors.

The grades effect school enrollment, real estate values — and teacher pay.

The fact that teacher pay is based on student performance is not discussed much outside of school lunch rooms. But it’s true. Whether or not students perform well on one state standardized test can figure in to whether that teacher will have a nice San Diego beach vacation  — or stay home to roast hot dogs on the family grill  over summer break.

It sounds unjust. And it is.

The teacher rating system that takes school performance into account has been around for about five years. Many think it is unfair and there have been arguments in the legislature about whether it should be scrapped. 

A few years ago, when I was still a newspaper reporter, I sat in a meeting on education salaries and listened to outstanding teachers from a Title 1 high school complain that their bonuses would be half the amount of those going to teachers at a wealthier school just a few miles away.

Their  hard work in the past year had earned their school a B on its state report card, up from a C the year before. But the A school remained an A school and those teachers would be putting down payments on new cars and going on vacation. The others would not.

teacher grades

I didn’t think much about school letter grades when I took a job at a high-performing school in a wealthy area my first year of teaching. But come summer break, I was glad I did. One payday last summer I discovered more than $2,000 extra in my checking account My bonus was based on my school’s letter grade, whether or not I participated in district training programs and my principal’s evaluation of my work.

Teachers are not given letter grades but most often are rated “effective,” “highly effective,” “developing” or “ineffective.” They usually need an “effective” rating to get a bonus.

Relieved that my school held on to its A

My pay this year will be based on similar criteria. I just learned that the school where I teach this year was among the 18 percent of Arizona schools that hung on to its A this year. The criteria for getting a good grade is tougher this year so many schools dropped a grade or so. Staff at my school were elated by the good news.

But the Saturday after the grades were announced, I attended an education conference and saw the worry and stress other teachers were experiencing.  Many of these professionals have dedicated themselves to teaching world languages to some of the state’s poorest children.

Is it fair that the state should downgrade their schools just because children arrive with fewer advantages? And should these teachers receive smaller bonuses?

Why should advantaged teachers and schools get higher ratings?

I have taught at a district middle school in one of the wealthiest parts of the Valley. Now I teach at a district magnet school that enrolls students whose parents have the means to drive them to and from school and stack the supply room high with paper, pens and anything else a classroom might need.

Sure teachers work hard at those schools and the As — and teacher bonuses — are well deserved. But shouldn’t our peers at schools in poorer communities get the same support?



What this new teacher did during summer vacation

20170610_154106What did I do over my first summer break from teaching?

I did not work a summer job so I could afford the finer things in life, such as a boat, as one Arizona legislator suggested earlier this year.

Nor did I sit around by the pool catching up on Netflix and reading trashy novels as some might suspect teachers do during their eight — unpaid — weeks off during the summer.

I  have gotten to know many teachers in the past 12 months and I don’t know of any who were not busy doing something — paid or unpaid — to help kids and improve as teachers. Many worked in summer programs with students, others helped their schools and districts bring curricula up to date and a couple daring middle school teachers even guided tours to Central America for a few weeks.

Remembering what it feels like to take a Spanish class

It has been many years since I completed my MA in Spanish at Arizona State University, so I decided it would be good for me to get back to the classroom. I enrolled in a month-long advanced Spanish class in Barcelona — after taking a fun trip through southern Spain with my retired teacher mom.

granada 4

Wow. What a great experience. On the first day I had that deer in the headlights look when the instructor asked me a question I could not answer.

After mentioning that I had arrived late to class because I had just finished a tour of Andalucia, he asked if I had been robbed. The problem was I was not sure if he was joking about southern Spain’s legendary problem with pickpockets — or if he was asking if I was late because I had been kidnapped! We sorted it out and I made a mental note to be a bit more sympathetic with those looks of terror this school year.

I also filled my mobile phone to capacity with photos to show students throughout the year and collected tiny souvenirs for my classroom. Books and videos are fine when teaching students about the language and culture of other countries. But nothing beats real objects they can hold in their hands.


Last summer I took similar classes in Mexico City and returned with images of everything from Mayan tamales to Acapulco’s cliff divers to show students. Few things grab students’ attention better than an image of their teacher learning something new in an odd setting.

Scholarships and sabbaticals needed

One thing that struck me as I got to know fellow students in my Barcelona school is that some were there on expensive paid sabbaticals — or they had scholarships to study Spanish as they earned their MAs in Spanish universities. They came from countries like Japan, Brazil, China and Russia.

One mid-career government worker from Brasilia was on a three-month expense-paid trip to Spain so she could improve her language skills and better communicate with peers in Spain and other Latin American countries.

I was fortunate to have been able to create a travel fund before I left a more lucrative career for teaching a year ago. But most teachers are not in this situation. Their low salaries go to pay off student loans and then to support families. There is little money left for unreimbursed classes and professional travel.


I plan to write more about this at the end of this semester, when many will be planning for summer 2018. In the meantime, if you have teacher travel resources you would like me to share, please write to me at cathryncreno@gmail.com.

This new teacher’s biggest challenge

This new teacher’s biggest challenge

My biggest challenge as a first year teacher was not classroom management. It was not keeping up with lesson planning or grading.

My biggest challenge was not responding to questions and complaints from parents  or staying cheerful at long faculty meetings.

No, my biggest challenge was encouraging my students to think — what educators these days call developing a growth mindset.

As someone who loves making kids happy and comfortable in the classroom — and someone who has never been shy about sharing what she knows, it is hard to describe how difficult it was to bite my tongue and not immediately reply when students demanded:

“Just TELL us the answer!”

“Remind us!”

And, my favorite from the last week of school, “FIX THIS!” when a capable eighth grader’s Google Slides project went haywire.

It would have been an easy way to keep stress levels down in my classroom. Just provide the answer (or fix the problem on the computer screen) every time a student struggled. But that’s not in a student’s best interest.

Learning is a struggle — but a good one

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the term growth mindset and presented arguments for praising students who make the struggle to learn in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

She encourages parents and teachers to praise students when they work hard and ask them how they feel about themselves afterward.

The idea is to help students value the process of learning and feel good about themselves when they have figured out something on their own — not just memorized correct answers from a textbook.

As a world language teacher, I wanted to students to value the process of figuring out new words in Spanish based on vocabulary they already knew in Spanish and in English. I also wanted them to feel good about being able to create new sentences in Spanish with rules they had learned about nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations.


At the start of the school year, I discovered I had my work cut out for me. Students wanted to memorize passages from the textbook and phrases that I wrote on the board. They wanted those exact passages and phrases to appear on quizzes and tests.

“WHAT?? We didn’t learn this!” I heard over and over. No, I would say. You did not have that exact sentence but you learned something similar. Apply what you know.

As I said. It was hard not to just break down and just tell students the answers. All of the kids I taught were smart and adorable. I wanted them to like me and like my class.

Learning how to learn a world language

I had to continually remind myself that learning to think about how to learn Spanish would benefit them more than an immediate A on a quiz.

I wasn’t successful getting all of my students to embrace the passion for learning how to learn a world language. But I know I reached many of them.

More than 90 percent of the eighth graders I taught scored well enough on an end-of-year exam to earn a credit for Spanish 1-2 — a class ninth graders normally take the first year of high school.

I feel like I scored big too. I will be starting a new job at a magnet traditional public school in July. I look forward to teaching the growth mindset at my new school.




No, this teacher did not want a laminator for Christmas

No, this teacher did not want a laminator for Christmas

No, I did not get a laminator for Christmas.

I didn’t want one. I never have wanted one. Nor do I enjoy any of the other classroom tasks that laminating requires. Measuring. Lettering. Cutting in a straight line.

Which apparently makes me unique among teachers.

I became aware of this difference between myself and other new Spanish teachers in my district at the start of the school year, when our department head took us on a tour of the print shop.

Being brand new to teaching, I was expecting a place like Kinkos, where you drop off raw material to be copied and pressed into plastic by experts. To my horror, it turned out we teachers were expected to be the experts with all the machines.

The other teachers were thrilled to see the equipment. Not me.


Fortunately I had brought along only one poster  to laminate. I got another teacher to do the work for me by asking her to show me how the machine worked. I left right after that, figuring if I needed to laminate anything else during the school year I could use the same ruse at least one other time.

The reason I have an aversion to making things for my classroom is that I am not any good at it. As a kid I was all thumbs. The pot holders I make in kindergarten always had dropped loops. I never could color within the lines.  As an adult I don’t sew on buttons. That’s what the dry cleaner is for. I once took a college-level drawing class and produced a lot of work that looked like cartoons.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other things my job requires that I do well. I love grading and communicating with parents by phone and e-mail. Finding amusing images online and projecting them on my classroom screen is no problem. I am getting a handle on managing classrooms full of wiggling sixth, seventh and eighth graders. And even lesson planning has turned out to be fun.


So as I start my second semester as a teacher, I am wondering if I can start to barter services for things that I am good at — composing e-mails or inputting grades into the computer — for lettering, cutting, laminating and working my school’s ornery photocopy machine. After all I have heard a few teachers refer to these tasks as “the fun stuff.”

I would love to hear from other teachers who, like me, dislike the crafty side of teaching. I plan to return to this topic again.

You can reach me at cathryncreno@gmail.com