Fingerprint clearance card? Check.
Proof of immunity to measles? Check.
College transcripts? Check.
Professional references? Check.
Wait? What? The state is letting interns teach in public schools?
It’s a question friends and acquaintances have asked since last November, when I left a long career as a newspaper reporter and editor to start a two-year teacher training program. It has come up even more frequently since I signed a one-year contract to teach middle school Spanish a few weeks ago.
In a perfect world, all teachers would spend four years studying education theory and student teaching before graduating from college. Then they would spend another year or so co-teaching with a more experienced educator before standing in front of a classroom of their own — as the New York Times recently recommended.
In a perfect world, there would be no shortage of teachers for difficult subjects like math, science, special education and world languages. Teachers would not leave the profession in frustration over long hours and low salaries. And more students would graduate from college wanting to be teachers instead of business leaders.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
For me, a life-long Spanish learner with a master’s degree in the subject but no education degree, an intern certificate is a win-win. I’ve accepted a difficult-to-fill spot and will spend the next two years teaching full time and taking education courses at Rio Salado College. If all goes well, I will have a full teaching certificate in two years.
Teaching interns take hard-to-fill jobs
Arizona created the teaching intern program a decade ago, when national and state officials decided that too many schools were hiring uncertified teachers for hard-to-fill spots. Many had little or no training in the subjects they were teaching.
In contrast, an intern is required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, to have passed a comprehensive exam in the subject they wish to teach, to have enrolled in a teacher education program and to have passed a criminal background check.
The program is helpful, but not a panacea, said education department spokesman Charles Tack.
While the state is short thousands of teachers — more than half of state officials who responded to a 2014 survey said they were struggling to fill openings — Arizona only had about 880 teaching interns last year. In the hardest-to-fill categories, only about 2 percent of math, science and technology teachers and only about 3 percent of special education teachers hold intern certificates.
Seed planted five years ago
I learned about Arizona’s teaching intern program five years ago when I wrote a news article about the subject. I met retirees starting second careers as special education teachers and recent graduates leaving jobs in business to teach high school chemistry and geometry. As interns, they earned the same pay as a starting teachers. They both taught and took education classes full time.
I saw the interns’ passion for the classroom and was inspired. I thought of my own master’s degree in Spanish that I had used in a journalism career instead of teaching. Would I also be happy as a teacher? As time passed, I decided the answer was yes.
When I had the opportunity to take an early-retirement buyout last fall, I enrolled in Rio Salado College’s Teacher in Residence program.
What it takes to become an intern
Like most major life changes, becoming a teaching intern was not easy.
After passing Rio’s entrance exams, I headed to Oaxaca, Mexico and spent most of December at a school that helped me prep for my Spanish proficiency exam. The three-hour test included advanced grammar and questions about Spanish and Latin American culture, politics, arts and literature. It included a speaking presentation and an essay.
After passing the proficiency test, I started classes at Rio Salado. Arizona requires educators to be prepared to teach students who arrive speaking languages other than English. So I took a structured language immersion course. I also took the state’s required Arizona and American Constitution classes and coursework in brain development and lesson planning.
In June, I headed back to Mexico for more language and cultural immersion. I took language classes in Mexico City, visited the pyramids at Teotihuacan, observed teacher protests and had long conversations in Spanish with a variety of people about the differences between life here and life there. I look forward to sharing what I learned in my classes.
Job openings a pleasant surprise
Over the last nine months, I have been overwhelmed by support and encouragement from educators who have welcomed me to their field. And I was pleasantly surprised by the number of job openings for Spanish teachers in metro Phoenix. I applied at eight districts, heard from four that were interested in hiring teaching interns and had interviews at four schools. I accepted an offer with the Kyrene School District, which has an outstanding training program for new teachers.
School officials must sign forms stating that they support the interns they hire, so I felt honored to interview at so many places. Not only will Kyrene staffers mentor me, they also will allow professors from Rio Salado into my classroom to monitor my progress.
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