Category: Arizona schools

‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

Turning a toddler’s potty seat into a bathroom pass seemed like a great way to discourage middle school students from leaving my classroom for too many breaks.

After all, what self-respecting 11-, 12- or 13-year-old would want to be seen walking down the hall holding a red and green Elmo seat with the expressions “Ha! Ha!” and “LOL?”

I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. Other teachers use it too.

Still, I was wrong. The potty seat goes into the trash and I am starting a new system this week.

Laughing Elmo seat was embarrassing

Elmo’s laughing image did nothing to discourage most boys from leaving my class as often as they pleased. Some would even come back into the classroom holding it high like a sports trophy — disrupting everything that was going on.

And girls who probably really needed a break would look at the potty pass, turn up their noses and go back to their seats.

It might have taken me more than a month to realize I was making a mistake by using the potty seat, but I was fortunate to recently spend a school day with master teacher Stephanie Franquinha, a Chandler, Ariz., Pueblo Middle School teacher and Spanish department chair for the Kyrene School District.

“NEVER embarrass your students,” Stephanie told me when I asked about her classroom management philosophy.

This idea made me stop and think about everything I have been doing since I began teaching in August . I have made rules and given passes, detentions, rewards and praise … but basic politeness has not entered into many of my actions.

I watched Stephanie’s finesse with her large classes of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Nearly all of the students were very clear about the rules and their responsibilities in class. When one would get out of line, Stephanie would walk over and talk to them quietly. She never stopped a class to call anyone out. The other students did not even look up when she redirected someone here or there.

Quiet classroom management works

At one point, Stephanie took a bottle away from a kid who was playing with it instead of paying attention. I was sure a few heads would turn and watch what was going on. Nope. She and I were the only ones who knew a student had been reprimanded. Everyone else was hard at work.

My own classes have been a bit calmer since my day with Stephanie. But I still have a lot of work to do on my system.

A few weeks ago I asked other experienced teachers  to share their wisdom. Here are a few more tips:

Tips from other master teachers

“Keep Sundays for yourself. Run your errands and do everything you need to do on Saturday. Then lay on the sofa with a good book or movie on Sunday,” recommends Kathy Nunez,  a history teacher at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School in Phoenix

“Find an exercise outlet that helps you physically and mentally,” advises retired Mesa Dobson High School English teacher Mike McClellan. “I used to take a four-mile run after school.”

“Self correct as you go along and never be too harsh on yourself,” says retired Mesa Redbird Elementary teacher Cindy Eckert-Timm.

“Nice matters,” coaches Beth Snyder, science teacher at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Phoenix. “You know how they say ‘Don’t smile before Christmas?’ Forget that.

“Laugh at yourself. Eat well. Hydrate. Sleep.”

“Remember that the kids will get it,” advises Sara Adams, a language arts teacher at Kyrene Altadeña. “All teachers doubt themselves but then there is that moment when the light goes on.”

What’s next for my students

Early on, I decided one of my missions is to teach my students how to plan their time and be responsible for themselves in the classroom. The Elmo potty pass was not doing anything to help kids with those goals.

So this week I am going to distribute two cardboard restroom passes to each student — to be used between now and the end of the term. Students don’t use the passes can turn them in before report card time and get extra credit points.

This idea also comes from Stephanie Franquinha. I will write again about how well it works!






Teachers: Pack rats or practical?

Teachers: Pack rats or practical?

A couple of weeks before the school year started, it dawned on me how much public school teaching is like putting on a theater production.

There’s the script – lesson plans – to write.

There are directors and crew members – teachers, administrators and support staff.

In my active-learning style classroom, students are the stars of the show.

Recently I have come to think of my teaching materials — from books to CDs to puppets and maracas – as theater props. You can give a show on an empty stage – but is it as interesting as a fully outfitted production?

My classroom is the stage

Storage of my growing collection of teaching materials has been an interesting challenge. I have lots of things on display in the classroom, more in classroom closets and an expanding array of items in my walk-in closet at home.

Only two weeks into the school year, my own closet has come to resemble a theater props room. No I am not going to post a photo of it, but here is an image from school.


When I was still in the planning stages of my career change, I read Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I did not follow her program fanatically, but was able to clear out two bedrooms, five closets and some kitchen cabinets before I had a housemate move in.

I sold books, CDs, clothing and unwanted knickknacks at second-hand shops. I sent the rest to Goodwill. I did some painting and put in new floors. And for a short time, my sleek and well-organized house could have been featured in a magazine.

Tidiness ended when I started teaching

Alas, I am now a teacher and the life-changing magic is gone. My closet is now filled with baskets and boxes of pens,  file folders, colored paper and even a couple rolls of bubble wrap. I have a collection of Mexican dresses and blouses in my drawers. I knew something had changed in me the first week of school when, instead of recycling the packaging material from an shipment, I tucked it away in case I needed it for a classroom art project.

I didn’t feel obsessed with hanging on to the bubble wrap. I felt like I was doing something practical.

My good friend and outstanding Ohio music educator Tamara Morris once told me that while she admired people with extremely tidy houses, she would never be one. Tami has had an amazing career teaching kids music and staging school theater productions. She now coordinates events and publicity for the Ohio State University’s School of Music.

A new creative way of life

“A lot of people with neat houses never do anything else,” I recall her saying.

I nodded in agreement, thinking I knew exactly what she was talking about. And, by the way,  her home always looks beautiful.

Now, as I wonder what to move from the closet shelves when I need additional sombrero storage, I see I had no understanding at all of the wonderful trade-off she was making.

I am delighted to be joining the show!








Mom’s survival tips for new teachers

Mom’s survival tips for new teachers

I have had help from so many people since I decided to pursue a career in teaching. But my biggest supporter has been my mom, who was a master teacher in Ohio for more than 30 years before retiring from the classroom.

Carolyn Retzlaff is still a teacher, but now her students are the people she leads through galleries as an art museum docent or those seeking her help as a Franklin County, Ohio, master gardener. Her students have changed, but she still is doing what she loves — sharing information in ways that others can easily understand.

I’m my mom’s newest student

Cassingham Elementary School in Bexley, Ohio, where my mom taught for more than 30 years.

So it’s no surprise that our phone calls are now less about movies and friends we have seen and more about ways for me to survive the first year of this adventurous new career I am undertaking.

In this post, I will share five of her survival tips. Not tips for lesson planning or classroom management but tips for thinking like getting thought the day without hunger, sore feet or excess frustration.

Five survival tips for new teachers

An extra pair of shoes can save your feet!
  • On Sunday night, organize five outfits for the school week. Check to make sure everything is clean, mended and coordinated. You don’t want to discover a missing button five minutes before you have to leave in the morning.
  • Also on Sunday, plan and buy ingredients for five brown-bag lunches and snacks. The days of picking up carry out or going out for coffee are over.
  • Eat lunch with other teachers as often as you can. You need adult company after a morning of kids.
  • Every day of the week, carry along an extra pair of shoes. Or keep an extra pair or two in the classroom. If you change your shoes at lunchtime, you avoid sore feet at the end of the day.
  • Have an adults-only activity planned for the weekend. Buy theater tickets with friends or just have a child-free coffee with neighbors on Saturday morning. Adults help you keep your perspective.

Share your tips!

This is the first of many tips blogs I intend to write this school year. I would love to feature your ideas and suggestions. Share them with me at or post below in the comment sections.


What’s a teaching intern?

What’s a teaching intern?

Fingerprint clearance card? Check.

Proof of immunity to measles? Check.

College transcripts? Check.

Professional references? Check.

Arizona Department of Education teaching intern certificate? 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.

My teaching intern certificate from the Arizona Department of Education is valid for a year.

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.

Learning about traditional ways to make tamales was part of my studies in Mexico before becoming a teaching intern.


While taking Spanish language immersion classes, I observed teacher protests in Mexico.

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.

Please follow my blog

I’ve launched The Classroom Scoop to share information about education trends as well as my personal journey from the newsroom to the classroom.

I hope you will join me by following The Classroom Scoop. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Please email me at .


CTE students more likely to graduate, join middle class

Is it time for career and technical education classes to be considered core courses? A growing number of experts are saying yes.

A couple of decades ago, school counselors began shying away from suggesting career and technical education classes to all students who showed even a hint of college potential.

Never mind the state-of-the art welding equipment, culinary tools, graphic design computers and model auto shops, emergency rooms and radio stations just waiting for high school students to show up and learn marketable skills.

But now there are not enough welders, carpenters, machinists and other skilled workers to fill high-paying open jobs in Arizona – and across the nation. And there are thousands if not millions of college grads who are frustrated that their business or communications degrees have not helped them land the jobs that they dreamed of.

Doug Pruitt, board chairman of the Sundt Companies, Inc., was recently named the 2016 Hero of Education by the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation.

In his speech, the chair of the Tempe-based construction company, praised high school and community college level CTE classes for creating solid workforce members.

Skilled technical workers are the foundation of Arizona’s economy and the base of the state’s middle class, he said.

Data from the Arizona Department and the national Thomas Fordham Institute show that students who take career-education classes while in high school are more likely to graduate and attend post-secondary school.

I recently chatted with Dante Fierros, president-owner of Nichols Precision, a Tempe company that designs and creates machine parts for aerospace, defense, medical and other high tech equipment.

He would love right now to hire a couple of high school graduates who took CTE precision machining classes and pay them $15 an hour while they train for more technically advanced jobs.  But finding qualified graduates is a challenge, he said.

Attending college while working could be part of the apprentice’s plan, said Fierros, who serves in leadership roles in a number of employment and manufacturing advisory groups including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Governor’s Workforce Arizona Council and the Arizona Manufacturing Partnership.

Arizona Department of Education data shows that 98 percent of high school students in career and technical education programs graduate, compared with an overall state graduation rate of 76 percent.

Typically, CTE students attend their normal high schools half of the day and then spend the other half at joint technical education district schools where they learn job skills that will help them land positions ranging from chefs to veterinary technicians.

The Fordham study, released last month, found that CTE students student were not only more likely to graduate but to also enroll in at least a two-year college, be employed and earn higher wages.

A great example is Carter Hill, who enrolled in Arizona State University’s mechanical engineering program after studying precision machining and earning a couple of professional certificates in the field at the East Valley Institute of Technology. He also was an A student at Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee.

Since graduating he has had a number of machining and engineering internships.

“There is still a misconception that EVIT is for kids who aren’t going anywhere in life,” Hill told me a couple years ago when I interviewed him for an article about college-bound CTE students. “Most people here have a really clear idea of what they are doing.”