Category: Policy

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

I’ve been a teacher for two months now and my biggest challenge has not been the short attention spans of middle schoolers – or how much they crave lessons with computers and cell phones.

Eight weeks into my new life, I am shocked by the handful of kids who still want an old-fashioned teacher.

Yes, the kind of teacher who wants everyone in their seat facing forward, who writes everything out on the board and peppers lectures with the phrase “know this for the test.”

The kind of teacher my education course instructors and textbooks tell me NOT to be.

Not a ‘sage on the stage’

When I decided to leave my journalism career and teach Spanish to kids, I did not picture myself standing at a lectern and reciting verb conjugations until kids nod off. I did not want to be what modern educators disparagingly call “the sage on the stage.”

I arrived at the classroom with ideas for games, a stack of music CDs and links to educational videos that kids can dance to. Sure I planned to do short lectures but I expected to spend most of the time overseeing group work, encouraging kids to converse in Spanish and having fun with music, drawing and other activities that reinforce what we are learning.

With most students, this system works. At the end of last week, I gave out a boatload of As to kids who have worked hard, played hard and say they are enjoying my class.

But then there are the students who surprise me.

Some kids want an old-fashioned teacher

“You have only taught us ONCE this year,” one student complained a few weeks after the start of the school year.

It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to a time when I conjugated a verb on the white board because I could not find a creative image of the conjugation online and the verb was not in our textbook. As I wrote, I explained the rules for the conjugation. And I felt like a bit of a failure because the instuctions were not more fun.

But a couple other students chimed in after their classmate’s comment. They praised teachers who write out everything students need to know on overhead transparencies. And teachers who give long, and apparently comforting, lectures.

Nevermind that one of my textbooks calls the document camera and overhead projector the worst enemies of teachers. It is impossible to sit behind a desk and walk around to monitor student’s independent work at the same time.

So how did these kids get so traditional? And what about the majority of students who do so well in classes where teachers mix things up for a variety of learning styles, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence?

An experiment with tradition

After some long, soul-searching conversations with my principal, who tells me he is trying to get teachers out from behind the desk and at students’ sides, I decided to experiment with more traditional lessons.

We started out with an activity that always put me right to sleep when I was a public school student: Reading directly from the textbook.

But the previously unhappy students cooperated happily. As they read, you could feel the anxiety level in the room drop. I did not call on kids randomly but went in alphabetical order so they knew exactly what to expect. We went through the vocabulary words one by one until we had covered an entire page.

I was amazed. Students were focused. No one whispered or crumbled paper for spit balls. This was their way of learning. My college instructors would call them “auditory learners.” Most got As on the next quiz.

I am still a little baffled by this situation. Is my confusion because I learn best by reading about something, then writing or doing a practical activity related to what I have read? Perhaps. So, as I plan lessons for the second quarter, I am including more time for old-fashioned lectures and reading aloud for the kids who want it so much.

My worry – will they survive in AP classes?

Part of me is sad for the kids who learn in such an old-fashioned way. How will they make it in the more free-form high school honors classes that I know they are capable of taking?

I picture them in college waiting to take notes until a college professor opens the textbook and read it to them. Or in a high-tech work group waiting in vain for a team leader to write out instructions for that day’s work.

I worry about them.

Let it go, my teacher friends tell me. They will find their way.

And so I do. After all, I am finding mine.







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 .


How well do kids in your neighborhood read?

Last summer, when AzMERIT scores were released, Arizona residents learned that more than half of the state’s third graders were not reading at grade level.

Last week, Arizona’s Office of the Auditor General chided the Arizona Department of Education for not making sure that schools are making good use of an annual $40 million allocation to bring weak readers up to speed.

But when the Legislature in 2010 approved Move On When Reading, which requires third graders to master reading or be held back, it did not include a plan for a state check-up on use of the funds.

And. because Arizonans pride themselves on local school district control — remember all the fighting over Common Core and the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards — I am not holding my breath in anticipation that much will change.

Read On Arizona spreads reading passion and skills

But I am applauding a private-non-profit effort called Read On Arizona, which is charging ahead with reading efforts all over the state. So far the partnership has helped 25 Arizona communities, including several in the Valley, become what it calls “Read On Communities.” The communities channel city, school, non-profit and business resources to programs that help young children read by the end of third grade.

Read On Arizona recently partnered with the Maricopa Association of Governments to create a data tool that allows users to see how young children in their neighborhood elementary schools, school districts and counties are doing in reading. The tool also shows factors like school attendance rates, health data and poverty information – all of these affect how well kids perform in school.

Consider helping an Arizona child learn to read

Check out your school, district or county and see how well kids in your area are reading.

Don’t like what you see? Then consider becoming a volunteer with one of the many Valley programs that connect adult readers with children who are struggling.

Programs like Volunteer Match can help. And if you want to get involved in an even bigger way, consider becoming a Read On Arizona supporter.




The equity gap – what are your biases?

The equity gap – what are your biases?

From the sound of its name, an outsider would never know Paradise Valley Unified School District has worked hard – and still struggles a bit – to overcome minority student achievement gap issues.

When Arizonans think of Paradise Valley, they think of that ritzy ‘burb that features pricey houses with gorgeous views and lots of acreage – not the 100-square-mile north Valley school district where 37 percent of the kids are so poor they qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches.

But PVUSD is a great place to look at when one wants to understand the challenges teachers and administrators face when community demographics change. In the last decade, schools that once served white, middle-class kids have started serving students who speak little English and whose parents struggle daily to get meals on the table. Seemingly overnight, parent-teacher conferences were less about how Sally is doing on  spelling and more about helping Salma’s parents understand the basics of how their child’s school operates.

Creative ways to teach English learners

When I was an Arizona Republic reporter I enjoyed visiting PV schools and writing about the creative ways the district teaches subjects like math to students who have still not mastered English.

I recently attended the Arizona School Board Association’s 2016 Equity Event  and heard PV Superintendent Jim Lee talk about how teachers and administrators in his 45 schools work to make students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds feel included.

Lee also is president of the national Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of multiracial, suburban-urban school districts that share ways to identify and work to eliminate achievement gaps in their schools.

The first step, Lee said at the Arizona conference, is self-examination.

Everyone is biased 

What are your biases? Where do they come from?

“In our training we encourage people to reflect on how they were brought up and what their belief system is,” he said.

“Everyone has deep-seated biases. We don’t even realize our biases. That is the hard part.”

While it might be unrealistic to overcome all deep-seated biases, teachers and administrators who have taken time out to examine their own prejudices tend to be better, fairer educators.

A female football kicker overcomes preconceptions

A student who spoke on a panel that I moderated at the Equity Event is a great example of what can be achieved with the help of a her father, a coach, and other adults who did not let history or preconceptions get in the way of her success.

Tempe Marcos de Niza High School student Krysten Muir is a record-breaking kicker on the school’s varsity football team. A Tempe and Arizona first.

Want to know more about what her school, coaches and teammates say about her success? Click here for a video. 




Certification = 31 & 1/4 pizzas

12512618_10207398003421571_3100641105666253081_nWe’ve heard about teachers who go out of pocket for classroom supplies, supplemental books and things like tissues for kids who forget them.

But hundreds of dollars’ worth of exams and license fees? No one ever talks about that. When I began planning to become a teacher, I did not consider how big of a dent fees for credentials would make on my credit card bill.

I know many professionals are used to paying fees in order to work. Nurses, for instance, pay around $300 in Arizona for exams and licenses. But journalists have no such requirements. So I was surprised when required fees started adding up before I even enrolled in my teacher education program.

‘It is expensive’

Tammie Pursley, president of the Mesa Education Association and an AVID teacher at Poston Junior High in Mesa, said the fees come up a lot when teachers talk about their expenses.

“It is expensive,” told me. She said she advises new teachers to budget for the costs and not run down to the Arizona Department of Education every single time they have something new to add to their certificates.

I asked ADE spokesman Charles Tack how the fees are the calculated and where the all the money goes.

“The fees are based on the average amount of time it takes for each service as well as other administrative costs – paper, computers, copiers, office supplies,” he said.

Revenues pay staff salaries and the administrative costs, he said.

Tack also said the fees have not increased in more than a decade.

Almost $400 in testing and license fees

Here are my costs so far:

  • $67.00 for an Arizona Department of Public Safety fingerprint clearance card, required by ADE and Rio Salado College.
  • $95.00 for a National Evaluation Series Spanish language exam, also required by ADE and Rio.
  • $52.45 for a study guide and practice test for the Spanish exam. My goal was to pass the first time I took it.
  • $60.00 for a substitute teaching license. Not required but useful.
  • $60.00 for a provisional career and technical teaching license. Also not required but useful in case I decide to teach journalism in addition to Spanish.
  • $60.00 to show I passed a Structured Language Immersion course. This is an Arizona requirement.

Should I have bought pizza instead?

Believe it or not, there is a thing called the National Pizza Index that helped me figure out what else I could have done with the money spent on teaching credentials. It shows the average cost of a pizza in various locations across America. Arizona’s average pizza costs $12.61 – a little less than the national average of $13.21.

If my calculations are correct – and I did pass algebra and arithmetic exams before being admitted to Rio – I could have bought about 31 and 1/4ths pizzas for the amount I am spending on credentials.

So did I make the right choice? So far I am saying yes.

I will revisit this issue later on, when I blog about a first-year teacher’s salary.

Please follow my blog

I’ve launched The Classroom Scoop to share information I am learning about the latest in education science – as well as my personal journey from the newsroom to the classroom. Along the way, I will also share links to what I am reading about education news and policy – and more.

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