Category: Special education

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 .


Montessori maestro teaches peace

Montessori maestro teaches peace

Computers were down and tension was up in the class for six- through nine-year-olds at Drachman Montessori Magnet School in Tucson. But master teacher Sixto Valdez did not need to raise his voice to restore order.

Instead,  he asked his students to line up and walk quietly to the school’s outdoor patio for a relaxation exercise.

The students warmed their hands by briskly rubbing them together for five seconds. Then they placed their palms over their closed eyes and took deep breaths in and out.

After a moment of silence, Mr. Valdez spoke in a soft voice.

“This is how you need to be in the computer lab,” he said.

And he reminded them of Drachman’s mission: “We are responsible and peaceful.”

A classroom for everyone

I was fortunate to spend a morning observing Mr. Valdez’s classroom for a project for a Rio Salado College class called Learning and the Brain. The assignment was to spend three hours watching how a teacher works with both autistic and mainstream students in a single classroom.

But I learned about much more than mainstreaming special education students at Drachman. I learned that it is possible to build a positive classroom community from a group of 26 very diverse learners.

Mr. Valdez — his students call him “Mister” — has been at the A-rated magnet school for a decade.

When earning his master’s degree at the University of Arizona, he specialized in students who need special education as well as English language instruction. Part of his story is detailed in a recently published book, Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders, by Mr. Valdez’s wife, Linda. 

Different students moving in the same direction

Mr. Valdez welcomes all kinds of students to his classroom: Recent immigrants who are still learning English, students who only speak English, students with autism or other learning challenges. In an age when parents increasingly seek out niche programs for their children, Drachman’s program is refreshingly inclusive.

During the morning I visited the school, first, second and third graders worked together on the same projects. Students who did not yet have the writing skills to work on a class project in letter writing used cards with words on them to make sentences.

A boy with autism worked on an independent writing and drawing project but stayed just as busy as everyone else in the class. At one point, he raised his hand and made a sentence out of a spelling word the others were using in their letters: Disappeared.

“Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937,” the boy told the class.

Two students and Mr. Valdez took a minute to compliment the student’s knowledge. Then everyone else went back to their own project, which was about trash collection.


Finding that moment of peace

A large sign on the wall of Mr. Valdez’s classroom expands upon the school mission with specific goals for students:

  • I will respect myself.
  •  I will respect my friends.
  •  I  will respect the environment.
  •  I will have a peaceful time.

After school, Mr. Valdez shared another method he has used to help students stop chattering and calm down.

“You have to tell students the truth,” he explained. “I pointed out to them that they were talking and talking and talking but no one was listening to them.”

Mr. Valdez suggested that the students go outdoors and chat with trees on the playground during recess.

“What did the trees tell you?” Mr. Valdez recalls asking the students later in the day.

The students reported hearing a soothing swishing sound in the trees’ leaves and branches.

“I think that is what the trees want you to feel,” Mr. Valdez suggested.

They had found peace.

“What did the trees tell you?”