TEACHER CRISIS? ‘A piece of paper does not make a teacher’
Finding qualified teachers more about care, compassion, connection than certification
A December 2018 study by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association said that 75.2 percent of the state’s teaching positions are either unfilled or filled by teachers who are inexperienced, working on their credentialing, or teaching a subject they are not credentialed to teach.
Statistically, that’s a crisis.
But education isn’t about numbers, according to Karin Ward of Beaver Creek School in Rimrock.
Superintendent since 2004, Ward said that her district has “historically struggled with finding teachers who meet the current definition of a teacher.”
“In the past, that term was highly qualified with a different criteria than now as appropriately certified,” Ward said. “These certified teacher definitions are partially federal- and partially state-mandated requirements. Since 2004, I have struggled to find teachers who meet the current definition.”
There have been times “in the past” when Ward had hired teachers who had the correct certification.
“Yet I would not have considered them highly qualified in their field,” she said. “A piece of paper does not make a teacher.”
This year, Beaver Creek rethought how it taught students in grades 5 through 8. Ward’s solution was the school’s new Blended Learning program.
Children in grades 5 and 6 team together, as do the seventh and eighth graders. As a result, not all teachers are credentialed to teach each of the grade’s required subjects.
Again, it’s not always about numbers, as Ward said her school district looks for certified teachers “who care about kids, want to help them be successful, create and present engaging lessons aligned to the state standards, look at data to make modifications for student growth, and are willing to model lifelong learning.”
Briana Clarke is not certified in the field of English Language Arts. Her husband Jeff Clarke is not certified in Social Studies. But having the couple teach the Blended Learning program’s seventh grade and eighth grade students was what Ward called “a win for our students.”
With the Blended Learning program, education is “being delivered in a different format,” said Jeff Clarke, who has 16 years in the classroom, the past 13 at Beaver Creek. “They’re getting it introduced to them in a different way. Even with my other subjects, I’m not a lecture sort of guy.”
The Clarkes still have lecture time, what Jeff called “whole-class instruction,” but much of the Blended Learning program encourages sub-group activities that facilitate discussion and work time that provides “freedom for students at different levels to work together.”
Care and compassion
Brandi Bateman has a working knowledge of two different Verde Valley schools. Formerly administrative assistant to the superintendent at Mingus Union, Bateman is now on the Beaver Creek School Board.
At Mingus Union, Bateman “assisted many individuals with gaining their appropriate certification.”
“Thankfully the state has been making some changes to the certification process that encourages people to become teachers,” Bateman said. “No matter the means by which a teacher enters the classroom, it is the care, compassion and student connection that keeps them coming back.”
Mingus Union administrators “set up mentors, provide instructional coaching and run a monthly meeting for new teachers,” said Genie Gee, the school’s principal and acting superintendent.
“There are routine evaluations required from their Teacher Preparation Programs,” Gee said. “We do all we can to support our new teachers and make sure they are connected to helpful resources and faculty members.”
In his second year as varsity baseball coach, Erick Quesada also teaches freshman and sophomore level science courses at Mingus Union High School.
As he works toward his certification, Quesada is a teacher because “I always had a passion for helping people.”
“Throughout my own time as a student, I was impacted in many positive ways by multiple teachers and I wanted that to be me someday,” he said. “I love the relationships that I build with my kids and how some just come to talk to me about their problems or just to say hello. I love teaching material and just seeing that light bulb go off in a student’s head that they understand it.”
For Quesada, it’s “extremely gratifying to have students tell you this was the first time they enjoyed science because I made them enjoy it. Most importantly, having students say thank you for just treating and caring for them as people other than just a student.”
Gee, who has transitioned from teacher to principal and now as the district’s leader, said that both Quesada and Stephanie Vocca are two of the school’s newest teachers and are “very successful classroom teachers.”
Education isn’t just something Stephanie Vocca encountered in the classroom. A Class of 2008 graduate, the Mingus Union alumnus is sister-in-law to Jessica Vocca, principal at Dr. Daniel Bright School in the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District.
“I have family members in education, and for years I’ve watched from afar, wanting to get involved, knowing in my heart I could make a difference,” Stephanie Vocca said. “Last year, a position opened up at Mingus and I decided to go for it. I have a passion for learning and teaching and it’s exciting to share what I know with others.”
If Mingus Union – if Arizona schools – did not struggle to find credentialed educators, perhaps Quesada or Vocca wouldn’t have the opportunity just yet to influence the hearts and minds of the community’s young people.
Though Mingus Union “want[s] fully certified teachers in every classroom,” what Gee has found is that “our teachers working on their credentials are inspiring, driven, and have made a choice to make teaching their career. That energy and spirit goes a long way when it comes to educating our young people.”
For Vocca, working in the classroom while completing her education has expanded her learning beyond the classroom – so to speak.
“I can immediately apply what I am learning in the classroom. I’m not just learning about concepts, I can apply those concepts and figure out what works and what doesn’t work for me,” Vocca said.
For Quesada, he knows that his education will also continue beyond his graduation.
“I learn so much from my kids every single day,” Quesada said. “They teach me so much about life and how I view life that it’s so great. I learn so much by just talking to my kids about things other than school, and I think that if every teacher took time out of their day to just sit and listen to a student, it would really make them feel good.”
At her community college in Northern California, Jessica Gaff considered journalism for a career.
Now she has her Master’s degree, and is working toward her teaching credential.
Gaff has a cousin, with a developmental delay. “Partly because of her, I wanted to work with special needs kids,” she said.
Gaff started working at Clarkdale-Jerome School in February 2018. By August, she moved into one of the school’s special education classrooms as a paraprofessional.
At the semester break, the SPED teacher moved to a different classroom. Danny Brown, the school district’s superintendent, decided Gaff was ready to lead. Special education, Gaff said, is where she “belongs.”
“She has energy around this as she has become passionate about these kids,” Brown said.
Maybe certification helps. After all, take more classes, learn new things. But Gaff is learning in the classroom, each days.
“They teach me so many wonderful things,” Gaff said. “To be more patient, kinder, more empathetic.”
Brown said that “one of the strongest qualities that makes teachers successful is rapport and the ability to connect with kids.”
“Those teachers that can connect with kids are the most successful,” Brown said.
Not only has Quesada connected with his student, but also with the leadership at Mingus Union.
“I’m beyond grateful to administration and especially Genie Gee who believed in me from the very beginning,” Quesada said. “Getting the opportunity to work under someone who is kind, compassionate, and supportive is a dream to anyone who works in a school district.”
-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42