Suzanne Mendoza wanted to be a teacher, but she didn’t know how to surmount the time and money it would take to get her degree while still needing to earn a living. But after 14 years of substitute teaching, she was finally able to get her teaching certificate through a new program at the University of Arizona College of Education.
“I was really praying for something else to come up, and all of a sudden the emails came in, and I was like — wow, this is perfect for me,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
The longtime teacher shortage persists, with more than 200 teaching positions for next school year still open in Tucson’s public school districts. The UA’s Pathways to Teaching is one innovative program attempting to make a difference.
“We have a lot of people out there who are going to be great teachers, but they don’t have access to a bachelor’s degree,” says program director Marcy Wood. “And so how can we support people in getting access to a bachelor’s degree? One way to do this is to eliminate some of the financial issues.”
The fast-track K-8 teacher preparation program is 17 months long rather than the traditional two years; tuition worth nearly $21,500 is fully covered; and students get a $1,000 monthly stipend. That stipend is critical to allow students to fully concentrate on teaching.
Before entering the program, students need about two years’ of college credits. In this first cohort, which graduated in May, many of the students came from either Pima or Cochise community colleges.
The courses are tailored to the district each student will work in. For example, one of the professors used the Sunnyside math curriculum in lessons on teaching.
Then students spend a year of the program student teaching in a classroom. At first, they’re in pairs with a mentor teacher guiding them, essentially acting as long-term substitutes for a classroom that would not otherwise have a teacher. They will split off once they have the experience and are needed somewhere else.
The districts pay the UA as they would for a substitute. That money goes toward student stipends. And much of the program is covered by the Arizona Teachers Academy, a program that covers tuition and fees for students in educator preparation programs in exchange for a two-year commitment to teach in Arizona.
Pathways to Teaching chooses applicants that already have a connection with the school district where they will be doing their student teaching and eventually work, and it gets students into the classroom as teachers much sooner than traditional programs.
The first cohort of 10, which graduated last month, will all be working in the Sunnyside School District, which partnered with the UA. Going forward, the program is expanding to include the Douglas and Nogales school districts.
Teachers who are better connected to communities are more likely to stay at a school, Wood says.
“We want to be growing teachers in communities where they live, where they already know the families and the students, and a lot of times they’re already really well connected with the schools,” Wood says.
While there is a teacher shortage across the nation, which was true pre-COVID, Arizona has another barrier to retaining teachers — one of the lowest teacher pay scales in the nation.
About 28% of teacher vacancies across the state were unfilled as of August 2020, which translates to about 6,145 openings, according to an Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey, widely agreed to be the best numbers on the teacher shortage statewide. The survey reinforces the need to increase school funding, the association said.
The survey also found that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted staffing in education. While numerous teachers and staff have told the Star they were resigning or retiring early for reasons related to the pandemic, local school districts said the current shortage is similar to previous years.
Teacher turnover is a problem for students, who benefit from having a steady teacher the entire school year. Mendoza saw that in experiencing the difference from being a long-term sub for a whole school year compared to subbing for a shorter time frame.
“Students like consistency,” she said. “And having substitutes going in and out of classrooms, they become nervous that there’s somebody new there. It’s just easier when there is a teacher there building a positive, safe relationship with the students.”
Mendoza grew up in Sunnyside. She attended Sunnyside schools and so have her children. Her long-term experience with the district helps her connect with her students.
“All they want is to know that somebody cares about them, to know that there is somebody who will advocate for them,” she said. “And that’s just something that teachers are really known for. They really do their very best to be there for the students.”
Kylie Grace Danvers-Gay was working part time at a library making minimum wage while attending Pima Community College. She was attending Pima on a scholarship for carrying a 4.0 GPA in high school. She had been saving money to get her teaching degree at the UA, but as that time approached, she was worried about how she was going to pay for it — until she found Pathways.
She lived with her mom while participating in the program, and the $1,000 stipend covered most of her other needs.
The first cohort began in January 2020 and graduated last month. They started in person and had to move online when the pandemic hit, but many got in-person classroom experience once schools began to open.
Like the entire first cohort, Danvers-Gay did her student teaching and observing in Sunnyside schools, and once she finished the program and received her teaching certificate, the district worked with her to find her a job as a fifth-grade teacher at Rivera Elementary.
“I didn’t have to do the frantic job searching that a lot of new graduates had to,” she said. “The district really worked with me to find a place that worked for me.”
“It’s definitely rigorous, and it’s definitely a lot of work, but I’m more prepared for anything because I spent a full year being a full-on teacher,” she said.