Arizona hopes to ease huge teacher shortage through mentorship and paid tuition
As schools struggle to get back to full swing, Arizona districts continue to struggle with a severe shortage of teachers and administrators — and it’s the students who are hurting the most.
But an innovative program to help fill the void is starting to pay off.
The Arizona Teacher Residency Program, a 2021 initiative to help recruit, prepare, support and retain teachers in elementary, middle and high schools, this school year placed its first resident teachers and their mentors in three Phoenix metropolitan districts.
The program “allows people who want to become teachers to learn in a supportive environment, to take lessons focused on their experience, and to have a safe landing place to come and talk about challenges,” said Victoria Theisen-Homer, founding director of the program. They can “learn slowly, taking on more responsibility in this classroom study.”
The need could not be greater.
Nearly 26% of teaching vacancies went unfilled last year in Arizona and 55.4% of positions were filled by teachers who did not meet the state’s standard certification requirements, according to a survey conducted by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.
In response, school districts are trying a number of new initiatives to address these challenges.
In addition to offering teacher bonuses and higher salaries, Arizona is reducing teacher qualifications. In July, Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill allowing students to begin training to become teachers while completing their bachelor’s degree.
The Arizona Teacher Residency program is a consequence of this need. The initiative is administered by the Arizona K12 Center at Northern Arizona University and supported by the state Department of Education.
It is modeled after a traditional medical residency, offering aspiring teachers a two-year term during which they will receive classroom experience, a stipend, a master’s degree from NAU, and employment in a partner school district.
In their second year, resident teachers will receive a salary from the district. In exchange, residents agree to serve in partner districts for at least three years beyond their year of residency.
Many participating residents have never been in a classroom before as an educator, and some have moved to Arizona just to be part of the program.
They include residents like Katerina Hoffman, who teaches second grade at Encanto Elementary in Phoenix’s Osborn district.
Hoffman, 22, studied education in Oregon before learning residency from her father, who lives in Arizona.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she chose to continue her education in the Arizona program, which offers support, experience, and financial resources.
Hoffman said she wants to make a difference in the lives of students at a time when many educators are quitting due to burnout, low pay and outrage from some members of the public.
Hoffman teaches alongside his mentor, Amanda Renning, who has been teaching for 18 years.
“With education, it’s not easy,” Hoffman said, “and becoming a teacher is a huge job and responsibility, but making a difference and gaining experience is super important. These kids are coming to school and you can just tell they love you.Having that support from them helps sustain me, knowing that they are there for me and that I am there for them too.
Participating schools can boost diversity
In addition to the Osborn School District, the Arizona Teacher Residency is also partnering with the Roosevelt and Tempe Elementary districts to support early groups of residents and supervisors. The program has accepted 23 residents and an equal number of mentors, but hopes to expand in the 2023-2024 school year.
These districts include Title I schools that receive federal funding to meet the educational needs of students living near the poverty line. They were selected because of their dedication to the mission of the program.
Osborn School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Robert said the need for the program is immediate and its effects will remain long-term.
“It’s going to be a huge advantage for us in terms of hiring in the future,” he said. “The goals and values of the Teacher Residency Program and its commitment to a diverse workforce in the future bode well for us here in the heart of Phoenix.”
The program was made possible by a $5 million grant from the Arizona Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund. The program also receives funding from the Arizona Teachers’ Academy and AmeriCorps to cover tuition and stipends.
The program itself is diverse in many ways. The group includes not only recent university graduates, but also people with backgrounds in real estate, social work, aviation and engineering who want to change careers.
“A big appeal of the residency,” Robert said, “is that these people come from other professions, and that not only enriches the teachers, but also the breadth of experience they will share with the children, and what their potential can be for the future. It’s amazing the impact this is going to have on young people, as well as enriching all of our staff.
According to the Learning Policy Institute, 70-80% of residency graduates are still in the classroom after five years. Teacher residences are also successfully recruiting a more racially diverse faculty. Although 80% of teachers nationwide are white, 62% of resident teachers affiliated with the National Center for Teacher Residencies identify as people of color.
Eventually, the Arizona Teacher Residency Program will expand to serve high schools, rural areas, and special education students.
For residents, passion and kindness are essential
Chelsey Mickelson, 27, is a resident teacher at Thew Elementary in Tempe. She said her experience in the program has already had a lasting impact.
Mickelson did her undergraduate education at Utah State University, earning a degree in health education and promotion, which she says was an easy transfer to elementary school.
She comes to the program with previous work experience in an elementary school as a classroom assistant.
Mickelson, who grew up with untreated ADHD, said she would have benefited greatly from a program like this and that the teachers understood the students from an emotional and social perspective.
She has noticed that some of her students at Thew are displaying the behaviors she once had. Becoming a teacher increased her desire to check in and look after the well-being of students.
“The impact that a passionate and caring teacher can have is unparalleled,” she said. “I couldn’t think of a better way to help give my best to the community. There are many great ways to access education, but this residency program really inspires people to be their best so they can help students become their best.
Shortage leads to widespread vacancies
In June, 88% of public schools nationwide reported teacher and staff burnout as a concern over the past school year, while 62% said they were worried about filling vacancies. staff, according to a study by the Institute of Educational Sciences.
Many Arizona teachers are leaving due to insufficient state school funding, said Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona. Teachers also face disappointing salaries and difficult working conditions, she said, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.
In 2021, Arizona’s average teacher salary was $52,157, which ranked 44th among states and was nearly $12,000 below the national average of $64,000.
As long-term substitute teachers become more common, student learning is disrupted by the constant change.
“From a student perspective,” Lewis said, “I know it can be really chaotic when we don’t have these stable people in the community that they know will be there the next day, and that’s important. With kids especially now, and all the trauma everyone has been through, we need stability.