Economy has many applying to be teachers
Arizona Daily Star
Jan. 25, 2009


By Rhonda Bodfield

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Teaching is looking pretty good to a lot of people right now.

The Tucson Unified School District for the first time in a decade has had to impose a hiring freeze on substitutes because there are so many applicants.

Amphitheater Public Schools, too, has more substitutes than it knows what to do with.

"Just last year, we were hurting for substitutes and we were always looking for them. Now, there are far more people who are looking for a job that pays $75 a day," said Todd Jaeger, a spokesman for the district.

And it's getting easier to hire for the certified teaching pool, too, school officials say. Amphitheater, for example, started the school year with three vacancies, compared to as many as 26 in recent years.

"Right now, it certainly seems as though the economy is having an impact on how many people are coming to the classroom," Jaeger said.

The trend could grow even more, too, as states continue to make it easier for second-career educators to earn their teaching certifications. In addition to streamlining certification procedures, Arizona is compensating for another long-standing burden — trying to make ends meet while racking up college credits and putting in the standard 16 weeks of student teaching.

That would be a relief for people like Michelle Ferranti, who left a career in retail sales and is substituting in the Vail Unified School District while working toward her certification. She's a little worried about the financial implications of her upcoming student teaching stint next spring.

"At 42, I'm in a different situation than people who are 20 are in. I've got a mortgage and kids and financial obligations," she said. "We planned for this and even so, with the economy right now, it's been hard."

The teaching intern program offered in Arizona is not the same as emergency certification, in which people with bachelor's degrees can be tapped to fill needs in a school, regardless of being able to demonstrate proficiency in the content area they're teaching.

Teachers in the state's teaching intern program must first obtain fingerprint clearance and pass a proficiency assessment in the content area they'll teach so they can meet "highly qualified" standards. They still have to take coursework to learn the methodology of teaching, which can be done at night or online and generally takes two years.

Cindy Yrun-Calenti, the department chair for Pima Community College's post-baccalaureate teacher training program, said her program grew from 55 teaching interns last year to 80 this year.

"What we are noticing is there has been an increase in people who are in careers that are feeling a pinch from the economy. We have a lot of people from real estate backgrounds, or people who have either lost their jobs or are concerned about losing their jobs, and they come in with the belief — and rightly so —that education offers more job security for them."

Yrun-Calenti said the program is a good deal for those people. "If you do it the traditional way, we're talking 18 months to two years before you are in your own classroom. In this case, you can be the teacher of record, get regular pay and full-time benefits and get into the state retirement system. For a more mature person who can juggle being a teacher and a student, it's a great deal."

Erin Paradis graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in theater. Teaching was always a draw, she said, so she's now a teaching intern working as a drama teacher at Canyon del Oro High School while going to school to get her certification.

"It's been difficult at times to balance going to school part time and teaching full time, but it's actually been a wonderful experience," Paradis said.

There's more immediacy with this track, she said. Unlike candidates who are going to school and then retroactively applying that knowledge during their later student-teaching experience, she's had the advantage of learning new strategies and concepts and incorporating them in real time in her own classroom.

She knows how hard it is to pay the bills during the downtime of student teaching. Her husband, also a drama teacher, had to cram as many hours as he could into a part-time job on the weekends to earn some income.

"For a lot of people, the alternative path makes it much easier to get certified," she said.

John Wright, head of the Arizona Education Association, the state teachers union, said he's appreciative of the safeguards built into the program to ensure teacher quality, but noted that some participants might find classroom reality a "shock."

"Those who have never had classroom experience can be stunned at what's necessary to maintain a classroom, provide effective instruction and make sure all children are getting the attention they need."

Rosemary Gaona, who oversees the transition-to-teaching program, said the state understands that there was a learning curve for the 1,200 people who have taken alternative paths to certification in the last few years.

To help new teachers, the state for the first time is hosting Discover Teaching pre-service trainings, which in Tucson will span four consecutive weekends starting in March.

Participants will get the low-down on everything from establishing classroom rules to creating effective lesson plans and differentiating lessons to make sure they reach all students.

Alyson Nielson, who heads employment services for TUSD, said there are 22 teaching interns working for the district while getting their certification. It's a good deal for the teachers, she said, but there are advantages to schools in hiring those applicants, as well.

"Many of these candidates are very attractive because they bring with them other experiences," she said. "It does take a little more work on the school's part, because they don't have the training in classroom management, for example, but they do have the content knowledge. It's very much like on-the-job training."

According to the National Center for Education Information, only eight states 20 years ago were even considering alternative routes. Now, there are 600 programs nationally and fully one-third of teachers entering education are coming through alternative paths.

Emily Feistritzer, the center's president, said the programs are changing the demographics of the nation's teaching pool.

More than 70 percent of people seeking alternative paths to certification are older than 30, almost 40 percent are male and 30 percent are minorities. The No. 1 reason they chose the alternative route: Being able to teach, combined with receiving pay and benefits. Half said they would not have become a teacher if they'd had to go through the traditional program.

It's too early to tell how the economy will affect those numbers, Feistritzer said, but up until now, the draw for the program is often that people want to give back or have a job that works with young families. "The overriding reason is they really do want to help young people. And research is showing it's a positive trend. It really has diversified the teaching force considerably."

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Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at