PHOENIX – With schools striving to get back to full swing, districts across Arizona continue to struggle with a severe shortage of teachers and administrators – and it’s the students who suffer most.
But an innovative program to help fill the void is beginning 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 teaching residents and their mentors in three metro Phoenix districts.
The program “allows folks who want to become teachers to learn in a supportive environment, receive coursework that revolves around their experience, and have a safe landing spot to come talk about challenges,” said Victoria Theisen-Homer, the program’s founding director. They can “learn slowly, taking on more responsibility in that classroom study.”
The need couldn’t be greater.
Nearly 26% of teacher 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 cope with these challenges.
Besides offering teacher bonuses and higher wages, Arizona is lowering teacher qualifications. In July, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill allowing college students to start training to become a teacher while also finishing their bachelor’s degree.
The Arizona Teacher Residency program is an outgrowth of that need. The initiative is administered through the Arizona K12 Center at Northern Arizona University and supported by the state Department of Education.
It’s modeled on a traditional medical residency, offering aspiring teachers a two-year term in which they will receive in-classroom experience, a stipend, a master’s degree from NAU and a job at a partnering school district.
During their second year, teaching residents will receive a salary from the district. In exchange, residents commit to serving in partner districts for at least three years beyond their residency year.
Many of the participating residents have never even been in a classroom setting before as an educator, and some have made the move to Arizona just to be a part of the program.
They include residents like Katerina Hoffman, who’s teaching second grade at Encanto Elementary in the Osborn district in Phoenix.
Hoffman, 22, studied education in Oregon before she learned of the residency from her father, who lives in Arizona.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she chose to further her education in the Arizona program, which provides support, experience and financial resources.
Hoffman said she wants to make a difference in the lives of students at a time where many educators are quitting because of burnout, low pay and outrage from some members of the public.
Hoffman is teaching alongside her 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 getting to experience that is super important. These kids come to school and you can just tell that they love you. Having that support from them helps support me, knowing they’re here for me and I’m also here for them.”
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 the first groups of residents and supervisors. The program accepted 23 residents and an equal number of mentors, but hopes to expand in the 2023-24 school year.
Those districts include Title I schools that receive federal funding to meet the educational needs of students living near the poverty level. They were selected because of their dedication to the mission of the program.
Dr. Michael Robert, superintendent of the Osborn School District, said the need for this program is immediate and its effects will remain long term.
“This is going to be a tremendous benefit to 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 bodes well for us here being right in the heart of Phoenix.”
The program was able to launch using a $5 million grant from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund from the Arizona Department of Education. The program also receives funding from the Arizona’s Teacher Academy and AmeriCorps to cover tuition and stipends.
The program itself is diverse in many aspects. The group includes not only recent college graduates, but also people with knowledge of real estate, social work, aviation and engineering who want to switch careers.
“A big draw of the residency,” Robert said, “is that these folks are coming from other professions, and that enriches not only the teachers, but also the breadth of experience they’ll be sharing with kids, and what their potential can be for the future. It’s amazing the impact that it’s going to have on the youth, as well as enriching our overall staff.”
According to the Learning Policy Institute, 70% to 80% of residency graduates are still in the classroom after five years. Teacher residencies also successfully recruit a more racially diverse teaching force. Although 80% of the nation’s teachers are white, 62% of teaching residents 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 caring are key
Chelsey Mickelson, 27, is a teaching resident at Thew Elementary in Tempe. She said her experience in the program already has made a lasting impact.
Mickelson received her undergraduate education at Utah State University, graduating in health education and promotion, which she said was an easy transfer to primary education.
She comes to the program with experience previously working at an elementary school as an assistant in the classroom.
Mickelson, who grew up with untreated ADHD, said she would have benefited greatly from a program like this, and having teachers understand students’ from an emotional and social lens.
She has noticed that some of her students at Thew exhibit the behaviors she once did. Becoming a teacher increased her desire to check up on and care for the students’ well-being.
“The impact that a passionate and caring teacher can have is unmatched,” she said. “I couldn’t think of a better way to help impact my best self into the community. There’s a lot of great ways to come into education, but this residency program really primes people to be their best selves so that they can help students be their best selves.”
Shortage leads to widespread vacancies
In June, 88% of public schools nationally reported teacher and staff burnout as a concern during the last school year, while 62% indicated a concern about filling vacant staff positions, according to an Institute of Education Sciences study.
Many teachers in Arizona are leaving because of inadequate school funding from the state, said Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona. Teachers are also faced with underwhelming pay and tough working conditions, she said, resulting in mental and physical burnout.
As of 2021, the average salary for Arizona teachers was $52,157, which ranked 44th among states and is nearly $12,000 below the national average of $64,000.
As long-term substitute teachers become more frequent, student learning becomes disrupted by the constant change.
“From the student perspective,” Lewis said, “I know it can be really chaotic when we don’t have those stable people in the community, who they know are going to be there the next day, and it matters. With kids specifically now, and all of the trauma that everybody’s been through, we need stability.”