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Wanted: qualified teachers

Above: Illustration by Keith Negley

By Erik Ketcherside

In 1891, Karl Elsener invented a folding pocket knife for soldiers. His client, the Swiss army, had stipulated that their new knife should enable troops in the field to disassemble their rifles and open cans of food. And also cut things. 

In the century and a quarter Elsener’s company, Victorinox, has been producing the “Swiss Army Knife,” deluxe models grew to include wood saws, fish scalers, magnifying lenses, hoof cleaners, chisels, toothpicks, pens and digital clocks. Not yet available is a built-in sewing kit to repair overloaded pants pockets.

But what works for tools doesn’t work for schools. And by packing too many functions into too small a package, schools, too, are coming apart at the seams. 

The education equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife is today’s teacher, enlisted to be not only an expert in content and in classroom management, but also assessment, individualized instructional strategies and learner differences, developmental psychology and cultural context. 

Carole Basile calls this model “the widget teacher.” And as dean of Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, one of the most prolific producers of teachers in the U.S., Basile says, “The job of a teacher who is asked to be all things to all people at all times is untenable.”

The results, she says, are not in the best interest of kids, of teachers and of the education profession — already under stress from a nationwide teacher shortage. Basile and her workforce development team have some ideas for managing the widgets; research-based, innovative ideas. And they’ve teamed up with some equally innovative partners in an initiative to reinvent the education workforce.

Christy Burton

… is one of those innovative partners. She chairs the Burton Family Foundation. And she found a kindred spirit in Basile. “Our foundation, first and foremost, invests in leaders,” Burton says. “I met Carole at an ASU Foundation event and was impressed with her vision for rethinking the way the teachers college delivers education. She was willing to work with the community. I emphasize the community part, because I think sometimes that gets lost in the discussion about schools and what really makes a school rich.”

Burton says a deep appreciation for community means, “We’re a bit different from other foundations.” She and her husband, Daryl, created the foundation with profits from their family business. Presson Companies has a mix of industrial and office real estate holdings. “What formed the foundation was our decision to sell off quite a few of our office properties and focus predominantly on industrial properties,” she says. “But we have properties in the Avondale area we plan to hold on to, and that gave me a look into the community and let me be familiar with what’s going on there.” 

In Avondale, Burton had a passion, Basile identified an opportunity, and both found another innovative partner.

Avondale Elementary School District

… is one of two such districts serving the city of Avondale, a bedroom suburb of Phoenix that’s home to about 80,000. Avondale Elementary School District comprises one middle school, grades 6 – 8; four K – 8 schools; one K – 1; one 2 – 5; and an alternative placement school for students with emotional disabilities.

Overseeing them all is Betsy Hargrove (EdD, ’06), Avondale ESD superintendent since 2012. In 2017, Hargrove approached Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College for help with a challenge that confronts nearly every public-school superintendent: how to encourage families to enroll their children in their districts. Hargrove had heard that MLFTC offers a design thinking initiative that would enlist the district’s faculty and staff, as well as community members, to act as thought partners in addressing the challenge. 

The college describes its design labs as “intentional, collaborative, open-ended design processes that value local context, diverse perspectives and iterative testing of solutions.” MLFTC facilitators guide teams of stakeholders in a process that identifies complex challenges in education and develops prototype solutions. 

That’s what Betsy Hargrove wanted. And that’s what Christy Burton could get behind. She had heard about the design labs from Carole Basile and saw the potential. “It wasn’t happening just at the university level,” Burton says. The design labs engage with people throughout a school district and beyond, “going right into the community.” 

The Burton Family Foundation funded the Avondale Community Design Lab with $50,000. From October 2017 to February 2018, MLFTC personnel facilitated a series of workshops in Avondale ESD. Each of the district’s 10 schools and the district office sent teams comprising administrators and principals, teachers and staff, students, parents and community members. Their challenge: “How might each of the district’s schools design a unique identity for themselves?”

Using design thinking, the teams arrived at some ideas for retooling the schools. Hargrove says, “As each session went by, you could see how people engaged differently and left with an idea.” Christy Burton took part in the process, and she and her son were present at the district-wide final presentation. “As Christy said, we didn’t know what the end result would be,” says Hargrove, “but the ability to engage over an entire year with a large group of people from all of our sites was really the gift behind all of this.”

In the end, the workshops also identified a larger challenge: The district’s schools should perhaps be focusing on delivering a different, better experience to their students. Their most pressing problem might not be marketing, but product.

Betsey Hargrove

… already knew one way to improve her schools: better teachers and more of them.

“In Arizona over the past several years we’ve had great difficulty being able to find a certified teacher to be in each of our classrooms,” Hargrove says, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who want the spots. An August 2018 investigative report by The Arizona Republic stated, “Since the 2015–16 school year, nearly 7,200 teaching certificates have been issued to teachers who aren’t fully trained to lead a classroom” — an increase of 400 percent in only three years. 

Robert Morse, MLFTC’s co-director of professional experiences, explains: “In Arizona, if you have a high school diploma or GED, you can go to the Department of Education and get your emergency substitute certificate. And some districts are in such high need to fill positions that they will have that person as the teacher of record in the classroom,” Morse says, “so someone with a high school diploma is doing the job of a certified professional teacher.” In Avondale ESD last year, 12 percent of the classroom teachers had only emergency certification. Another 25 percent were certified, but not for the subject areas they were teaching. 

Based on the design lab experience, Hargrove decided to enlist the teachers college in addressing another challenge she and her principals deal with every year: how to fully staff their classrooms with qualified teachers when there aren’t enough in the state to go around.

Above: Claire McHale is one of three student teachers who, together, fill the role of a certified teacher.

Robert Morse

… is confronted with that challenge every day. He works the supply side to try to meet schools’ demand. As executive director of professional experiences, Morse manages everything related to internship and student teaching programs to ensure that MLFTC graduates are fully prepared to enter the education workforce. By the time a newly minted teacher graduates, they’ve been through a junior year, part-time internship, and a senior year residency of full-time teaching under the wing of a highly qualified mentor teacher. With more than 3,000 educators graduating from MLFTC every year, that’s a lot of experience. And experienced educators are what Avondale ESD desperately wants.

Morse is part of MLFTC’s division of teacher preparation, which is putting into action Carole Basile’s vision for developing and deploying a 21st-century education workforce. The college’s mission statement, adopted when Basile took the reins in 2016,  says MLFTC will “work with schools and community partners to design and deploy teams of professional educators that will provide the full range of expertise and personalized learning support that students need and deserve.” So if the workforce should be made of teams, not widgets, why not start deploying the teams before they’ve graduated?

Hargrove was ready. Morse says, “We reached out to several districts with the idea of placing students in our student-teaching experience in a collaborative team model, and Betsy was the first to respond.” 

“Let’s say that lead teacher teaches second grade,” Morse says, “and that grade level consists of four classrooms, but one of those classrooms needs a certified teacher. In this model, there are three teacher candidates assigned to that lead mentor teacher, and they are responsible for two classrooms, so you have four adults working with 50 to 60 students.” 

Morse says the idea is that the lead mentor teacher is constantly planning with and co-teaching with the TCs, looking at ways to regroup the 60 students to optimally use the expertise in the room. “Those three teacher candidates and the lead teacher are free to move between the two rooms,” Morse says, “to maximize the time each student gets with the four adults.” 

Stacy Ellis

… sees the results of this new approach, and the challenges, firsthand. She’s in her sixth year as principal of Copper Trails School, the Avondale K – 8 piloting the team-teaching model. And she admits, the challenges have been many.

“It was definitely a pilot program being built and redesigned as we were going forward,” Ellis says. “We had to balance the needs of the candidates who are here to finish their education with student learning. For example, we needed to provide the teacher candidates with more planning time for them to observe their lead teacher actually teaching, because the first day of school was their first day, too.”

A huge advantage of the new model was that Ellis wasn’t just accepting student-teacher placements. “We interviewed all of these candidates,” she says, “so we were able to place them in a way that would have a positive impact on student learning.”

The candidates had to be interviewed because they had to apply. And they had to apply because they were going to be employees of Avondale ESD, working with certificates as long-term substitutes. That’s the second trailblazing aspect of the model: These student teachers are being paid to teach.

It’s not much, everyone admits; more of a stipend than a salary. But the team of three teacher candidates is filling the role of a certified teacher, so the district divides the salary set aside for that spot among the three teacher candidates on the team.

Betsy Hargrove says that was always part of her plan. She tells a story of stopping at The Home Depot after work a few years ago and being recognized by the young man at the register. “He said, ‘Aren’t you Dr. Hargrove?’ ‘Yes, I am. Aren’t you one of our student teachers?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’m over at Wildflower School. Can I tell you what I’m going to be teaching tomorrow? I’m working here till 10 tonight, but then I’m going home and studying my lesson plan because I really want to be prepared.’”

“I thought, hold on a second,” Hargrove says. “We have this young man who’s student teaching all day long, who’s working incredibly hard with our children, who has to work after school from four until 10 o’clock at night, and then go home and do his lesson plans so he’s ready to be his absolute best for our kids.

“That’s when I wondered, how can we provide an opportunity for our student teachers to be compensated for the work they’re doing so they can focus all of their efforts on what happens in our classrooms, rather than having to go out and support their families in a different way.”

Carole Basile

… has been outspoken about the need — particularly in Arizona — for a 21st-century education workforce. “Too often, schools have to focus only on addressing immediate, palliative needs,” Basile says. “With the support of the Burton Family Foundation, we’ve been able to partner with the Avondale district in a way that addresses long-term systemic issues. This work represents a significant step toward designing learning environments in which we surround learners with teams of professional educators who can deliver personalized learning.”

And Basile emphasizes that the concept being explored in Avondale is team teaching, not team teacher training. “No teacher — whether a student teacher or a 10-year veteran — should be on an island,” Basile says. “Our pilot work in Avondale has drawn attention from a number of other districts because it has the potential to be better for both students and teachers. Ultimately, this is about developing a more sustainable educator workforce that can deliver better outcomes to learners and more rewarding careers to educators.”

Christy Burton

… says she’s excited to follow the success of the Avondale pilot, but she expects other, long-lasting benefits from the design labs her foundation made possible. 

“There is a much deeper and richer experience that grew out of the vision of having these workshops of collected educators,” Burton says, “and when I say educators, I mean everyone who is involved in the education of students. That can be a coach, that can be somebody from a community organization that provides after-school tutoring groups; all those folks that are impacting the growth and development of students. I see the potential to take this model into other areas, and that’s something philanthropy can help with.

“These proof-of-concept projects, if they work, become the model for other schools or districts that are willing to think differently.”