By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Maria Vinch always wanted to be a teacher, but life took her in other directions. She became a social worker for the state of Arizona, then an office worker at her father’s mining company in Tucson.
“Teaching was always in the back of my mind,” she said.
In August, Vinch stepped in front of a fourth-grade class for the first time at age 42.
“It’s like a dream coming true. There has never been a morning when I woke up and dreaded coming to work,” said Vinch, who credits Grand Canyon University’s Canyon L.E.A.P. to Teach program for getting her there. “It’s fun for me. I’m teaching. My kids are showing growth. I’m having a blast.”
The program, a collaboration of the College of Education and K12 Educational Development's Canyon Professional Development, has provided more than 30 candidates of varied professional backgrounds the opportunity to obtain a standard Arizona elementary or secondary teaching certificate in its first year of existence.
It's helping tackle the state’s chronic teacher shortage, where 1 in 4 teacher vacancies were unfilled last fall, according to an Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey.
Vinch has used the class to vault a career and become New Teacher of the Year at Huachuca Mountain Elementary School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, where she said the school district is severely short of teachers.
“What makes the Canyon L.E.A.P. pathway so special is the level of support GCU provides. Candidates in this pathway have the opportunity to engage in constant dialogue with peers in the program, with professors and with their site mentors,” COE Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield said. “This level of support clearly sets up candidates for success as they work to become certified classroom teachers.”
These teacher candidates eventually bring varied experience and knowledge to the classroom.
“From my social work perspective, I can read the kids much better,” Vinch said. "I have seen (children) at their worst, so my patience is way high. It takes a lot to rattle me. I’ve learned skills to help them cope.”
Vinch has a daughter with special needs and wanted to stay close to home and join her father’s Tucson business, which eventually led to overseas travel for the company. That experience helped her deal with the variety of cultures in her class, which includes students from Vietnam, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Poland and Germany in the southern Arizona town with a military base.
“I got to see how different cultures do things. That gives me perspective on how to handle students,” she said. “We talk about different cultures, so that we have this inclusive atmosphere in our classroom. We are all from different places, but we are all in this together.”
Still, teaching was all new. Canyon L.E.A.P. to Teach helped her learn strategies for learning, she said, and ways to teach English Language Learners in her class.
“I came in kind of blind. You never know what you don’t know until you don’t know it. But it’s transformed my teaching over the last few months,” she said. “The program really does give you an education on what you will need to teach.”
Vinch learns the methods while carrying them out in classroom. She got steady support from several University counselors and Carolyn Mann, K12 Special Projects Director, who taught Vinch in two courses designed to support students through day-to-day success and struggles in the classroom.
“What makes the L.E.A.P. to Teach program different is GCU’s desire to support new teachers by actively addressing the many hurdles they face,” Mann said. “I met with Maria and her peers every other week to discuss best teaching practices, answer questions and, most importantly, help them work through the stressors of being a new teacher.”
Vinch takes her state professional knowledge exam on April 19 and finishes her last day of L.E.A.P. courses on May 4. But now she is going to begin study for a master’s degree at GCU.
“This is going to sound silly, but it really turned by brain back on. I loved it,” Vinch said. “Some days I was overwhelmed by school and work together. But I always felt like I am learning. I just want to keep that up.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.