By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Katy Long has a melodic way to describe a heavy influx of her former Grand Canyon University education students into a single school district.
“I call it the circle of life,” said the Assistant Professor in GCU’s College of Education.
“I’ve had GCU students who are hired and mentor GCU students, who become mentors. That’s the circle of life.”
Students doing practicums become student teachers become full-time teachers. That’s what led 36 former GCU students to the front of classes at Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix.
This circle is not the “the wheel of fortune, the leap of faith,” as “The Lion King” song goes, but a solid pipeline of GCU talent built and opened to the nation’s schools who need to fill shortages. GCU is the largest producer of teachers in Arizona, with its College of Education graduating 7,144 in 2019-20, up from 6,693 the year before.
This couldn’t be more vital. Jittery teachers are on the front lines during a pandemic at a time when turnover among younger teachers already was quickening, said Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, Dean of the College of Education.
“It’s not a good time to have a shortage,” she said. “When you put physical distancing in place, if you had 30 students in a room and now only 15 in a room, you will need more adults.
“I met with two admissions managers in big counties in California and Florida, and they have a thousand openings for the fall. There is great interest in hiring our graduates because they want highly qualified teachers for their students.”
The best example is close to campus, however.
Ali Nelson, who was hired as a fourth grade teacher at Sunnyslope School in the Washington Elementary School District two months before her April graduation from GCU, did three semesters of practicums and student teaching there and kept a close eye on mentor Sara Plaum, a 2017 GCU graduate.
“I just really like that it was a former GCU student. I was able to see our professors’ methods and ways of instruction being implemented with her own twist to it,” she said.
She always was taught to incorporate collaboration with peers – her students talking with other students about what they are learning – but saw Plaum do it in nearly every subject.
“It wasn’t cookie cutter. She used so many teaching strategies that I know I want to bring into my teaching, but she was constantly adjusting and rotating different strategies.”
She notices other GCU graduates right away in the district.
“I feel like there is just this different level, just a fire and a spark for education, and there is always this passion as a teacher that is clear by how they interact with students or peers,” she said.
Crowding the hallways at Sunnyslope and other nearby schools is no accident. It’s a concerted effort to build partnerships with those schools and help them fill the need for teachers.
“It’s a big deal,” Long said. “As much as we can, we want the students to stay here and teach here. They get into the classroom and experience what it’s like, and even some of them who were planning on moving back to their home state end up staying here.”
She helped build the partnership by working with Kathleen McKeever, Director of Academic Support Programs for the Washington Elementary School District. They needed college interns for after school and summer programs that became more robust to fill learning gaps for students.
“GCU is our main source of college interns for our programs,” she said. “GCU has a high quality of student. They don’t skip a beat. They are running classes, taking attendance, doing it all. They are reliable and prepared to teach and, besides that, they come with a real commitment to education.”
Washington also works with GCU on Academic Excellence Collaboratives, with GCU's Learning Lounge in two schools and on a pilot program of social and emotional learning.
“We have hired a number of them in the district, which is very interested in the teacher shortage, so they are like an on-the-job interview,” McKeever said.
It also helps her students interact with college students and see what is possible for their futures.
GCU’s reputation in education goes back to its founding in 1949.
“We have a rich history of producing teachers. In the state, we were always known for our quality,” LaPrade said.
One key element is “the promise,” LaPrade said. GCU promises to help COE graduates who are struggling in their first year of teaching by providing assistance, anything from an ear to listen and refresher courses to classroom supervision. It gives employers an added sense of security, “and, as a result, our graduates are hired first.”
The atmosphere at GCU breeds a teacher schooled in the three pillars at COE – learning, leading and serving.
“We believe teaching is a calling,” LaPrade said. “As a teacher, teach like Jesus.”
The faculty serve a vital role in modeling those best practices and high standards.
COE's partnerships get those quality students in front of employees.
A vital pipeline was laid by GCU Professor Dr. Jim Mostofo in 2013. He helped initiate partnerships with Alhambra High School, which expanded to the entire Phoenix Union High School District. Glendale Union and Tolleson Union became partners four years ago.
“With these partnerships, many students do their practicum (field experience) at these schools, which leads to many of them being hired,” he said.
By his count, 71 teachers in those districts are GCU graduates, nearly half of them in math.
The circle gets stronger. Plaum, who was Nelson’s mentor at Sunnyslope and is a first grade teacher there, said GCU prepared her well to be a teacher before she graduated in 2017. The teachers knew her by name, the class sizes were small and they helped her learn planning and classroom management long before she stood in front of her first class.
“I feel like GCU wanted the best for me and everyone else who went there,” she said. “And once you get a job and if they notice you are struggling, GCU is willing to help a teacher for several months.”
Now she helps other GCU students at Sunnyslope get ready to lead their own classes.
“I know exactly what they are feeling at that moment. I know what it’s going to look like. And since they went to GCU, I can relate to them and get them ready,” she said.
She knows which teachers came from GCU before they even tell her.
“They just seem happy and excited to be teaching. They are willing to learn and do whatever they can to help their students.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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