Teacher training
Students from ASU and NAU education programs make flubber using water, glue and a well-known laundry booster (Borax) at the Inspire to Inquire Education Conference, March 5, at ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa. Nearly 400 educators, administrators and students attended the SRP sponsored event. Submitted

Job cuts. Less take-home pay. More responsibilities - and higher expectations.

As schools grapple with budget cuts, teachers are feeling the pinch - and at a time when public education, and teachers in particular, are being slammed by critics for failing to produce adequate results.

It creates a lot of instability for teachers, but they are driven by a passion and forge ahead, said Arizona Education Association Vice President Joe Thomas.

"Teachers are lucky," Thomas said. "They get to do what they really love to do and that's teach and work with students."

Kindergarten through 12th grade education eats up more than 40 percent of the state's budget, benefitting about 1 million students. But state funding to Arizona's public schools has decreased 20 percent in the last three years, and more cuts are expected.

Dulce Petagara's teaching career started as the education budget cuts began in Arizona. A transplant from California, Petagara of Chandler was hired by the Florence Unified School District on an emergency credential while she finished her master's degree in education.

Then Florence cut jobs. Petagara was without a contract just a year and a half into her new career. She spent the next year working in a completely different field, but missed teaching.

Now, she's back in the classroom, teaching second grade in the Maricopa Unified School District.

"I've invested a lot in it," she said of education. "I got my master's from ASU and continue to take classes to improve myself as a teacher. I threw myself into education. I really want to teach."

With the uncertainty in the field - Maricopa district just issued reduction-in-force notices and other districts in Arizona are gearing up to do the same - "it's tough," Petagara said.

"It's hard to wait to hear if you will have a job next year, if you will be offered a contract, especially when you are just getting started in a new career."

Jennie Polson, 38, is a first-year teacher in the Apache Junction Unified School District. After being a stay-at-home mom and working in the fast food industry, she - and her husband - graduated in the past year with plans to be teachers.

Polson took a job in a kindergarten classroom in January, which she loves. Her husband spent one year teaching in a charter school.

But they decided they couldn't afford to have two teachers in the family with the threat of more budget cuts. Her husband returned to school recently, this time for a degree in computer science.

"We couldn't make it on two (teacher) salaries and with all the cutbacks, we didn't know if we're going to have a job for the next year," she said. "It's really, really hard for me as someone who wants to be a teacher. I want to do this job. I'm OK making less money because it's something I enjoy."

That's the "heart of a teacher," said Molina "Dr. Mo" Walters, a clinical associate professor who teaches science methods for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU Polytechnic.

"You have to understand the heart and the mind of a true teacher. There's nothing better than being with kids."

Walters - who spent years in the classroom - said seeing that "I got it" moment in the eyes of young students makes it all worth it.

"Nothing else comes close to it. Not even skydiving. I've been to Costa Rica. I've climbed the Pyramids. I've seen the Galapagos islands," she said. "The most exciting part of that is I can bring it back and share it with kids."

Darla Foster has seen it all too, but after this year, she's retiring.

Foster started teaching in 1978. She's been at Ahwatukee Foothills' Mountain Pointe High School for the past 18 years.

In late February, right before the deadline to do so, Foster turned in her notice to retire.

"I decided it's time to look in a different direction before I'm too old to do something else," she said.

Foster hopes new teachers look at the field as a "vocation," rather than a job.

"It's a gift and I've done it for 32 years," she said. "I love the kids."

The hours can be grueling, teachers say, noting they may put in 14-hour days between prep work, teaching and grading.

"Vacation" is often spent learning, either working toward an additional degree or endorsement, or improving one's skills through internships or fellowships.

And many schools have had to cut back on supplies, forcing teachers to pay for paper, dry erase markers and laminating. "I think sometimes we do feel overwhelmed. You are taking more on your plate," Foster said.

Veteran teacher Michael Schroeder, who teaches middle school science for the Higley Unified School District, said sometimes teachers get a mixed message.

"I've been watching everything going on in Wisconsin," he said, referring to the battle between lawmakers and the unions there that ended collective bargaining rights last week. "I think my biggest thing is that people say education is really important, but they don't want to support it."

Fortunately, Schroeder said, he has a principal who believes in him and a job he wouldn't change for anything.

"I love teaching science. I have a different crop of kids every year," he said. "When you see they get it, that's the really cool part. The hands-on stuff and the things I do is to get them thinking on their own."

The job insecurity and financial strains teachers are facing are not new, ASU's Walters said. It's just part of the ebb and flow of the field.

"Education goes through cycles, definitely. I taught my first year and I got my pink slip. The first couple of years, I got my pink slip. I hung in there," she said. "As much as we know about the field, people keep on coming and hang in there. I have people who just graduated and still don't have jobs, but they're not willing to give up."

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or mreese@evtrib.com

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