Finding teachers has become increasingly difficult in rural Arizona, particularly in the past decade with waves of retirements and with enrollments in teacher certification programs dropping precipitously, but Miami High School has tapped into existing pathways for potential teachers and offered alternatives for established professionals seeking changes.
MHS has survived, in part, with the help of teachers who came from other walks of life, including former business owners, those who worked for years in industrial jobs and even a professional singer who worked on a cruise ship.
“It’s hard to explain to people, but teaching is really not something you do, it’s somebody who you are,” says veteran physical education teacher Janet Acevedo. “The good thing about being a teacher is the benefits are really good: Pay is not good, but you get really good benefits.”
Acevedo is a third-generation MHS graduate — K-12 in Miami schools as were her parents and siblings — but before she settled into teaching nearly three decades ago, Acevedo spent six years in the music business, singing on a cruise ship.
After graduating from college with a teaching degree, she entered the classroom as a teacher in Camp Verde, but music drew her in and the lifestyle was appealing.
“I actually wanted to be a teacher since I was a junior in high school, but then music really grabbed me,” she says. “I really didn’t have big aspirations, but when I got the gig on the cruise ship I thought, ‘I’m young and I have teaching to fall back on, so I’ll take my opportunity while I can.’”
During her time on the ship, Acevedo’s teaching certificate expired. She moved back to the Valley to get re-certified and attended a “teacher roundup” at ASU. Acevedo accepted an offer to teach in the San Carlos school system and spent several years there, but 17 years ago MHS reached out to her and she gladly accepted.
Her family is mostly gone from the area now and she is teaching the grandkids and great-grandkids of her former classmates. She still sings from time-to-time, but is happy with her decision to follow her youthful dreams of teaching and does not hesitate to encourage her students who want to pursue it as a career.
“I’ve talked to them and tell them they’re not gonna make a lot of money, but you really cannot stop somebody from being a teacher if that’s who they are,” she says. “I had a great lifestyle being a musician — I lived on a cruise ship — but teaching kept calling me back and I realized I could do both.”
Filling teaching positions in Arizona’s urban areas where there are more resources is difficult enough, but given economic trends in the past few years rural Arizona has unduly suffered, particularly in the wake of COVID. A system that funds schools on a per-student basis, aka “seat time,” was not prepared for the sharp drop in attendance.
While urban schools with a more affluent tax base can get as much as $18,000 per year, per student, rural schools get half that amount. That affects everything from paying the electric bills to teachers’ salaries, leaving Arizona pay near the bottom nationally.
Last year the National Education Association reported that Arizona’s average teacher starting salary of $40,554 ranked 27th among states, with the national average at $52,157. Given the funding formulas in the state, rural instructors are at the low end of the spectrum, and either head to the Valley or Tucson area, or are lured to other states such as California, which ranks fifth in average starting salary and third with the national average in overall teacher pay.
Competition for certified educators is so tough that graduates are often hired at urban schools as soon as they graduate from state universities.
But it’s not all doom and gloom and many institutions are working to create new models to maintain a teaching presence in classrooms.
Locally, there is a “2+2” program through Eastern Arizona College Gila Pueblo Campus, where students can get a teaching degree from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU without the need to move to the Valley. Students can earn associates degrees and can virtually attend ASU classes from the Gila Pueblo campus through the program.
There are also internship programs placing teacher candidates in real classrooms that are then supervised by a qualified teacher monitoring multiple interns. Additionally, virtual learning networks are becoming more wide-ranging and efficient in the wake of the pandemic, although funding mechanisms are lagging behind the new instructional models.
MHS continues to give support to its students that are interested in the profession, but many teachers are drawn by the chance for a new beginning later in life.
Dan Hill, who runs the culinary program at MHS and is set to become the administrator of the Career & Technical Education program, owned and managed several furniture stores from Mesa to Alaska. He became a teacher when the “Great Recession” of the late-00s shuttered his stores.
After spending a lifetime in the business he learned from his family, Hill “lost everything” and was suddenly looking for a way to survive. Taking advantage of the Obama-era Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Hill was able to get his teaching certificate and became qualified to teach English, Government, Japanese, Economics, Psychology, Criminal Justice and Culinary Arts.
After four years teaching at an alternative school in Globe, Hill was incoming MHS Principal Glen Lineberry’s first hire. Hill says that although modern classrooms can be a tough working environment, it not only gets easier, but is highly rewarding.
“I’ll have kids come back years later and thank me” Hill says. “I had a student who went to a college in New York and wrote an entire essay about me as her most influential teacher, so there’s gratification that comes down the road. But if you only teach for a year or two, it’s hard to stick with the profession.”
Similarly, Phys Ed instructor Sammy Gonzales came to teaching from an industry that took a big economic hit around 2009. Gonzales, currently a councilman and former mayor of the Town of Miami, graduated from MHS in 1987 and went into the automotive industry at the age of 16.
He was working at a Chevrolet dealership in the Globe-Miami area when the industry consolidated and his shop was on the verge of closing down. He had his AA degree from Eastern Arizona College, but was focused on the job where he “thrived.” At the time, he was going through a divorce and working six days a week.
Gonzales enrolled in the teaching program at Northern Arizona University during one of the worst teacher shortages in the 21st century and went to work in the San Carlos school district for two years.
As soon as there was an opening though, he grabbed the opportunity to teach at his alma mater.
For Gonzales, the transition from the fairly rough-and-tumble, “testosterone-y” world of car culture to the classroom was tough, but he stuck with it and has been in the classroom for more than 12 years.
He says that the perception of teaching as a part-time job is not the reality, and people close to him have learned a different perspective through his efforts.
“People come from all walks of life into the education system,” Gonzales says. “There’s a possibility that people think they can’t get into the education field because they’re too old. They should understand that no, they’re not the only one thinking that, and yes, they can do it and achieve it.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.