Unburdened by excess debt, Arizona Teachers Academy students graduate from ASU


Trista Sobeck

On a bright and warm — not yet dreadfully hot — day in May in Phoenix, Arizona, ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College celebrated the graduation of 704 men and women.

While 390 graduated with bachelor’s degrees, 281 graduated with master’s degrees, and 28 now hold doctoral degrees. Among them were 56 students, including 50 bachelor’s and 6 master’s degree recipients, who received significant financial aid and received additional professional development experiences as part of the newly established Arizona Teachers Academy at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

The Arizona Teachers Academy (ATA) was officially announced in September 2017 by the Arizona Board of Regents in response to Gov. Doug Ducey’s call for the state’s public universities to help ease the critical teacher shortage in the state. ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona each have their own versions of the academy with distinctive programs.

The Arizona Teachers Academy at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College provides significant financial aid and distinctive educational and professional development experiences to students who are Arizona residents and commit to teaching in Arizona’s Title I schools after graduation.

MLFTC students in the academy attend exclusive professional development workshops that shed more light on the teaching profession. As alumni, graduates also have access to mentors and professional support.

Tanisha Gammage

Tinisha NaShea Gammage (‘18)

Confident, ready and aware

Tinisha NaShea Gammage (‘18) is an early childhood education, special education major. When asked about working in a Title I district, where most of the students come from low-income families, she says, “I’m excited to work there. It’s been one of my goals, and it corresponds with my own vision of how I see myself as an educator.” 

Dekota Smith

Dekota Smith ('18)

“I am a minority,” says graduate Dekota Smith, elementary education major (‘18), “and my ultimate life goal is to teach in a Title I school. I come from a low economic community and a lot of Title I schools are neglected. I now have the opportunity to help give back and offer a quality education in a school like that.”

Ana Pena (‘18), elementary education and English as a Second Language major, says she did her student teaching in a Title I school and also worked as a paraprofessional for six years in a non-Title I school. “It feels so rewarding to work in a Title I school,” she explains. “I want to help students grow and, with my ESL degree, I can help students who are learning a second language while enrolled in elementary school. I was that student.”

Ana Pena

Ana Pena (‘18)

Arizona has a multitude of Title I schools with English Language Learners, and Pena has a mission of seeing growth like she did in her student teaching experience. “I worked with a child who was testing at a kindergarten reading level and by the time I left, she was at a second-grade level,” she explains. “I want to keep teaching in similar schools and continue to feel rewarded like that.”

Pena was chosen out of 66 applicants to interview for a position in the Chandler School District. At the time of this writing, she has a one-in-six shot of getting a teaching job that would align with her ESL passions. Arizona may have a need for teachers, but in specialized fields, the market can be quite competitive. Pena said that her experience at the Arizona Teachers Academy at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College helped her gain an advantage.

“A load off your shoulders…”

Student loan debt in the U.S. exceeds $1.3 trillion with more than 44 million borrowers carrying this debt. Moreover, the average student in the Class of 2016 had more than $37,000 in student loan debt.  

A typical first-year teacher salary in Arizona can be below $37,000. Because of the ATA, some students are graduating from college with no debt. “Having less debt is amazing,” says Pena. “I can go into my career and not have that financial burden. To know I don’t have to get over that hurdle and I can just start living life, it’s amazing.”

Monica Rosales

Monica Rosales (‘18)

“I was so stressed out about money, especially last year,” says Monica Rosales (‘18), an elementary education major. “I thought that perhaps I was going to have to stop school for about a year to save up. But when I found out I was able to apply for the ATA, it was honestly a blessing and a lifesaver. I didn't have to take out more loans.”  

Rosales will be starting her career as a sixth-grade math and science teacher. She is a Hispanic woman in STEM, and the first in her family to graduate from college. “I know the struggle of not understanding math and thinking it’s too hard,” she says. “I want to be that teacher who says to her students, ‘I know you are probably going to go home crying today, but it’s OK, we’re going to do this; we’re going to get it.’”

Professional development and mentorship

ATA offers participating students professional development workshops they wouldn’t otherwise get. “Academy workshops are highly engaging and provide networking opportunities to connect with the education community,” says Cindy Ballantyne, Arizona Teacher Academy program manager and clinical assistant professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Brandy Craig

Brandy Craig (‘18)

Brandy Craig (‘18), who just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in secondary physical education, says the professional development workshops have helped her immensely. “They have been wonderful. They have really given me a view and perspective on different subjects and ways of teaching. It was really an eye-opener,” she says.

As Craig moves on to teach physical education and continue to raise her teenage children, Dekota Smith wrestles with his plans to either teach in the Valley or move back to his home community where he will eventually teach math.

“We recently had a workshop on mindfulness,” he remembers. “It taught more of a human element in education instead of a checklist of standards. I really enjoyed that.  I’m a go-with-flow kind’a guy, but I know I want to give back to my community.”

Diana Lopez

Diana Lopez (‘18)

Diana Lopez (‘18), secondary education, history major, is from Yuma and is appreciative of the amount of technology and innovation she was exposed to in the ATA at MLFTC. Lopez is part of the very first cohort that graduated from MLFTC’s secondary education program that is part of ASU@Yuma, a partnership with Arizona Western College.

I’m from a rural town and I’m a new teacher, so I’m happy that I’ll have the innovative resources from ASU,” she says. “In the workshops, we talked a lot about what it means to be an intrapreneur and make change happen from the inside of the system. These are ideas I can transfer to the classroom every day.”

If you want to learn more, visit the Arizona Teachers Academy at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.