ASU doctoral students and faculty take the lead among Arizona’s English teachers

As the challenges of COVID-19 made meeting the needs of Arizona’s Pre-K-12 English language arts teachers in 2020-2021 more and more difficult, the Arizona English Teachers Association (AETA) stepped up to meet the challenge—with ASU professors and doctoral students in the vanguard. The loss of direct contact events made the year difficult, but new virtual venues and connections led to a powerful network among the Arizona Department of Education, universities, colleges, Pre-K-12 English language arts teachers, authors, and even the Arizona Department of Transportation.

ASU English education doctoral student Rebecca Chatham-Vazquez, current AETA President, joined forces with veteran AETA Executive Director, Kelly O’Rourke, from Desert Canyon Middle School, to marshal forces among teachers across the state, along with students and faculty from ASU campuses. Now new projects are on the horizon, and so is expanded representation and increasing resources for schools, Pre-K-12 students and teachers.

Volunteering in AETA, our state’s affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English is not just good for English education in Arizona, it’s also part of a quality graduate program. ASU Tempe Assistant Professor and AETA board member, E. Sybil Durand explained how important this experience is to prepare future university professors who will fan out across the country upon their graduation. “A good PhD program in English education includes leadership training,” she said. “In AETA, our doctoral students are creating and participating in a network of colleagues who are committed to excellent teaching. Teachers come from all over Arizona to attend the annual AETA conference, where they share their expertise and learn from each other, as well as hear about the latest work from young adult literature authors and English education researchers. I have the honor to serve on AETA's executive board and currently am the ASU liaison, which involves creating pathways for current and future English teachers to this professional organization as well as connecting with other English teacher educators across universities in Arizona.”

Durand also reports that our students’ excellent preparation has been noticed outside ASU. She said that professors and teachers from all over the country “approach me every year at NCTE’s national convention to say how impressed they are with our ASU PhD students, after seeing them present their research, chair programs, and lead committees.”

She continued. “Although I would never take credit for this, I believe that their level of engagement in AETA, from presenting at the annual conference to serving on the board and committees (and as president!), means that they are really well prepared to shine at national conferences. Participating in local professional activities beyond their coursework is key for their successful careers after ASU.”

ASU Poly Associate Professor Wendy Williams also serves on the AETA Board. Before becoming a university professor, Williams spent many years as an English teacher at Phoenix’s Sunnyslope High School. She has been a part of AETA going back to her high school teaching years and has been a constant contributor both as a presenter at the annual conference and as the ASU Poly Liaison on the AETA Board. For many years, Williams helped to host AETA’s annual convention on the ASU Poly campus; she has helped to provide institutional memory: “Over the last decade, this organization has worked to recruit and support educators of color and reached out to teachers in rural areas of the state,” she explained. “We have also honored community literacy work being done outside of the organization. I love that we gave an award to the people at ADOT who write snappy messages for the overhead signs on the freeways! As a long-term member of AETA who has been a teacher, graduate student, and now a professor in this organization, I try to champion and learn from the good work teachers are doing, point out issues and offer solutions, and make connections between research and practice.”

Second-year AETA president and ASU doctoral student Rebecca Chatham-Vazquez stresses ASU President Michael Crow’s emphasis on “whom we include and how they succeed..." as outlined in the ASU Charter. A long-time high school English teacher in Montana, and Montana Association of Teachers of English Language Arts Secretary, Chatham-Vazquez was well acquainted with how English educators’ organizations work. She is especially familiar with Indigenous education because of Montana’s Indian Education for All educational mandate. She is currently attempting to arrange for AETA’s 2021 conference to be held on a sovereign Indigenous nation.

Arizona presents unique challenges to education, including deficits in state spending, as well as low teacher pay and early teacher burnout. This year, the Arizona Department of Education invited Chatham-Vazquez to contribute to collaborative work between the ADE and state organizations like AETA to address issues of recruitment and retention, as well as to collaborate on bringing high quality professional development from ADE to Arizona’s teachers. In addition to supporting Indigenous communities, Chatham-Vazquez expresses commitment to meet other needs. “We have started two Special Interest Groups: the Early Career Educator SIG and the Rural Teacher SIG, in order to better support our members who are at most risk of leaving the profession and of burnout,” she said. “We are also updating our website with affiliates such as the ADE and resources, such as the links to ReadWriteThink, #disrupttexts, and #weneeddiversebooks.”

We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) is a nonprofit organization that “strives to create a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” WDNB works with writers, publishers, illustrators, educators, and libraries to ensure that schools, classrooms, and libraries have the books needed to enable all young people to see good and accurate representations of themselves in their reading.

Chatham-Vazquez also plans for AETA to help provide the professional development English teachers need but school budgets make difficult, including a partnership with Arizona Department of Education. “We are promoting amazing new professional development opportunities from our ELA member at the Arizona Department of Education, and we are adding professional development event opportunities from AETA that will take place virtually and throughout the year in order for teachers in all areas of the state to access them.”

Teaching is a noble profession, but it can get a little lonely unless you feel part of a team. 

In these difficult times, all members of the AETA Board express gratitude to Lauren Spenceley, Arizona Department of Education English Language Arts Specialist, who is very active in AETA and providing resources and connections available through ADE.*

ASU doctoral student Ginette Rossi, AETA’s incoming Executive Secretary, also aligns herself with President Crow’s emphasis on accessibility, with total inclusion for all schools and teachers. She believes this can be done through “organizational energy to implement systems that benefit the AETA and all those who attend our events. With strategic and creative planning, I envision events that are inclusive and relevant, yet financially accessible to all teachers.” Previous AETA annual conventions have cost over $100 for participants, but this year’s convention is exploring ways to bring the cost down considerably and make multiple scholarships available to schools, teachers, and college students.

As a humanities teacher at Arizona School for the Arts, Rossi also has a vision for “AETA highlighting ways for English teachers to collaborate with their Social Studies colleagues, to promote a more widespread Humanities curricular focus in schools,” she said. “The prevailing purpose of this would be to create in-depth studies of cultures and marginalized groups, so that more time can be spent critically analyzing and de-centering Whiteness throughout Arizona classrooms. Another goal of mine is to increase accessibility for entire departments to attend our conferences, and even further, to promote awareness of the organization itself through a wide range of marketing platforms.”

AETA President-elect and ASU doctoral student, Sandra Saco, serves as AETA Diversity Director. Saco explains that “AETA’s diversity team hopes to call for and bring awareness to the need for cultural representation and equity in schools. We hope that students eventually can feel that their identities and experiences are reflected and validated in the English classroom.”

Teaching is a noble profession, but it can get a little lonely unless you feel part of a team. ASU doctoral student Michelle Glerum is providing newly minted teachers with that team: “AETA can serve as a professional home for the incredible English educators of Arizona. In my work with the AETA Early Career Special Interest Group, I am excited to provide community and camaraderie for beginning teachers, as well as a place to grow and learn in our profession.”

ASU’s Michael Hall, Marine Corps veteran and doctoral student from Hawaii, serves on the AETA Board and as Recording Secretary. Hall is determined to “expand AETA to our rural and Indigenous colleagues across the state over the next year. I look forward to recording minutes where stakeholders from these two groups are present. I would also like to increase participation from pre-service teachers across the manifold public and private universities in Arizona.”

As he finishes his PhD at ASU and moves on to a university position, Justin Scholes explains the effect AETA has on him as a new teacher in the state and also what serving on the AETA Board has involved. “When I moved to Arizona, I was teaching in new circumstances, so I really appreciated that AETA welcomed me and gave me a place to turn to for support,” he said. “Now years later, I think about those who aren't connected—those who might be needing support as well as those who have strengths to share. I joined the AETA board with the primary goal of outreach. I believe that ELA teachers statewide will continue to come together and build a strong professional network.”

AETA has a tradition of high quality publications and was known for its Connections Newsletter, which won the 2006 NCTE Affiliate Award for Best Newsletter, and the Arizona English Bulletin, articles from which were often reprinted in the English Journal. Currently, these two publications are moving into the hands of ASU doctoral student Kristina Bybee and recent ASU graduate, Monica Baldonado-RuizArizona English Bulletin has been out of print for several years, but Bybee has plans. “The reincarnation of the AETA professional journal will be called Arizona English Teachers’ Journal,” she said. “The new call for the Journal was just released! As we return to a regular schedule for publishing the Connections Newsletter, our goal is increasing communication with our members about opportunities and information for them but we are also offering opportunities for them to share their own and their students' work in a celebratory way.”

AETA continues to encourage teachers to write through its annual Teachers as Writers Contest. This contest is important because teachers who write bring empathy to their teaching of writing, and they serve as writing role models for students.

Chatham-Vazquez revealed that AETA is also looking at potential global partnerships, and that plan will be unveiled at this year’s convention. “The recruiting effort for more members and broader scope is on!” she said. “This organization is one of service and welcoming. Our organization has such positive energy, which is what our teachers need as they work to provide quality English education to their students pre-K-16. We welcome all who are interested in being a part of our awesome organization!”

James Blasingame

Image 1: ASU directory photo of doctoral student and AETA President Rebecca Chatham-Vazquez.

Image 2: Assistant Professor Sybil Durand (right) works with graduate students at ASU. ASU photo.

Image 3: ASU directory photo of Wendy Williams.

Image 4: ASU's charter is engraved into this monument that stands at the University Drive and College Ave entrance. ASU photo.

Image 5: ASU directory photo of doctoral student Michelle Glerum.

Image 6: ASU directory photo of doctoral student Justin Scholes.

Image 7: AETA's call for submissions to the new Arizona English Teachers Journal.

*In addition to ASU faculty members Sybil Durand and Wendy Williams, Chatham-Vazquez and the new ASU AETA team have been mentored by award-winning Arizona English teachers, professors, and administrators from across the state, who are either still in leadership positions or handing over the reins. These leaders include Kelly O’Rourke, Executive Secretary (Desert Canyon Middle School); Chris Hazeltine, Conference Program/Teachers of Excellence Coordinator, Cave Creek and Deer Valley Regional Director & Head of Regional Directors (Sonoran Trails Middle School); Callie Pastor, Webmaster & Southwest Phoenix Regional Director (La Joya Community High School); Esther Bateson, who just stepped down as head of the Newsletter (Chandler High School); Carrie Deahl, Co-director of Diversity/Conference Proposal Committee (Maryvale High School); Renee Rude, NCTE & SCOA Representative/Maricopa Colleges Liaison (Chandler Gilbert Community College); Joann Martin, Treasurer & Metro Phoenix Regional Director (North High School); Duane Roen, ASU Poly Liaison (ASU); Lisa Ashley, Prescott and Verde Valley Regional Director/ Northern Arizona University Liaison (Prescott Middle School & Northern Arizona University); Stephanie Palenque, Grand Canyon University Liaison (Grand Canyon University); Lauren Spenceley, Arizona Department of Education Liaison (ADE); Sylvia Vega, who just stepped down as the head of Teachers as Writers (Central Arizona College); Evette Romero, Southeastern Arizona Liaison (San Manuel Jr. High); Sarah Wilson, Diné Nation Liaison (Ganado High School); Lisa Morris-Wilkey, Kat Stokes, Charter and Private School Regional Director (Valley Lutheran High School); and Traci Avalos, Scottsdale School District Liaison (Ingleside Middle School).