Mike Vargas Life in the Classroom, Mentoring, Professional Development, Science, Teacher Leadership, Uncategorized

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I have a student teacher this semester. His name is Brandon and he is currently the only student teacher for Physics in the state of Arizona. Like the last Jedi, he has the force inside of him to do good, or in Physics speak we would say he has mass and is accelerating in the right direction.   It was by a shear miracle that he landed at our school, and it has been an incredible last 12 weeks working with this young man. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about hosting and training a student teacher, but it was a learning experience for both of us that I will remember. As you could imagine, student teachers in my discipline are rare, like golden polka dotted unicorn rare. To be able to host one was an insight into how our system handles student teachers in rare disciplines. From what I have learned student teaching programs are universal, one size fits all, and that bothers me.

Student teaching involves serious amounts of lesson planning at the expense of learning the hard lessons, such as how to discipline an unruly, disengaged classroom, how to tell a meaningful story the students could relate to, and most importantly how to handle tough parents with grace. I can tell you right now, if I was in charge I would make a lot of changes to how these programs are preparing folks. I mean why aren’t there classes on how to grade, public speak, problem solve, discipline, and prepare for the daily grid of the teaching world? Balancing 180 lab books to grade, while planning and delivering a meaningful lesson that covers the state standards and responding to a late-night email from a colleague or parent is like riding a skateboard and juggling at the same time, impossible, yet expected.

I guess maybe to a certain extent we don’t want to scare new recruits and expose them to just how hard this job really is. But don’t we want quality? Shouldn’t we expect quality? In my case, at least I was lucky I was given a trooper who knew what he was getting himself into and was eager to accept the challenge, which he succeed with flying colors. I can’t say that about some of the other student teachers I have seen pass through our halls over the years. I would hope that student teaching programs statewide start taking the initiative to make student teachers more prepared, if not for our education system, at least for our students.

In my blog this month, Brandon has very graciously agreed to be interviewed. Thanks again for the honesty and insights, Brandon!


 Me: Why do you want to teach?

Brandon: To keep it brief, I entered college to pursue a degree in Physics. I planned from the beginning to become an engineer (or something of the like), but moved towards teaching with the different teachers, internships, and work experiences I came across. In the last 3 years, the internships I took on in different schools convinced me more and more that I had a passion for teaching.

Me: What has been your toughest challenge this semester?

Brandon: The toughest challenge has been to keep my students engaged. I don’t see myself as a boring teacher, but my experience has shown me that any lecture to a freshman is not as effective as having them conduct experiments, make discoveries on their own, and come to me with their own questions. There is little exception to this in my mind. It is easy to withdraw to a lecture form of instruction if when you feel out of your comfort zone in front of a classroom.

Me: Do you think you were prepared for this semester?

Brandon: I was prepared enough for what you could prepare for. In all my classes, there was no time spent to practice classroom management and leading instruction–at least not beyond articles, classroom discussions, and idealized lesson plans. These tools gave me a solid skeleton to dive into my first semester, and I’ve felt prepared for this semester–for the parts you can prepare for. Any unpredictable experience from scheduled IEP and 504 meetings to the regular irregularities that happen in a normal class day are things you need to learn through experience. There’s no proven way of preparing for those experiences without just getting your first exposure to them through student teaching.

Me: What advice would you give another student teacher before they start their semester?

Brandon: Get your money’s worth and do everything you can! You are entering the last semester. You have another person in the room with you (expectedly), and the first year you get to write the lesson plans and run things your way. You will not get a perfect semester, so you shouldn’t be afraid to learn as much as you can from the mistakes made during student teaching. Your mentor teacher is there to give you the final push into running your own classroom, and you need to prepare yourself for running the show on your own–because your student teaching is not going to be the only awkward year. I hear I won’t figure everything out until my 3rd year of teaching at best, purely because (again) a lot of these things are learned through experience.

Me: How does it feel to be one of Arizona’s only Physics Student teachers?

Brandon: I certainly hope I’m not the only one. I didn’t expect there to be an abundant amount of aspiring physics and math teachers. Those degrees are needed in every industry, and it sucks that teaching doesn’t pay nearly as well as most other opportunities. I’m staying optimistic, and hope that everyone can agree we need to get more teachers in Arizona. We need to find ways to get more teachers to come from out of state (I came from California). We’ll never get all the teachers our state needs, but we can push to strengthen the flow of STEM teachers that come to work in Arizona.

Me: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Brandon: I plan to do much more than teach–my goal as an educator is to bring education to those who need it most, starting with what I can manage right now. I have a lot to learn before I can start making changes that I would like to see in our schools and look forward to what I’ll accomplish in the years to come.


Thank You to Brandon and Diane for your help with this piece this month!


My name is Mike Vargas. I am a proud recipient of the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year award and I am a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. I earned my undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University where I was Vice – President of the Associated Students, a recipient of the Gold Axe, and President’s Prize awards. I am an advocate for physics first instruction and I am leading a movement to double the current number of physics teachers in Arizona in the next 5 years. I teach high school physics at Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Comments 6

  1. Diane

    Michael, well put. Training future teachers should be thorough and the programs they go through should constantly be revamping in order to build confident leaders of future classrooms. Great interview with Brandon..

  2. Yolanda Wheelington

    Thank you for sharing this article. I have had the privilege of hosting several student teachers. I agree with you that often the lessons they need to learn the most are not the ones being addressed in their program. In response, I exposed them to these areas as often as possible and helped them find their own styles and voice. Thankfully, they are still teaching.

  3. Donnie Lee

    You know one question I would love to ask him is how would his experience in your classroom be different if he hadn’t attended ANY education courses and only did physics specific content courses? He mentions being prepared enough but what would be his preparedness without those courses.

    1. Leah Clark

      I love this question! While our content classes are necessary, I believe education classes are necessary to a teacher’s success in a classroom. Without education classes as a foundation for management, assessment, and curriculum planning, we are short changing our students of our beloved contents. It’s incredible to believe that we can solve our teacher shortage by giving teaching jobs to people who have zero educational backgrounds and that our kids will be successful learners. SMH.

  4. Beth Maloney

    Sounds like the next generation of advocates is being home-grown, Mike! I love this story of hope for our students and our profession. Now, I’m going to go find that golden polka-dotted unicorn!

  5. Lisa Moberg

    It was great to hear from a student teacher- thanks for publishing his voice. Having hosted student teachers from various colleges and universities, I would also say that some are waaaaay more extensive in their teacher preparation than others. This is an area that our state should focus on creating norms of excellence and consistency.

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