Maria Alvarado may be a new teacher, but she knows Maricopa Unified School District inside and out. She started preschool at MUSD and graduated from Maricopa High School in 2013.
“I think it’s a unique perspective going from a student in this school district to being a teacher,” she said. “It’s very different.”
She said as a student she didn’t understand what was happening behind the scenes at school, how much concern the teachers had for the students and “how everything works.”
Coming back, she said, it has been interesting being on the flipside of the coin, “to be the one responsible for my kiddoes.”
In her second-grade classroom at Santa Rosa Elementary, the motto has been “We learn from our mistakes.” That has even expanded to “We learn from each other’s mistakes” as they work together to learn the material.
Alvarado returned to MUSD after college for a semester of student teaching at Maricopa Elementary School at the end the 2017. When a full-time, real-deal teaching position opened in the middle of the school year, she landed the job. She replaced a second-grade teacher at Santa Rosa in January 2018.
“That was a toughie,” she recalled. “They had their own system going when I got there.”
Her dream was to teach fourth or fifth grade, so she was uncertain about taking on second grade, where some of the students did not yet know how to read or were limited in their ability. A year into her teaching career, she has determined her students should be able to read on their own by second semester if they were going to have any chance of success as third graders.
“My second graders are on their own right now. First quarter, I’m done reading to them. That was a struggle when I took over half-year. So many of my kids were not there. Now that I’ve had them myself for a whole year, I feel more comfortable with where they are.
“One of my kiddoes came in with eight words. He still fluctuates, but he’s between 60 and 80 words a minute. That’s just a huge jump.”
“Ms. Alvarado’s sheer excitement about students reading is enough to make anyone believe in public education,” Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said. “She inspires students and peers alike to adopt a life-long love of learning.”
Alvarado was 3 when her parents, Salvador and Adriana, moved to the rural area south of Maricopa. In third grade, she was a student at Santa Rosa herself. Her long-range goal now is to become a principal.
“Her value is not just in her influence on her students,” Lopeman said. “Ms. Alvarado’s history with the district is unique; she’s homegrown MUSD. She has watched and been part of the evolution of this district since she was a child and is the bridge to maintaining the spirit of MUSD and moving us into the future.”
A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Alvarado had been planning to be a pediatrician since she was in middle school. Schoolteacher? Not on the list. There was no history of teachers in her immediate family, but she tutored in high school and understood at that time she liked teaching.
The mother of the student she was tutoring called her to thank her for the work she had been doing. “She was telling me, ‘Thank you so much. My son went from a D student to B’s.’ She was ecstatic. She was crying and really emotional. It was like a really good feeling.”
At NAU, Alvarado was taking classes toward becoming a pediatrician and was earning a 4.0 grade point average. She started tutoring a roommate majoring in chemistry and realized she was not only good at teaching but really enjoyed it.
Sharing her mixed feelings with her counselor, she was encouraged to enroll in a “Teaching Math and Science” course. That required creating lesson plans and learning how children learn. She was soon convinced she needed to change her major.
“I called my mom, and she was upset. She started talking about, ‘This is your dream. Think about how much more money you’re going to be making.’ She made me cry because she was being realistic.”
Then she called her father. “I was more scared of my dad. And my dad stayed quiet. And then he goes, ‘Yeah, I knew since you were little you were going to be a teacher.’”
Student teachers are not paid, so it was practicality that moved her to take the post with MUSD so she could live at home. To then be hired was a matter of getting “lucky twice,” she said.
Though her early study had been related to middle and high school students, she soon switched her interest to K-5.
“A lot of the concepts I was asked to understand as a middle schooler I was lacking on foundational skills that should have been taught in lower grades,” Alvarado said. “I felt like if I started at middle school with these kids, I wasn’t making the biggest difference and making sure they understood those foundational things.”
While still learning the best teaching practices herself, Alvarado said what happens in the classroom goes beyond books and computers.
“The hardest part is teaching them the things that technically we don’t go to school to learn, like confidence, how to be proud of your own self and your own work. That boosts you to keep trying.”
She tells of giving her students a question on a practice test that had most of her students choosing Part A and only four choosing Part B, the correct answer.
“And one of them wanted to move over. I said, ‘You need to be careful. Are you going to follow everybody or are you going to pick your answer because you know that’s what you think is right?’”
Alvarado said that is a dilemma for students even in upper grades, the need to “go with the flow” even when they know the facts.
Her students have fluctuated in number between 19 and 24. They have taught her it’s possible to be lively and energetic about anything, and there is plenty of movement going on in Ms. Alvarado’s classroom.
Her second graders also like to be empowered to create their own goals and ideas of how the class will reach those goals. As they prepared for the School City test, the students came up with methods to review.
“I’ve never been so proud of a person as I am proud of my kids,” she said. “Sometimes I feel I’m being too mean or holding them to too high of expectations, but, when I see it pay off over time, I know I’m not.”
This story appears in the May issue of InMaricopa.