Block by block, lesson by lesson, day by day, teachers build the foundation of students’ knowledge and character that carries them from childhood to adulthood. Now, after endeavoring to continue that work virtually during the pandemic, educators are beginning to re-enter the classroom with their students.
Preparing more of California’s teachers than any other institution, the CSU’s teacher preparation program helps ensure those instructors are equipped to provide that strong educational foundation. As we head into the new school year, we spoke with three teachers who earned their credentials at the CSU.
Eric Calderon-Phangrath Seventh-Grade Teacher, Fort Miller Middle School Fresno State, B.A. Liberal Studies ’17, Teaching Credential ’19, M.A. Special Education ’21
“I can have deep conversations with kids, and they can respond back with genuine responses—and that’s what I enjoy about middle school.”
The son of immigrants from Cambodia and Laos, Eric Calderon-Phangrath was only 16 years old when he enrolled in the liberal studies program at California State University, Fresno. “English was not my first language, I was young, I was a first-generation college student and my parents really didn’t know how to help navigate the college avenue for me,” he says. “So, it was a lot of figuring it out myself.”
Despite his uncertainty, Calderon-Phangrath already knew he wanted to be a teacher because of his experience in school and the support he received from his teachers.
“[My siblings and I] had teachers who would take us after school when our parents were still on the farm,” he says. “They would read stories with us or have us staple packets and keep us busy. They would essentially give us a space to stay until our parents could get home.”
With the help of campus advisors, Calderon-Phangrath mapped out a track to complete his undergraduate degree—a journey that took him 12 years to finish as he took off semesters here and there while he and his husband fostered and adopted their children. But it was his children who ultimately led him to become a special education teacher.
“I had the realization that I needed to be a better advocate for my own kids, because they have special needs,” Calderon-Phangrath explains. “What better way to advocate for your children than being in the classroom?”
His teaching career, however, actually began before completing his credential program, when his professors encouraged him to apply for a school district job immediately. Now he’s entering his fifth year of teaching and is currently a seventh-grade teacher at Fort Miller Middle School.
Working in the same school district he grew up in, Calderon-Phangrath is serving students who live in areas like his childhood neighborhood that have high drug use, gangs and violence. This shared experience allows him to have deep conversations with his students about how they can break those cycles and “change the trajectory of their lives.” And it’s making these connections with students in person again that he was most looking forward to as this new school year began.
“I can think back to the teachers who watched us after school that I had in second grade: Ms. Murray or Ms. Brannon or Ms. Toto,” Calderon-Phangrath recalls. “They were more than just our teachers, and I want to be able to give that to my students. I can check on their well-being when they’re here; I can make sure they’re fed and clothed. Yes, I’m looking forward to the kids coming in so I can teach them in person and give them support and accommodations. But it’s also making sure the students are OK.”
Stephanie Ortiz Fourth-Grade Teacher, Evergreen Elementary School CSU Bakersfield, B.A. Liberal Studies ’15, Teaching Credential ’15, M.A. Curriculum and Instruction ’19
“What I missed the most is being able to support all of my kids. Once I meet those kids in person, I already know what each kid needs. I don’t need a report card. I don’t need a grading system. I don’t need to look at their work to know where they’re at.”
Throughout Stephanie Ortiz’s journey to the classroom, she has kept coming back to her first- and second-grade teacher Mrs. Salazar and Evergreen Elementary School—where she attended school and now teaches.
It was Mrs. Salazar who wrote her recommendations to receive California State University, Bakersfield scholarships, and it was Evergreen where Ortiz tutored young students as a college sophomore. It was also Mrs. Salazar’s first-grade class at Evergreen where Ortiz started her student-teaching.
“My whole experience and my journey to being a teacher always called me back to my elementary school, and I’m still there,” Ortiz says. “I’ve always been a [Bakersfield City School District] kid, and I knew when I was starting my journey as a teacher, I always wanted to go back to BCSD because they made me successful. They were able to put me on this path to graduate high school and then graduate college.”
Ortiz also thought she wanted to teach first grade, until her initial time student-teaching. She then began student-teaching with Evergreen’s fourth-grade teacher and realized she enjoyed the older grade. Following that experience, the fourth-grade teacher changed roles and Ortiz applied to the position and was offered the job.
She’s now entering her seventh year teaching and works with students who come from similar backgrounds as hers. As a Mexican American and a daughter of immigrants, she finds she can understand the challenges her students face coming from Spanish-speaking households.
“I’m able to relate to them because this was my journey, this was my school. I finished school here, and then I went to Sequoia and then I went to West High,” Ortiz says. “I tell them, ‘It’s possible for you to end up where you want to be—if you want to become a teacher, a vet, a doctor, whatever you want to do, whatever path you want to take.’ … I feel really lucky that I’m able to connect to a lot of these families, as a first-generation college student, and set that example for these kids.”
Ortiz also works as an inclusion teacher, which means she has students in her class who have individualized education programs or are classified as requiring special education. But when the district transitioned to virtual learning and then hybrid learning during COVID-19, these students were moved into a separate class.
As her district returns to in-person, Ortiz was ready to have all her students together again. “I was looking forward to being back with them, having that human interaction and being able to build relationships with them,” she says. “Because not many of our kids come from good home lives, they come with challenges. We have foster kids. We have kids who don’t feel like they’re cared for at home or have other challenges they’re facing. Building that little environment, that little safe space for them is great, and they always thrive in that kind of environment.”
Nagel Flores First-Grade Teacher, Baldwin Stocker Elementary School Cal State LA, M.S. Mental Health Counseling ’16; CalStateTEACH, Teaching Credential ’20
“I really like going through the day, spending time with the students and interacting with each of them individually. Each of them has such a unique personality, and I really enjoy that.”
First-year teacher Nagel Flores had spent plenty of time in the classroom before earning his teaching credential through CalStateTEACH and accepting his first full-time teaching position. After working as a school counselor to help students who needed extra behavioral support, he switched to substitute teaching in 2018, when he taught students of various grades and need levels.
“After a while I was like, ‘Hey, you know what? I want to be a teacher, too,’” Flores says. “I looked online to see what programs would help me as a full-time substitute teacher, but also acquire the multiple subject credential. So, I found CalStateTEACH, and I really liked the program because it was all online and it allowed me to work during the day.”
Thanks to that flexibility, he continued working in a substitute capacity while completing the program, serving as a long-term substitute for a transitional kindergarten class through spring 2021 after graduation.
In addition, the program’s blend of mentorship opportunities, academic resources and student teaching prepared him to enter the classroom. “All these things coming together really made me a more equipped educator,” Flores says. “Especially because CalStateTEACH, too, is very technology heavy, where they make you do a lot of assignments that require some experience and understanding of technology—whether that be for assessing students, making resources more accessible to parents or just how to make it more transformative and integrated for the students.”
The technological skills became especially helpful as he taught both virtual and hybrid classes during the pandemic.
“Some families felt more comfortable staying at home, but that didn’t mean that they were going to get left behind, because it’s all about equity,” he explains. “If some students wanted to stay home and some students wanted to come back in person, it’s still the same level of quality in education that you’re providing to both parties.”
But with the return to the classroom this school year, Flores was particularly looking forward to opening day procedures, especially as it was his first day as a full-time teacher. “As a sub, it would be the teacher setting those foundations and the classroom management style, but now I get to be that teacher,” he says. “I’m in that position now, and I get to teach them how to walk in lines, how to play on the playground and how to interact with their peers.”
“It comes down to being with the students; that’s the main reason why I became a teacher in the first place. And I just want to see how I can help develop each and every one of my students.”