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Arizona Teacher of the Year still learning, after 23 years in the classroom

Arizona's Teacher of the Year, an ASU alum, says she's still learning the craft.
January 19, 2017

ASU grad ready to advocate for profession and spread the word about early literacy

Arizona’s Teacher of the Year for 2017 has been in the classroom for 23 years but is still learning the job.

Michelle Doherty, a first-grade teacher at Encanto Elementary School in central Phoenix, is a graduate of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

“You can’t ever master the craft because it’s always evolving,” said Doherty. “When I’ve had interns come in, I’ve learned something new. I’ve had student teachers— I’ve learned something new. I’m constantly reading, I’m constantly doing professional development and taking classes. That has never stopped.

“I’m always learning myself.”

Doherty won the Arizona Teacher of the Year honor recently from the Arizona Educational Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for excellence in preschool and K-12 public education. It’s considered the most prestigious honor a public school teacher in Arizona can receive, and Doherty will be in the competition for the national teacher of the year.

In addition to receiving a cash prize and professional development classes, the Teacher of the Year honoree travels to the White House, meeting the winners from other states, and around Arizona advocating for the teaching profession.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Doherty wants to get the message out about early literacy.

“I’ve taught kindergarten, first, second and third grades, and in the early years, literacy opens up understanding of other subjects,” she said.

Doherty teaches in the dual-language program at Encanto, which is in the Osborn Elementary School District. Students learn half the day in English and the other half in Spanish.

“Our focus is for them to be bilingual, biliterate and bicultural,” she said. “Being part of this program since 1998, I’ve had kids in seventh or eighth grade just come up to me and start talking to me in Spanish. Sometimes I cry because I saw where they came from, struggling with it.

“The power of another language is amazing.”

With Encanto’s immersion model, Doherty teaches two classes with a partner teacher — a total of 52 first-graders. On a recent morning, her group was lively, focused and enthusiastic.

First-grade teacher Michelle Doherty congratulates one of her students during a lesson on weather. Doherty plans to address the importance of early literacy during her time as Arizona Teacher of the Year. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“Get into your learning positions, friends!” Doherty told them as they began a lesson on weather. A few minutes later, one first-grader correctly described cause and effect — a rainy day will require the use of an umbrella.

“Bingo! Kiss your brain!” Doherty exclaimed, as the little girl smiled, kissed her fingertips and then tapped her forehead.

It’s an action that reinforces retention, Doherty explained later.

“It’s a way to solidify their understanding. It’s difficult for kids to truly understand some things, but when they have that motion, that contact, it does something and they’ll remember it much easier,” she said.

Doherty earned her bachelor’s degree from ASU in 1994 and her master’s degree five years later. That was before the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College offered the iTeachAZ residency program, in which teacher candidates spend a full academic year as a student teacher, taking their ASU classes at their schools.

“Having more on-the-job training time betters prepares you,” she said. “When I see the new teachers coming through, I think ‘I wish I had that opportunity to do that.’ ”

The first-graders realize that their teacher has been honored.

“I had them autograph my luncheon program. So now whenever I’m in the news they ask if I want their autograph again,” she said.

“I tell them, ‘I’m Teacher of the Year because of you.’ ”

Doherty is starting her year in the spotlight just as there has been heightened focus on the teaching profession in Arizona. Teachers are leaving the profession, and many schools have open positions. Teacher compensation has been an issue, with Gov. Doug Ducey using his “State of the State” address to declare, “It’s time for a raise for Arizona’s teachers.”

Doherty agrees.

“I’ve heard people say you don’t go into the field to make money. And that’s right. That’s not why we’re doing this. I’ve always felt that this was a calling,” she said.

“But I also pay for professional development out of my pocket to make myself the best I can be for the students. So some compensation would be wonderful, and pay raises would be great. There were eight years I didn’t have a pay raise. It’s not why I do the job, but it would be showing appreciation for what we do.

“Because what we do matters.”

Top photo: Michelle Doherty works with first-grader Nyiah Gomez on a lesson about weather at Encanto Elementary School in Phoenix. Doherty, an alumna of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, has been named the 2017 Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU program to help tackle the tough hurdles in renewable energy

ASU research uncovers problems, seeks solutions for green energy transition.
Massive German project makes clear the complexity of sustainability challenges.
January 20, 2017

Transitioning to a greener system has proved difficult around the world, but new, energy-focused PhD aims to create problem-solvers

The green energy story tends to be rosy: Costa Rica runs entirely on renewables! Portugal runs on wind for four days! Germany comes within 90 percent of its energy needs on a May day in 2016!

Is it all really that rosy? In a post-Paris agreement world, as countries pivot towards sun and wind power, what will the hurdles really look like?

They will be significant and often unforeseen, according to an essay published in Issues in Science and Technology by Christine Sturm, a PhD candidate in ASU’s School of Sustainability. “Germany’s energy transition is coming at a very high cost,” Sturm writes. “Energy systems are complex amalgams of technologies, institutions, markets, regulations and social arrangements. Nations have little experience intervening in such socio-technical systems.” 

But it’s exactly the kind of problem being tackled by the School of Sustainability with a new degree in sustainable energy slated to kick off in August.

“That’s the idea,” said Martin Pasqualetti, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “We’ll train PhDs who will work on this type of thing.”

Sturm, seeking her doctorate in sustainability, which has a broader scope than the sharp focus of sustainable energy, is a veteran of German energy. She has worked on market deregulation, as an industry spokesperson, and in several executive positions at RWE, Europe’s largest energy provider.

Germany is one of the first countries to make a concerted effort to go green, but it’s not on target to meet greenhouse gas emissions goals.

“Energiewende,” or “Energy Turnaround,” is a massive German project on the scale of the American New Deal or Soviet five-year plans, which began to turn German energy green in 1991. The goal? Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, without nukes but with affordable energy.

Ramping up to capacity, with huge public support, is a win. Exploding energy costs, failed policy tools like German and European Union trading plans, and reeling utility companies, coupled with a failure to meet goals, are the dark side.

“The major challenge for Energiewende-like programs is to integrate intermittent sources of power into existing energy systems,” Sturm said in the essay. “But despite all efforts to convert excess electrical power to hydrogen, methane, heat or other storable commodities, and despite all progress made in battery research, storing the electricity necessary to solve Germany’s intermittency problem remains technologically, economically and politically out of reach.”

Pasqualetti recognizes the challenge, calling the initiation of the PhD in sustainable energy “the most significant advancement we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Inherent in sustainable energy “is ‘energy transition,’” he said. “That’s what we’re working on.”

Pasqualetti studies energy as a social issue, the creation and reuse of energy landscapes, and public acceptance of renewable energy technology.

“We’re going to be a leading educational institution on this,” he said, citing classes on solar, algae, battery storage, wind and other renewables. “There’s a lot of interest from students in doing renewable work. They won’t all be PhDs.”

The biggest issue — and one that’s a universal problem for renewable energy — is intermittency. The wind doesn’t blow every day, nor does the sun appear every day. What do you do on still, overcast days?

“An optimist might declare that the very fact that Germany’s electricity grid has not collapsed must mean that the intermittency problem is well on the way to being solved,” Sturm said. “In reality, collapse has been averted only through two mechanisms that run directly counter to the goals of the Energiewende.”

Intermittency is balanced by running fossil power plants when conditions aren’t right for renewables. On sunny and windy days, Germany produced so much power it had to push the surplus on neighboring grids, disturbing their systems and creating additional costs. “Thus, these solutions are neither economically sustainable nor carbon-free,” Sturm wrote.

The solution doesn’t exist yet, but smart government is key to making a transition to green work, Pasqualetti said.

“Policy is very, very important in making this transition,” Pasqualetti said. “If you wait for the free market, you could be waiting forever. It’s very slow-going. You have to enstate policies to get you over that hump. No one wants to take the risk. So you give them a policy to invest in solar, or invest in wind or whatever, and they can make money.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News