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Rodel program comes full circle for education graduate

February 10, 2009

Sir Isaac Newton attributed his contributions to humanity to “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The Rodel Exemplary Teacher Initiative has given one Arizona State University graduate, who “stood on the shoulders” of a fellow ASU alumnus as he prepared to enter the teaching profession, the chance to make the same impact on a new crop of future teachers.

Al Schwalm and Ray Thomas are both fifth-grade teachers at Cordova Middle School in the Alhambra Elementary School District. As Schwalm was pursuing his bachelor’s degree through ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (CTEL), he was selected as a Rodel Promising Student Teacher for the spring semester in 2005. The designation meant that Schwalm would be placed with an outstanding mentor designated by the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona as an Exemplary Teacher. That mentor was Thomas, a 1999 CTEL graduate.

Now Schwalm has been selected as one of 17 Rodel Exemplary Teachers for 2009. The group was honored at a Feb. 5 awards banquet.

Schwalm becomes Arizona’s first teacher to complete the circle from Promising Student Teacher to Exemplary Teacher in the Rodel program. This fall he will welcome a Promising Student Teacher into his classroom; five more will follow over a three-year period.

“I am delighted to see that one of our first Rodel Graduates rose to the top in the search for 2009 Rodel Exemplary Teachers,” says Carol Peck, president and CEO of the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona. “Our team was impressed with Al’s teaching skills, student engagement and potential to mentor the next generation of teachers.”

At Cordova Middle School, Schwalm and Thomas often collaborate to inspire their students, many of whom come from low-income families. Among their myriad projects, Schwalm and Thomas initiated a “News on the Air” program in which students produce a video announcement and news program for the school. This project gives students experience researching and writing scripts, shooting and editing video and producing newscasts.

Schwalm serves as an inspiration to those considering a mid-career move into the teaching profession; he began his quest for a teaching degree in his early 40s after many years in manufacturing. “I actually went back to school to learn technology, but I found that I was much more interested in watching my instructors teach,” he says. “Observing how they designed lessons and conveyed information was fascinating to me.”

Schwalm says that when Rodel Foundation representatives visited ASU to explain the Teacher Initiative to CTEL students, he knew immediately that he wanted to participate. “The opportunity to student teach with the best of the best was one that I relished. Ray Thomas gave me an education that I know most would not have the opportunity to receive,” Schwalm says.

Thomas describes the semester he served as Schwalm’s student-teaching mentor as a fantastic experience. “Al was a natural,” Thomas says. “He focused in on students who were challenging and worked to find ways to engage them in learning. He sought feedback and was eager to try out new things.”

“We are proud to count these two outstanding teachers as members of CTEL’s alumni family,” says Mari Koerner, dean of CTEL. “While talented educators often move away from teaching in urban school districts, Al and Ray are dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children who don’t have some of the advantages of kids in higher-income neighborhoods. They do so by having high expectations for themselves and their students – a value we strive to instill in all CTEL graduates.”

The Rodel Exemplary Teacher Initiative specifically targets high-needs schools. Exemplary Teachers chosen through a rigorous selection process are awarded $10,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds in return for their commitment to mentor six Promising Student Teachers. The student teachers selected for the program in Maricopa, Pima and Coconino counties receive supplemental training from Rodel staff members that addresses the challenges of teaching in high-poverty schools and focuses on practical strategies for increasing student achievement. SRP and JPMorgan Chase have been supporting partners with Rodel, helping to name individual Exemplary Teachers and Promising Teachers.

“The Exemplary Teacher Initiative is having a tremendous impact in getting talented, dedicated teachers into high-needs schools, one classroom at a time,” Koerner says. “CTEL students, faculty and staff are honored to participate in the program.”

As for Schwalm and Thomas, both maintain an allegiance to CTEL. Thomas went on to earn a master’s degree from CTEL, while Schwalm speaks of the “all-encompassing” preparation he received while pursuing his bachelor’s degree. “Instructors were able to combine research-based content with their own experiences to make courses applicable to what could be expected in a classroom today. When I speak with colleagues from other teaching programs, they are amazed at the depth of instruction that CTEL provided for me,” Schwalm says.

CTEL, through collaboration with educational and civic communities, prepares and inspires innovative educators to be leaders who apply evidence-based knowledge that positively impacts students, families, and the community. Under a recent reorganization proposal awaiting a recommendation by ASU’s University Senate and approval by the Arizona Board of Regents, CTEL will take the lead in offering teacher preparation programs on all four ASU campuses. Visit for more information about CTEL’s offerings for current and future teachers.

The Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona, established in 1999, is not a traditional grant-making foundation. Instead, the Foundation enables a team of leaders, concerned citizens and key educators, working in partnership with others, to bring about greatness in Arizona’s public schools. More information is available at