Learning Happens Here

The UAFS Teaching Apprenticeship Program Breaks New Ground


After carrying out a unique program during an unprecedented year, two new UAFS graduates are full-fledged second-year teachers at Spradling Elementary.


Merary Ramirez with studentsMerary Ramirez and Kyle Bates, spring 2020 grads who were Arkansas’ first paid teaching apprentices, are a couple of months into a new year of teaching after completing their first year by overseeing remote learning for their young students.


The apprenticeship concept arose when Dr. Martin Mahan, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Fort Smith Public Schools, began brainstorming about paid internships for new teachers. He had an able brainstorming partner in Dr. Monic Riley, executive director of the UAFS School of Education. 


They pulled together a task force of university students and faculty and representatives from the school district and created a template. From there, they went to the Arkansas Department of Education and received a waiver renewable for five years. 


A perfect trial opportunity came open at Spradling. The teacher in one of two third-grade classes left, and the other teacher, Courtney Burdick, was willing to step out of direct teaching to become a mentor teacher. That opened the way for Ramirez and Bates.


Typically, student interns begin a semester observing a teacher. Eventually, they have the chance to teach a class or two. Sometime around the middle of the semester, they take control of the class for a couple of weeks, and then they begin to return the class to the original teacher. 


Ramirez and Bates were in full charge of their classrooms from the first day with Burdick’s counsel. To compensate for their greater responsibilities, the two apprentices split the salary of a first-year teacher.


The pilot program was a success, but it wasn’t always tidy.Kyle Bates


“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” Dawson said. “We’re learning by doing, and you have to be willing to let things get messy because it is going to pay off down the road.”


By the spring semester, both the college students and the elementary students were doing well. 


The apprentices benefitted from on-the-spot training, Burdick said. Her relationship with them is unlike that of other mentors and new teachers.


 “I’m the little fly that’s always there when they need me. At a moment’s notice, I can say, “This is what you need to do. I need you to change this quickly.”


Burdick said the apprentices have “classroom management skills beyond a second- or third-year teacher’s. They have excellent management skills, curriculum understanding, and overall professionalism. I feel confident about them as second-year teachers.”


Burdick is equally confident about the third graders because of the Spradling Team Assessment Reporting System that indicates the students “are hitting their goals” in math, reading, and writing.


Burdick herself underwent assessment too. A UAFS 2016 graduate, she is on track to complete her master’s in educational leadership through an online program at Arkansas State University. Like her apprentices, she looked forward to a May graduation. Her “in-field experiences” this year have correlated effectively with her studies. 


If there is one thing that everyone involved with the project agrees on, it is that the right people have to be in the right spots for this to work. 


“I asked the principals if they would be willing to try something like this in their schools,” Mahan said. “Ms. Dawson was very proactive in reaching out to me. We also needed to have the right mentor teacher, someone who was willing to step out of the classroom for a year and be a mentor. The lead teacher had to be someone who wanted to do it and was qualified.”


Dawson echoed him.


“For this to thrive, the administrator of the building and the mentor teacher have to have the right mindset,” she said. “Because these are not first-year teachers, and they don’t know what they don’t know. So the mentor has to be willing to serve; that’s what the position is about. Now you have two classrooms and two other adults you’re in charge of on top of all the kids. You need to have a desire to lead and to serve.”


The apprentice teachers have to be the right candidates, too, and Ramirez and Bates are the first to say so. They are especially concerned about the possibility someone might accept an apprenticeship and then not finish the year. 


“If you give up …,” Bates said.


“You’re messing with children’s futures!” Ramirez completed the thought. 


Riley is happy enough with the pilot to want to see it extended to other school districts.


“I hope this becomes a state model,” she said. “I think there is an opportunity for that, and I think it widens the pool of people willing to teach. We have students who are responsible financially for themselves or their families, and we tell them that for their last semester, they need to quit work and put in 40 hours a week in an unpaid internship. That’s a step out they just can’t make. But with a paid apprenticeship, it becomes a more realistic goal.”


UAFS graduates about 100 students a year, and they go to work in 22 different schools in the region. She’d like to see the apprenticeship program offered in all of them. 


It appears that all interested parties in Fort Smith are please with the experiment: Ramizer and Bates have been hired as second year teachers at Spradling who have already accrued retirement benefits for one year. 


Explaining her decision, Dawson said, “Due to the apprenticeship partnership with the Department of Higher Education, UAFS, and FSPS, these two young professionals had a unique opportunity to work as a first-year teacher under the covering of a fully certified mentor. They spent a year in an intensive program to learn best practices of the teaching profession. With the heavily scaffolded support with a gradual release, these two young educators bloomed into amazing teachers. When the opportunity arose to bring them on as full-time staff, I jumped at the opportunity. I was fully aware of their strengths and wanted to continue to have them serve students at Spradling!”


Dr. Monica Riley

“The strong piece for us is the mentor piece. The two interns are not alone. They have a lot of support, and that is making a difference in their experience.”



Merary Ramirez

“What surprised me the most is how deeply you begin to feel for the kids. If you are with them for months you get to watch them grow. I didn’t know I would feel it this strongly.”



Kyle Bates

“I didn’t know how all-consuming this job is. With some jobs, when you clock out for the day, you’re done. I am constantly thinking about school. I dream about learning outcomes; I have nightmares about things that can go wrong. When I’m with other people, my mind wanders to school, and they have to call me back.”