For Breanna Aivazian, a chance to save money on college by living at home felt like a gift to her future self.
For Byanca Leyva, a meaningful job at her high school alma mater felt too good to pass up.
Aivazian and Leyva are just two among dozens of Fresno State alumni this fall who have landed new jobs teaching English and language arts at area high schools. Aivazian teaches freshmen and juniors at Clovis East High School, and Leyva teaches sophomores at McLane High School.
They are among a steady stream of newly minted Fresno State graduates each year who earn a single subject teaching credential in English, and then within a year find themselves immersed in the day-to-day life of a high school classroom, doing the job they’ve trained for.
“Usually, they all get jobs right away,” said Dr. Alison Mandaville, a professor of English who serves as faculty adviser for the English credential program.
Although there were only 18 credential graduates in 2019-20 — “it was a weird spring,” Mandaville said, due to the coronavirus pandemic — the program typically graduates 30 to 40 credentialed English teachers each year. Area school districts remain eager to scoop them up.
Some students, like Aivazian, come to the English credential program through other majors. Most students, like Leyva, come through the undergraduate English education major.
Born and raised in Fresno, Aivazian said she sees herself living and teaching in the Central Valley “forever.” She appreciated the chance to stay close to home while affordably putting herself through college and starting her career. “My future self is very thankful for the decision,” she said.
As an undergrad, Aivazian wasn’t sure yet what grade level or subject she ultimately wanted to teach, so she majored in liberal studies through the Kremen School, before pursuing the English credential.
“I’ve known since a young age that I wanted to be in the field of education,” Aivazian said. “I wanted to be able to explore different options before making a decision.”
Aivazian received several scholarships from the Armenian Studies Program that supported her undergraduate work. She took four “invaluable” Armenian Studies culture and language courses as part of her electives.
“Being Armenian, it was, and still is, important that I educate myself on the rich history of my people,” she said. “I am very thankful to have had that opportunity.”
Aivazian last year completed the student teaching component of her credential program at Clovis East High, leading to a full-time job there. She said “it feels very full-circle” to be teaching English in Clovis Unified, the same district as her alma mater, Buchanan High School.
Aivazian said the focused time in the credential program — spent working closely with her mentor teachers, department teachers and school site administration, during her student teaching and classroom observations — was meaningful to her professional development and also crucial to getting a quick employment offer.
“I treated every single day like it was a job interview,” she said, “and I got hired at the school where I student-taught.”
Mandaville said Aivazian is a “passionate and dedicated” educator who caught the attention of her assigned school’s administrators right away. She said that type of scenario tends to repeat itself as students like Aivazian progress toward their credential.
“Our students go from being ‘good students’ who like reading and writing, to being creative and active learners who realize they can be leaders in, not just recipients of, their educations,” she said.
Mandaville explained that the meta-cognitive work that English credential candidates and English education majors do — that is, learning and thinking about how and why they learn and think — is immediately transformative for many students. They get a chance to consider their own histories as readers and writers, and they appreciate the power that language and the language arts can have in people’s lives.
“They also think about learning from the other side,” Mandaville said. “They are given permission to critique not only the texts they are reading, but the ways in which they are being taught and have been taught. That literacy, and especially critical literacy, can be a part of making change in the world, in addressing issues of equity. That’s really powerful.”
Aivazian credits Mandaville — who received a 2019-20 Outstanding Advisor Award from the University — for having a big influence on her in the credential program. “I learned so many useful strategies from Dr. Mandaville that I apply in my own classroom today,” she said.
One activity Aivazian regularly uses with her own students is the creation of comic strips and graphic storyboards in order to summarize texts. This approach comes directly from Mandaville, who regularly teaches with graphic novels and other visual texts.
Student teaching taught Aivazian the importance of relationship building and creating a positive classroom culture. “Every student needs to feel safe, valued and respected in order for learning to take place,” she said. “It is so important to cultivate this culture of trust very early on in the school year.”
Aivazian said she tries to make conversation with her students every chance she gets, especially in a time dominated by remote instruction. It makes students feel important when they are able to share things about themselves and what they enjoy, she said.
“At the start of every class, I pose a fun question to everyone and have them respond to it in the chat box,” Aivazian said. “It’s usually something as silly as, ‘If you could ask your pet one question, and they would respond, what would you ask them?’ Relationship building like this has been a little more difficult with virtual learning, but I still make the time to make it work.”
Aivazian calls Dr. Barlow der Mugrdechian, a Fresno State professor of Armenian studies, an “amazing professor” and a master at building relationships with students. She also credits him for introducing her to the works of the late William Saroyan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Armenian American author and Fresno native, who was one of the most prominent international literary figures of the mid-20th century.
“I would love to incorporate a text by William Saroyan into our reading list,” she said. “I have a poster of Saroyan up in my classroom.”
Also born and raised in Fresno, Leyva’s deep connection to her Fresno Unified alma mater, McLane High, played a major role in her decision to attend Fresno State and study English education.
Leyva decided to stay local for college and “become part of the Fresno State family” when she got a job working for the after-school program at McLane right out of high school. A patchwork of federal and state grants, as well as a Dan Van Dyke scholarship for community service, provided her with full financial support.
She remembers feeling excited to work at McLane and to immediately give back to her community there, but she hasn’t always been sure about majoring in English. After years of disliking English classes, Leyva credits her 12th grade English teacher, Robert Hayes, for turning around her experience — by making learning fun and relevant, and by implementing choice in the classroom. Hayes later became her mentor teacher and is now her colleague.
“It only took one teacher to make me see things differently and motivate me to continue learning, growing and succeeding,” Leyva said. “Mr. Hayes was a huge inspiration to me, and he’s the reason why I decided to become an English education major.”
Mandaville said Leyva was a “truly amazing” student and student teacher at Fresno State. Like many students, Leyva started out in the major because she loved reading and writing herself. Students often attribute that love to a secondary school English teacher, Mandaville said, “someone who helped them feel their words and voices mattered.”
“As they move through our program, they begin to see how they can be that teacher for others,” Mandaville said, “and that they can, through literacy work, be agents for empowering others.”
Repaying the communities they grew from by serving them, like Leyva is doing, becomes perhaps the most powerful drive behind their education.
“Many of our students are first-generation college students and have seen firsthand the difference in opportunities they have through education,” Mandaville said. “They want to give back to their communities — and they do.”
Leyva also credits Mandaville as a big influence while studying at Fresno State, pushing her to achieve her full potential while gently but firmly “calling her out” when she fell behind on her work.
“Dr. Mandaville was the one adviser who always encouraged me to follow through and commit to my career goal,” Leyva said. “She was also the only faculty member that I felt believed in me from the moment I became an English education major, all the way until I reached my goal of becoming a teacher.”
Leyva said juggling school, work, student teaching and family responsibilities — including care for her younger school-age siblings — made it difficult to finish her credential. But after speaking with Mandaville, her student teaching coaches, and other mentor teachers, she decided she would not let any obstacles get in her way or break her.
“There was a point during the final stages of initial student teaching when I broke down and contemplated taking time off to gather myself,” Leyva said. “I needed to take a step back and breathe. I concluded that I needed to have patience with myself and keep pushing forward.”
Leyva said her student teaching experience last year was both rewarding and challenging. She had to learn and adapt quickly to multiple grade levels, schools and districts — working with freshmen and juniors at Clovis North High School in the fall, and then with seniors at McLane in the spring. Both experiences, she said, worked together to directly prepare her for the classroom.
“Luckily, I learned a lot about curriculum and most importantly, classroom management,” she said. “Teaching my awesome sophomores now at McLane, I’m loving every second of it.”