Saturday, July 1, 2017

Alternative Certification Paths

We need alternative paths to the classroom.

Mind you, we don't need paths that are shortcuts. We don't need an alternative path that is just a five week long truncated training that wouldn't prepare a camp counselor for a summer with jumpy ten year olds. We don't need alternative paths used by charter operators to train people to fill their own charter openings with not-too-qualified bodies. And we definitely don't need the alternative path, favored by more and more states, that is no path at all, but just dumping someone into a classroom when her only qualification is a college degree and a pulse.

Most of the alternative paths in use these days are intended to help businesses fill openings or to help politicians look like they are addressing the teacher "shortage" (a shortage that is really a lack of willingness to do what it takes to make teaching more appealing work).

These alternative paths are bad-- bad for the profession, bad for the people who follow them, bad for the schools where those "teachers" end up working.

But it would also be a mistake to suggest that if you didn't decide to pursue a teaching degree when you were nineteen or twenty, the window has closed and you can never choose teaching as a career.

Nor is it reasonable to expect a later-in-life career switcher to somehow navigate a traditional teacher education program while still supporting herself or her family.

So what would a real alternative certification path for career-changers need to look like?

* Some standard of content knowledge. Yes, even if you're a former astrophycisist who wants to teach first grade. Knowing content well enough to use it in your profession, and knowing it well enough to explain it to young humans are two different things. Maybe more than two.

* Study of developmental psychology. Explaining astrophysics to other astrophysicians is not like explaining anything to small humans. Nor are the behavioral patterns of young humans the same as those of adults. You cannot match your expectations to reality if you don't know anything about reality.

* An understanding of assessment and all the arcane arts of number-crunching involved in assessment.

* Some sort of exposure to the Big Questions of Education. A requirement to reflect and consider what we do, why we do it, and what all that means for how we do it. Look-- you're not leaning how to be a garage mechanic.

* An  introduction to the ins and outs of record keeping and ridiculous education regulation. This is one area where the career-changers previous experience with red tape and bureaucratic baloney will be helpful, as there will be no youthful idealism to scrub away.

* Field experience. This is perhaps the hardest thing to work in, because people seeking a career change cannot necessarily afford a five or ten or fifteen week span in which they earn no income. But getting classroom experience with live students is critical-- perhaps even more critical with older candidates for the classroom who can make the mistake of thinking "I can run meetings with thirty employees, so how hard can it be to handle a room full of eighth graders?"  A strong field experience is important not just in preparing the neo-teacher, but also in helping that neo-teacher decide if she's made a huge mistake.

I can't find many figures on retention of alternative certificate teachers, and what I do find lumps starter-alt-certs like Teach for America together with later-in-life career changers. I can offer the anecdotal observation that in PA, where we offered guest teacher certificates for any career-changers who want to become substitutes, more than half quit, largely because managing a classroom turned out to be far more difficult than they thought. Students are not paid to be your subordinates.

That's why a long, solid field experience is important-- you have to be in that classroom long enough for the shine of newness to wear off.

That's a broad sketch of the bare minimum, and we could get into more specifics, but the bottom line here is that just because you're a grown-up with a college degree doesn't mean a few quick chats will make you fit for a classroom. There should be a path for career-changers, but not short cuts.


  1. I still think some kind of class in general psychology and sociology is important if you've never had one, and some kind of class where you discuss classroom management, though that could be part of a teaching methods class specific to your field, which is also necessary. These seem much more important to me than a class on the "Big Questions", though that could also be folded into methods, and a class in sociology would be good background material for that. Assessments should be part of the methods class, which should perhaps actually be a two semester course. These also seem to me more important than content, because if you know enough of the content in your field to exercise a profession, what will help you understand how to teach it are the developmental psychology and methods classes. You never used to need a class to teach about how to record-keep for all the educational regulations crap. Maybe that could be done in professional development sessions, especially since they seem to change all the time.

  2. What you are describing is pretty much exactly what my post-bacc initial licensure program at the University of Minnesota put me through when I switched lanes from engineering to education. It took me 18 months (including student teaching and picking up some modern physics that my engineering majors had not required).
    I whined and grumbled about it constantly at the time, but I doubt I could have ever made it as a teacher without the background in ed psych, assessment, educational philosophy and most importantly the many in-classroom experiences I was offered.

  3. I came into teaching via the alt-cert path. I had an advantage as I had an M.Div degree and had studied childhood development, etc. as a part of my seminary courses. but I was still unprepared for dealing with the actual classroom in an urban poverty setting. Fortunately, the grant program I had signed up for provided a retired principal as a mentor, who came, observed, and gave me a lot of great advice. I survived and now some would say thrive. The thing about that mentor program? It was only to help me. No paperwork needed, no pre and post conferences, no data analysis: two people working together, one with experience and one without, to mold a new teacher. These days, in my district, the mentoring program is run by TNTP consultants with all kinds of paperwork required and mentors have to report on their meetings with new teachers, what those new teachers are doing wrong, and what they should change. HA! How did a supportive relationship between two teachers turn into one where the district assigns a snitch to watch someone new and report? And they wonder why few people choose to teach anymore.

  4. I came to teaching the alternative way. I'm 60 years young and have been teaching thirteen years, after working twenty as a professional geologist. NYS at the time allowed people like me a way to get certified without the requirement to get a degree in education (I already had an MS in Geology). So I took much of the coursework you described and suffered through 15 weeks of unemployment while working harder than ever as a student teacher. The field experience was IMO, the most valuable part of my preparation to become a teacher. If there were a way to change labor laws to allow people to collect unemployment AND student teach at the same time it would make it an easier choice to enter teaching.

    Sadly NYS changed their regulations about the time I got certified and closed the door I went through. The new regs made it much, much more difficult to transition into teaching from another career. I doubt I'd have taken the same path if I'd been forced to deal with the new regulations.

    In any event it worked out better than I could have ever dreamed. I've found my best purpose in life (insofar as careers go) and I relish nearly every moment in my classroom. In my school, those who come to teaching later and from other career paths generally stick around for the long haul. They don't leave teaching. Perhaps they are more mature, have gained more wisdom, or just made the switch to teaching more carefully and thoughtfully (juggling a mortgage, college costs for kids and yourself, etc tend to make you move more slowly and cautiously) than a younger person a few years out of high school.

  5. To Rockhound's point, it's true that student teaching is like an unpaid internship, only worse, because not only do you not get paid, you have to pay to do it. Even single people have bills to pay and many have to work part time while they're in college, which you can't do while you're student teaching if you want to have time to do a decent job.

    I was thinking that instead of doing student teaching, what if you were a paid Para/assistant teacher? Apprentices in most places get paid. Schools don't have the money to pay for Paras except in special ed, but what if your tuition money for those credits was given back to you, because the university isn't really doing anything to earn your money for those credits. In a year as a Para, either with one teacher the whole year or switching at semesters, it seems like you could participate in the process enough to give you a good foundation. My student teaching was really quite hellish, I felt I was being thrown into teaching many preps too fast for me to really get a handle on them all. So much pressure. In a year of being a Para, you would have more time to get to know the students and collaborate with the teacher.

    I also think that systems should try to give new teachers only one prep (this is for middle and high school, elementary is so different and I don't know anything about it really) the first year and one different prep the second year, so they have more time to devote to learning different preps well, because to me that's where all the time goes to, to planning. And that way it would make sense for new teachers to be paid less than veteran teachers, who can more easily handle more preps at one time. And the more veteran teachers, as they go up the pay scale, could also have mentor duties. And I agree with Gregory's point, that the person who mentors you should not also evaluate you.

    What does anyone else think?