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Alternative Routes to Teaching:
Do They Get You There in One Piece?

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From time to time, Education World updates and reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. We hope you find this recently updated article to be of value.

Are teachers who have earned their way to the front of the classroom by an alternative route as well prepared as those who have taken a more traditional path? Recently, Education World talked with six alternate-route teachers who discussed how well prepared they were for their first year of teaching and reveal whether they intend to stay. Included: Some tips for improving existing programs.

"My first year teaching high school was without a doubt one of the most difficult years in my life. I don't recall working that hard even as second lieutenant of a tank platoon along the border of East and West Germany in the early 1970s," Shaun Conlin told Education World. "It seemed like every 'free' minute outside the classroom was taken up by class prep and grading papers -- even on weekends.

"I knew that the first year would be a grind, but I didn't expect it to be that exhausting," added Conlin, who is now in his second year of teaching at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia.

Conlin's experiences echo those of many first-year teachers. But Conlin is different from most other teachers; he received his teaching certificate through Virginia's Alternative Route to Teaching Licensure, rather than through a traditional four-year school of education. Conlin's alternative certification program (ACP) lasted three weeks and was structured especially for career switchers. The three weeks of instruction (at Old Dominion University) included such topics as classroom management, human growth and development, learning styles, and evaluation and assessment.

Conlin, who already had three master's degrees and three years' teaching experience at the college level, says he never would have considered switching careers without the alternative certification program. He couldn't afford the time, expense, and effort involved in a traditional route to teaching, he said.

An estimated 125,000 educators graduated from alternative certification programs between 1984 and 2001, according to Delia Stafford, president of the National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information (NCATCI). "Forty-three states claim to offer alternative certification programs," Stafford told Education World, although not all are "true" programs. "True alternative certification programs are carefully crafted and designed to ensure that adults do not practice on children while taking university courses. The programs are developed with school districts, so interns have time to learn the craft of teaching, designing lessons, managing a classroom, and so on."

Education World recently interviewed six teachers who received certification through five different ACPs. The six shared a great deal with us -- from their first-year teaching experiences to whether they plan to continue teaching.

It became clear very quickly that huge differences existed among the programs our teachers participated in. Some lasted a few weeks; others, a year. Most involved formal mentoring; but the form of the mentoring varied. Most graduates found their new colleagues to be welcoming and helpful; not all were that fortunate. The one constant seemed to be that, however much teaching experience or instruction in classroom management they received, most of the new teachers found that classroom management was their most difficult problem.

THAT FIRST YEAR!

"The program did an adequate job of prepping me for the rigors of first-year teaching," Shaun Conlin said, "but there's really nothing that can fully prepare you for the experience of actually doing it."

"I find that teaching is like most jobs," Michael Nixon told Education World. "The more you do it, the better you get at it." Nixon's route was a one-year intern program at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. The program assigned students to a school district for an entire school year. During the day, interns reported to their schools and worked as substitute teachers or did other tasks. After school, they took educational courses leading to a master's degree.

"I think the intern program prepared me very well," Nixon said. "I got a variety of experiences, ranging from writing lesson plans and attending staff meetings to meeting parents and dealing with unruly students." Nixon now teaches seventh-grade language arts at East Rock Global Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut.

Roger Leon, now principal of University High School in Newark, New Jersey, told Education World, "My first year was great." But, he added, "The first day was the worst! I had my plans ready. The day was set. I knew what I was going to ask and why. I didn't take into account that students could actually help change those plans." Leon did his alternative certification work at Montclair State University in New Jersey, which collaborated with several school districts in the state, including Newark's. He began his one-year commitment to teach in Newark in 1992 -- and never left.

Other teachers were considerably less sanguine about their first year. "I have only been working since September, and I've had a rough -- maybe even savage -- learning curve," said one teacher, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, saying that school colleagues and the administration are already hostile enough. "Classroom management has far and away been my toughest challenge," the teacher continued. "I was assigned large classes with many special education students and little or no support. I feel much less prepared than teachers who took a traditional academic route to certification, mostly in terms of classroom management but also in lesson planning and the language of teachers."

"Everyone said the school I worked at in my first year was 'difficult'; it was on probation for low test scores," Susan Stahl told Education World. "Discipline was very poor, mainly because the school had no official system for dealing with discipline problems. Self-esteem among students was extremely low."

Stahl, who is much happier in her current school, Gary Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, believes classroom management can't be taught. "When it comes down to it, you just have to sort of sink or swim," she said. "Being a prepared teacher requires being very organized and knowing how to plan ahead effectively. I didn't learn how to be or do that in the [alternative certification] program," Stahl added.

NU-TEACH, the ACP Stahl graduated from, is a collaboration among the Golden Apple Foundation, Northwestern University's Department of Education and Social Policy, a private nonprofit organization called the Inner-City Teachers Corps, and the Chicago Public Schools. The main requirements for admission are an undergraduate degree with at least a 3.0 grade point average and a passion to become a teacher.

Stahl said that when she participated in the approximately one-year program, interns -- working with a mentor -- taught in a Chicago public school for four weeks of the summer session. The interns, with provisional certificates, were in their own classrooms by fall. During that school year, a coordinator regularly visited the classrooms, and interns had classes in the evening twice a month.

HOW COULD PROGRAMS BE IMPROVED?

"I believe the [Virginia licensure] program should include more actual classroom time --either as an intern or student teacher," said Melissa Garrett, who nonetheless praises the courses she completed. Although the program required 20 hours of classroom observation before the future teachers were allowed to begin their coursework, they were not required to teach during the observation. Garrett did occasionally help the teacher and tutor students while she observed.

Garrett, like Conlin, is a graduate of Virginia's career switchers program, which is open to a range of qualified professionals, particularly those with high math, science, and foreign language skills or those with a special education interest or background. Despite her one criticism of the program, Garrett said, "My first year as a teacher has been wonderful." She teaches eighth-grade physical science at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, Virginia

Some ACPs include a one-year commitment to teach in an inner-city school system. Roger Leon believes that those programs should require a longer commitment because so many newly certified teachers serve inner-city students for only one year, then leave to teach in the suburbs. Leon's school, "a Blue Ribbon School with many up-and-coming programs, needs people to stay in Newark and help spread the word," Leon said.

Susan Stahl, who taught in a Chicago Public School for only four weeks in the summer, thinks "a key element of any alternative teaching certification program should be to have interns spend some time in a classroom during the regular school year. Summer school is nothing like regular school. It doesn't prepare you for the chaos."

"I would recommend that ACPs absolutely mandate a full semester of fulltime student teaching," added the anonymous teacher. She had taught only in summer school, for 15 hours a week, prior to taking a full-time teaching position. When asked if she thought she would stay in teaching, she said, "I'm not sure. I'm feeling pretty discouraged now. I wouldn't stay at this school."

WILL YOU STAY WITH TEACHING?

"I plan to stay in teaching," said Susan Stahl, "but hardly a day goes by that I don't feel like screaming, 'Why does this have to be so frustrating?' because I really don't think it has to be. ... I am dedicated, but I'm also incredibly overworked and underpaid. The school I teach at now has a nicer atmosphere than many inner-city schools, but classes are huge and we are constantly barraged with new theories of standardization and with bureaucratic tasks that make teaching tedious and often extremely difficult."

Despite his description of the grueling workload in the profession, Shaun Conlin said, "I do plan to stay with teaching. I can honestly say that even though I work harder than ever before, I really do enjoy the daily interaction with students. I never have a dull, uneventful day. I can't say much for the pay, but I know that there's always a new challenge around every desk."

Michael Nixon simply said, "They'll have to carry me out feet first."

A FEW CONCLUSIONS

What did we learn about ACPs from our conversations with six teachers trained by those programs? According to the teachers we interviewed:
  • The most successful ACPs give an accurate feel for what teaching is like. Nothing can replace the experience of classroom teaching during the regular school year and that experience should be part of every ACP.
  • Consistent mentoring plays a key role in easing the burdens faced by ACP graduates' during their first year teaching. It could be said to have a "make-or-break" effect on the teacher's future success.
  • Five of six ACP teachers are determined to remain in teaching; only the teacher who had the worst experience is contemplating leaving. Research shows that up to one-third of teachers educated in traditional programs leave teaching during their first five years.

WOULD THEY RECOMMEND AN ACP?

Asked whether they would recommend the alternative certification route, four of the teachers interviewed responded yes. Two gave a qualified yes. Michael Nixon said he would encourage an aspiring teacher to take an alternative route that included a great deal of teaching -- but not one that consists of relatively little teaching and lots of coursework. The anonymous teacher would recommend an ACP only if it included more than a few weeks of teaching summer school and with the caveat that would-be teachers ask hard questions about what support they can expect when they begin classroom teaching.

"For mid-career professionals, it seems that programs like [the one I took] are attractive alternatives to years of schooling for an advanced degree," said Susan Stahl. "But ... I always caution people that the alternative route is sort of a trial by fire."

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