Oct 12 2006

Accelerated Alternative Certification Programs Offer A Fast Track To The Classroom

One rich source of new teachers includes people who switch to teaching from another career. To get on a fast track to the classroom, many of these midcareer teachers turn to alternative certification programs. Here’s what they say works.

Wanted: An estimated 2.2 million new teachers over the next four years. That’s the number that will be needed to account for increased enrollment in the nation’s schools and to replace the teachers who retire or leave the profession, according to Mildred Hudson, CEO of Recruiting New Teachers, based in Belmont, Mass.

“If we go through traditional routes, we won’t fill the need,” Hudson points out, “and even if we do find teachers, they may not stay.” Up to half of all teachers will leave the profession within their first three to five years, she states, conceding that “There’s a high turnover rate.”

With so many teachers leaving the field, recruiting efforts must cast a wider net to cover both traditional and nontraditional ground, including the corporate world, Hudson adds.

One rich source of new teachers is a growing group of people who switch to teaching in midcareer. As the number of people changing careers grows, so does the number of alternative certification programs that speed their way to the classroom.

People who come to teaching in midcareer do so for two main reasons, say experts: They’re rethinking their priorities or, usually during a soft economy, they’re looking for stable work.

Paths to Teaching

For Peter Goff, stable work was not an issue. Long before becoming a chemistry teacher at Farragut Career Academy, a public high school in Chicago, he worked as a well-paid engineer.

“I didn’t leave engineering because I didn’t like it or because I wasn’t good at it,” he recalls. “I left it because at the end of the day, I didn’t really feel as though what I did mattered to me.”

Goff says he was “pretty sure” he wanted to be a teacher when he graduated from college, but thought he should make some money first. After only two years as a chemical engineer, he started searching for a streamlined way into teaching without starting over in a four-year degree program.

In Illinois’ Golden Apple Teacher Education (GATE) Program, an accelerated alternative certification program in Chicago, Goff found what he was looking for. GATE began in 1999 as a partnership involving the Chicago Public Schools, Northwestern University and the Associated Colleges of Illinois. The GATE program puts candidates in the classroom after a two-month summer internship.

“Within one summer, I could go from engineering to teaching,” says Goff. “All the other programs I found took two years.”

The quick path to the classroom has some drawbacks, such as having to start teaching with little classroom management experience. Controlling a classroom of students was “much harder than engineering,” Goff says.

Still, the total immersion technique worked for Goff. He learned more about teaching while on the fly than he did as a student in the classroom.

That’s the cornerstone of the program, explains Dominic Belmonte, director of teacher preparation at the Golden Apple Foundation, the Chicago-based nonprofit organization that runs GATE. “Midcareer adults learn about teaching while they are fully responsible teachers,” he says. However, Belmonte is quick to point out that although candidates in the program are in the classroom relatively quickly, they are carefully mentored.

Now in its seventh year, the highly selective and intensive GATE program has already brought 225 people into teaching, and another 55 will join the profession next year, Belmonte says.

Since 1999, “75 percent of the people we’d selected [for the program] teach in Chicago public schools today,” he reports. That number beats any other alternative certification models, he says.

Belmonte adds that under 8 percent of those accepted to GATE have left teaching. The strong retention rate among GATE graduates is due to “selection, preparation and mentoring,” he says.

Certification Big-Sky Style

Montana florist Cynthia Jacobsen also wanted to teach but didn’t want to spend three or more years in university study to earn certification. The University of Great Falls offered an alternative with its master of arts in teaching program. MAT enables people switching in midcareer to earn not only a teaching certificate, but also a master’s degree in education in 18 months. For Jacobsen, who had a degree in horticulture and had been running a florist business for 12 years, the shortened time to the classroom was perhaps the program’s most attractive feature.

“I always loved being in school and being around young people, so the thought of going back to school was appealing,” she says. “I already had enough credits for science from all the courses I had taken in undergraduate study. I just needed education credits.”

MAT, like GATE, offers a mentoring program. Those mentors were key to her success, Jacobsen says. But like Goff, Jacobsen also says that her training fell short in teaching classroom management. “It’s important to maintain control,” she says, “and not let the kids get the better of you.”

Despite challenges, total immersion worked for Jacobsen. She now teaches seventh-grade science at Paris Gibson Middle School in Great Falls.

A Chicago Homecoming

One of the challenges facing education is that good teachers are needed the most in difficult to staff locations— often high-poverty school districts in urban areas. The Defense Department is helping to address that problem with its Troops to Teachers program. Started in 1994, the program recruits teachers for schools that serve low-income families and helps military personnel transition to second careers in teaching.

Some midcareer teachers even seek out schools in low-income areas. Jaote Wawatu left a job as an environmental protection scientist to teach chemistry at Chicago Military Academy, the high school he attended growing up in the Chicago housing projects.

Wawatu was attracted to GATE’s fast-track approach. “You’re in a classroom under another teacher for two months in the summer, then you’re on your own,” he says. “It worked well for most. By the time you’re making a midcareer change, you have enough determination so you’re not deterred easily.”

The clincher, Wawatu says, “was GATE’s cutting-edge approach to teaching in difficult, poverty-ridden urban schools, [which] resonated with me since I came from public housing. I knew there was a need there. And a different approach was required.”

Wawatu has been teaching for four years and has no plans to quit. He encourages other professionals to make the switch. “If you think you can make a difference, we need you,” he says.

Finding the Right Path

Many universities now offer alternative certification programs. Some of them are specifically designed to get teachers into the classroom more quickly through internships, and to make the transition from corporate or military life to teaching a little smoother.

Small classes and good mentors help, says Jenn Pospisil, who earned her certification through the University of Great Falls’ MAT program. “But if you’re choosing to teach, you should spend a lot of time in the classroom seeing what it’s like,” she advises.

Another program that has been very successful, says Hudson of Recruiting New Teachers, is the paraprofessional program through Drexel University. At Drexel, the engineering school trains local residents in computer science and helps them get master’s degrees. These people then have an opportunity to teach a specific subject part time in schools, she explains.

“Teaching is more than just knowing the answer,” cautions Wawatu. “You need to build relationships and rapport with students; you have to gain their trust. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You need to care about their success.”

Catherine LaCroix is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

Advice From the Teachers’ Lounge

Thinking of a midcareer change to teaching? Do your homework first, experts advise. Here’s some advice from those who’ve been there:

Peter Goff, Farragut Career Academy: “Closely evaluate the programs available. Be sure that the peer support is in place. I’ve encountered people who didn’t have the support structure, and they’ve dropped out.”

Mildred Hudson, Recruiting New Teachers: “Don’t just look for ways to be quickly certified. Make sure you get a quality program. Learn how to work with children and schools early on, and look for opportunities to get to know the community you want to work in.”

Cynthia Jacobsen, Paris Gibson Middle School: “Decide if you really like working with young people and have a love for learning and a zest for life. If you’re seriously thinking about it, go into the schools and volunteer in a classroom to get a taste before you go any further.”

Jaote Wawatu, Chicago Military Academy: “Do some teaching; arrange to sit in and observe a classroom. And you can do substitute teaching. Understand your subject area and try to understand why kids don’t understand it. It’s important to know how to resolve problems.”

The Teacher Drought

“Great cities” are the 100 largest U.S. school districts. They represented about a quarter of the nation’s 46.1 million public school students at the time of the 1999 survey. Of districts responding, the following percentages are those expressing needs for specific kinds of teachers:

Special education teachers: 97.5%

Science teachers: 97.5%

Math teachers: 95%

Male elementary school teachers: 82.5%

Teachers of color: 72.5%

Bilingual education teachers: 72.5%

Elementary school teachers: 52.5%

Source: Great City School District Survey of 1999.