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Reality meets certification


1120200601In a perfect world where there is no educational inequity, there would be no need for not-yet-alternatively-certified teachers like me. In a perfect world, every classroom teacher would be certified and effective. In a perfect world, I would have been able to tell the interviewers at my current job what the 14 IDEA disabilities were—rather than shamefully explain that I had no clue, but had every intention of finding out.

Unfortunately the world is not perfect and the achievement gap is not yet closed. Our desperation for teachers in this country has yielded alternative certification programs like Teaching Fellows and Teach for America (TFA), which I am a part of.

As my colleagues and I log in countless hours in the classroom teaching, prepping, and figuring out how to teach and prep, we sometimes forget that there is a larger debate going on out there about us: Are uncertified and alternatively certified teachers effective teachers? Or are we just warm bodies guarding classrooms?

According to anecdotes from colleagues, comments on the blog and data from TFA and other organizations, it seems that we are doing good work. And a recent study by the Hoover Institution found that first-year teachers who are alternatively and uncertified begin their careers worse off than certified teachers, but quickly make it up. By their third year of teaching, uncertified and alternatively certified teachers perform just as well in reading and better in math than traditionally certified teachers.

This comes as no surprise; I observe daily as my uncertified colleagues do amazing things with students. My true teacher in teaching is my educational assistant who works magic in the classroom. My TFA colleagues coach, mentor and reach significant gains within their first two years of teaching. What left me concerned was that certified teachers, with several more years of teacher preparation work and student teaching experience, are performing at about the same levels, if not lower, than uncertified or alternatively certified teachers. What’s happening?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t about the paperwork and background checks that make good teachers. Perhaps it’s about the pre-service classes, but also about the in-service work and mentorship during those first years of teaching. Perchance it’s about personality, dedication and enthusiasm. Could those researchers from the Hoover Institution be right and we should focus more on how teachers perform in those first few years in the classroom and weed out the ones who fall behind?

I asked my graduate school professor what she thought about alternative licensure. With more than 30 years in the classroom, she is a local legend for her ability to teach virtually anyone to read. She replied in an e-mail with thought.

Effective teaching is active teaching. Effective teachers know how to provide instruction to children so they feel successful at least 80% of the day. Effective teachers can show progress regardless of the curriculums they are using. They use "responses to interventions" daily for all students in their classes. They use differential teaching and provide active teaching to large groups, small groups and one-on-one instruction. They have good classroom management. They are always assessing to see if children are learning and are able to provide effective modifications and emotional support as needed when children can't interact with the materials and instruction. This is an effective teacher.

Was I a good teacher from the start? No, and I am still most definitely not all of those things she described. I always said that my enthusiasm made up for my lack of experience. Like other teachers still working toward their alternative licensure, I put in long hours in and out of work studying pedagogy, best practices and behavioral strategies. My students made about 2 years of academic gains last year, not always because I was particularly savvy with my lessons; rather, sometimes it was just because they could tell how hard I was trying and how much I believed in each of them (despite having every single lesson flop that day).

I have seen other young, but traditionally certified, teachers start their careers, and it astounds me how much they already know. Four years of teacher prep and student teaching made it easier for them. I had to desperately pick up those little teaching tidbits along the way—everything from teaching decoding skills to cutting out stupid bubbly letters—but the point is, I learned. And I learned quickly.

At the end of the day, some may still think of me as an uncertified warm body guarding children; however, when I look back at the last (crazy!) year and a half and see the progress of my students, I’m glad there existed a mechanism to get me teaching them sooner rather than later.


Dear Jessica:

I wish I had decided to enroll in the Teach for America program. I have heard on TV that it is a good program. I had, instead, enrolled as a postgraduate in a teaching college. I spent 2 ½ years taking the additional teaching classes. In these classes we had little practice preparing and presenting lessons.

In my discipline, I had two lessons lasting an hour each that I had prepared and presented. I had no preparation in classroom management. What I had learned had little to do with actualy teaching.

When I actually did my student teaching I was not well prepared. The internship was stressful and I often felt like a failure. My supervising teachers were brutal and my supervising instructor was not helpful.


Tom, hang in there. TFA is a great program, but it's not the only one. Much of its success is based on the desperate, bull-headed commitment of its teachers. Know what questions to ask, observe tons of great teachers and keep trying new strategies. Best of luck.

Every system must have standards, as well as a way of updating that system. It is good that you are keeping your eyes open as you struggle each day with the details of classroom teaching while also exploring the meta-world of how teachers are taught and certified.

Certification is good when it creates standards that protect students, creates goals toward which motivated teachers such as yourself can aspire, and gives parents a barometer of what to expect from their teachers, administrators and schools.

Certification is bad when it creates standards that do not fit with student and new teacher needs, and simply serves as a way to protect school districts from challenges.

It would be great if you could continue to operate on both direct-teaching and analyzing-teaching levels so that teacher union officials, board of education members, school administrators, state legislators, PTA groups, and others in a position to make changes can hear your perspective.

Operating on these two levels simultaneously is hard to do on a long-term basis, however, so pace yourself and find creative ways to channel your insights into articles for Rethinking Schools, Education Week, Teacher Magazine, and other professional forums.

Keep up the inspiring work, and have a good holiday!

I love reading your blog. I am a music teacher from Carlsbad, who is teaching in Houston. Keep up the good work and keep writing :)

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Recent Comments

  • Mozelle Bailey-Sulak: Jessica, I love reading your blog. I am a music read more
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