The challenge of alternative licensure programs for teachers

I’m a second career teacher and got there through alternative licensure. I’ve never regretted my decision, but I remember quite well one particular day. Day one.

I walked into a classroom for the very first time.

I’d conducted enough research to know what I needed to do those first couple of days. Also, through teaching judo for years, I wasn’t exactly a newb when it came to preparing a lesson. I knew the content (U.S. Government and Civics) like the back of my hand.

But there was a huge problem

I had no educational training what-so-ever. Not one second of classroom time. Not one education class to prepare me for what I was to face.

Heck, due to waiting on my background check, I missed all the pre-school inservice. I mean, honestly, I did not even know where to make copies or how to get into the locked up building, much less my room.

alternative licensure
One of my best teaching experiences was teaching as a cohort an English Language Learners summer school program. The students had all been in the USA less than a year and were still developing English language skills. Great students. Myanmar, El Salvador, Tanzania, & Congo in the house!

Must I walk halfway across the building to use the teacher bathroom, or can I use the student bathroom two doors down?

Many unknowns.

Heck, my own educational journey had been varied, winding, and definitely not like the path other teachers took. That first year, my colleagues and I got along but didn’t really understand each other.

Alternative licensure

Like many states, Tennessee offers an alternative program to licensure.

You have to have a bachelor’s degree or higher. You have to pass the content knowledge Praxis exam (I had passed Government, History, and English). You have to have applied to a teacher prep program, in my case the Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) job embed program. And you needed an “intent to hire” letter from a school district.

With all those things, you can get what’s called a Practitioner license, which is good for three years.

During the three years, you need to do a few things. First, you need to complete a teacher licensure program. I did mine at MTSU and it involved 18 graduate hours of education classes.

Additionally, you need three years teaching your subject and you need to have overall acceptable evaluations/observations and complete 30 PDPs, or Professional Development Points. You get 10 a year for having an acceptable overall evaluation score of 3 or higher, and you can earn PDPs through various professional development courses.

Do all that, and you can advance your license to a professional license. So that’s what I did.

Why I chose alternative licensure and am not sure I’d do so again

A lot of people who choose alternative licensure were in the same boat I was in.

Older and with three children to support, I was not in a position to go back to school in a traditional teacher training program including student teaching. Every program I looked at explicitly stated that I was not allowed to work during student teaching. That is undoable.

A friend had completed the alternative licensure program, so it seemed a viable alternative. And it worked. I decided in the Spring to really pursue teaching after nearly a year of soul-searching and by August, with no training what-so-ever, I had a full-time teaching job.

The problem was simple. I knew my content like no tomorrow. However, I had no training as a teacher. I didn’t even really understand why you’d give a formative assessment when it doesn’t count toward the grade. And pedagogy? WTF was that?

My first observation was an unmitigated disaster. It was unannounced. I was doing a test review on a day all my technology in the classroom had failed. The wifi was down. My projector was waiting repairs. Heck the copy machine was down that day.

Three real issues:

  1. I didn’t really know what an observation was about much less what the assistant principal observing me was looking for.
  2. I didn’t know what the TEAM Rubric (state standards for evaluating teachers) was. It is developed by the state and provides measures for how teachers are to be measured in various categories. That was news to me.
  3. Did I mention I had no clue. Certainly, I did not have the experience at that time, maybe a month into my teaching career, to deal with the failed technology with an effective fallback plan.

My scores were mostly “1,” the lowest you can get – a 3 is considered competent. In Metro, two consecutive years of scores below 3 and you can be non-renewed. Two consecutive years of scores above 3 (plus a few other requirements) you can get tenure.

For someone who is traditionally a high achiever, it was an absolute kick in the gut, and while I’m not one to cry “no fair,” it felt decidedly unfair!

Fortunately, the AP did a very strong “post conference.” We sat for an hour and a half discussing ideas and instructional strategies. It was the first time anyone helped me in any way, shape, or form in terms of teaching. And it was good. All the subsequent evaluations/observations were positive and showed significant growth.

The simple and unfortunate fact is that, certainly that first year, students did not get the very best. And that’s what they deserve. Good content knowledge that I was excited about, yes, but weak educational skills that hindered my ability to effectively deliver the content.

The solution

With half of new teachers leaving the profession within five years, something is seriously wrong, and I think it starts on the front end.

There are two aspects to the solution.

First and foremost, I did not find my teacher education program to be overly challenging. It consisted of 18 hours – six graduate level education courses. Three classes were about as irrelevant as they could be. One class was exceptional. Another class was very interesting and potentially useful, but was focused on a younger age group than I teach. The sixth class was, well, mediocre.

We need these programs to be more reality-driven. In truth, only one class was practical and gave me real, usable classroom tips and strategies. In that class, the professor provided an exceptional model of how to teach in high school. She taught this course exactly like she wanted us to teach our own classes.

Second, I think all first-year teachers need to co-teach with an experienced teacher. This isn’t the same as student teaching, which I think also is necessary. A year of co-teaching will give a new, first-year teacher experience in everything from lesson planning to IEPs, grading papers to dealing with discipline, fire drills and changing mandates, and just about everything in between. I view it as a true apprenticeship for the profession of teaching.

And it makes both the traditional approach and the alternative approach much more doable. And it is fair, especially to those in alternative programs.

Of course, two teachers in the classroom is pricey. Will taxpayers go for it?

In the end

Things have worked out for me. I love teaching. I’ve now earned my master’s degree in education and then some.

My observation/evaluation scores are high. I’m active with the students, coaching wrestling and sponsoring various student activities.

I don’t succumb to many of the issues teachers get waylaid by. But the challenges in education, especially hiring and retention, are hitting me hard in unexpected ways.

This past school year, I lost my planning period to teach an extra class. This was due to a combination of excessive enrollment and teacher vacancies. I very much appreciated the variety the class offers, and I certainly liked the extra money. But it impacted my ability to prepare properly for my other classes and caused me to eat into the little bit of personal time that I have.

The worst part is it is due to not enough teachers. And we’re not just talking math or science. This was an English class I was teaching. There were also year-long vacancies in other subjects, including for a time, art. No bueno.

I wonder if better teacher preparation programs might keep teachers in the classroom for longer, and perhaps improve recruiting efforts? Hard to say.

But I know this. Alternative licensure programs are a good way for someone with lots of experience to get into the classroom, but it is lacking some critical points to help us hit the ground running on Day 1.

Note: I originally published this article on LinkedIn in December, 2019.

Note 2: Since this published, we’ve dealt with COVID19 shut downs. I’ve advanced my license to professional with multiple endorsements. Also, my last couple of evaluations were mostly 4s and 5s, with a couple of 3s thrown in. Not bad. And, I changed districts and will be teaching middle school and coaching wrestling in the 2020-2021 school year.

Odd year and odd ending, but graduation, even in a drive-thru format, was still very exciting.

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