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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Do alternatively certified teachers need different supports?

By Suzanne Bouffard
August 2022

With teacher shortages plaguing schools across the country, districts and states are trying a range of approaches to fill the gaps. Many are looking to alternative certification programs, hiring teachers with bachelor’s degrees in fields outside education who are simultaneously enrolled in teacher education coursework and preparing for licensure exams.

With this sector of the workforce growing every year, school districts need to know how to support these new teachers. Understanding how their needs are similar to and different from traditionally certified new teachers is important for ensuring that all novice teachers have what they need to be successful — and that all students have access to high-quality teaching and learning.

The need is especially pronounced this fall because the pandemic has exacerbated the worsening teacher shortage (Diliberti & Schwartz, 2022). Some states have increased their investment in alternative certification pathways, providing financial support and guidelines for districts to develop their own programs or creating designations such as emergency COVID-19 teacher certification.

As a result, the landscape of teacher preparation has changed — and so has the landscape of hiring and onboarding new teachers. School leaders who used to pass over applications from alternatively certified candidates are now reconsidering their assumptions and bringing these new teachers into the fold.

But are these school leaders also considering alternatively certified new teachers’ specific needs, challenges, and strengths? The limited research conducted to date suggests leaders may be overestimating these teachers’ preparedness and underestimating the effectiveness of their induction and professional learning.

That developing research base and the experiences of leaders, teachers, and program providers offer a window into the current landscape of alternative teacher certification support and suggest some avenues for how to improve it.

Diverse programs, diverse candidates  

Alternative certification programs enroll a diverse group of prospective teachers. Many are career-changers, while others are fresh out of college but didn’t pursue an education degree because of lack of access or affordability, interest in concentrating on a content area, or other reasons. (Teacher residency programs, another nontraditional model, are also popular with career-changers and people new to education, but these programs differ from alternative certification programs in part because their candidates typically teach under the supervision of a veteran teacher, whereas alternative certification candidates are the teachers of record in their classrooms.)

Alternative certification programs are diverse in another important way: They tend to enroll a higher percentage of people of color and people from low-income backgrounds (Huguet et al., 2021; King & Yin, 2022; National Center for Education Statistics, 2022).

Ernest Black, who oversees CalState TEACH, an alternative certification program run by the University of California system, points out that teacher candidates in that program tend to be older and bring diverse life experiences to their classrooms. Such programs, he says, “are more likely to reach teachers who wouldn’t have access to traditional programs, who wouldn’t get into them, or who wouldn’t feel welcome in them.” This is an important benefit, because research shows that teachers tend to be far less diverse than the students they serve (Schaeffer, 2021).

Like the candidates they enroll, alternative certification programs vary widely (National Education Association, 2020). They can be run by higher education institutions, school districts, or outside organizations (both not-for-profit and for-profit). They can be held in person, online, or in a hybrid approach.

Their quality runs the gamut, according to research from the Center for American Progress (King & Yin, 2022) — a fact that may be related to the nature of the program. Historically, for-profit education programs, especially those run online, have come under criticism for subpar student outcomes and high levels of student debt (Howarth & Stifler, 2019), raising questions about similar approaches in the alternative certification arena. This is an important topic for investigation because, in the 2018-19 school year, a large percentage of alternative certification candidates were enrolled in programs run by for-profit providers (about 70% of those in programs outside institutions of higher education) (King & Yin, 2022).

A different level of support

Despite this diversity of preparation experiences and educational backgrounds, alternatively certified teachers often engage in the same new teacher induction programs and practices as traditionally certified teachers.

“When I was coaching new teachers, I noticed that we seemed to be treating them like they were coming from a college of education, in terms of the lingo and our expectations of them. What we offered them in professional development was lacking — it only fit the traditionally certified people,” says Amanda Rose, assistant principal at Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Florida.

''When I was coaching new teachers, I noticed that we seemed to be treating them like they were coming from a college of education, in terms of the lingo & our expectations of them,'' says AP Amanda Rose. #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

Rose could relate to the frustration these teachers might have been feeling because she was an alternatively certified teacher herself before becoming a teacher leader, instructional coach, and school administrator.

When Rose looked into the limited base of research on alternative certification, she learned that a lot of programs are conducted online and don’t offer the practicum experiences that are standard for candidates at traditional colleges of education. Interested in understanding the implications of these trends, she conducted a research review with a university colleague on the needs commonly reported by alternatively certified teachers. The most common were: how to meet the needs of diverse students, classroom management and student discipline, student motivation, parent interaction and involvement, colleague collaboration, time management, and management of job stress (Rose & Sughrue, 2020).

What are the needs commonly reported by alternatively certified teachers? #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

Although these are areas in which all new teachers need some support, they may be more pronounced for alternatively certified new teachers because research finds these teachers have had less practice teaching and are less likely to have taken a course in teaching methods (Redding & Smith, 2016).

Tailored support for alternatively certified novice teachers is especially important given that some research finds these teachers are more likely to leave the field within the first few years of teaching (Redding & Smith, 2016). Attrition among this population of teachers is particularly problematic and costly because alternative certification programs are designed, in part, to address teacher shortages. The reasons for this trend may be many, but some research finds that alternatively certified teachers report decreasing feelings of preparedness in their first months of teaching (Redding & Smith, 2016), suggesting that they may be less ready to teach than they expect.

Tailored support for alternatively certified novice teachers is especially important given that some research finds these teachers are more likely to leave the field within the first few years of teaching. Click To Tweet

Fortunately, some studies find that attrition among alternatively certified new teachers is moderated by the amount of induction and professional learning support available. One study found that teachers’ perceptions of social support were related to higher job satisfaction and intention to continue teaching (Richter et al., 2022). Another study found that retention increased as the induction support increased (Redding & Smith, 2016).

Of course, even more important than retention is effectiveness, and support in the first years of teaching also appears to be associated with alternatively certified teachers’ effectiveness. A study of alternative certification programs run by TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) found that new teacher support that emphasized instructional coaching was correlated with student achievement growth (Huguet et al., 2021).

Leaders’ role  

School leaders are central to ensuring that alternatively certified teachers get the support and development opportunities they need. As assistant principal Amanda Rose points out, “The leaders are the ones who are impacting the teachers every day. They make the policy and provide opportunities for learning.”

''School leaders are central to ensuring that alternatively certified teachers get the support and development opportunities they need.'' #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

Rose’s research examined both leaders’ and new teachers’ perceptions of how well the leaders understand and support those from nontraditional backgrounds. Although both groups agreed that the leaders had some understanding of the requirements and challenges of alternative certification, the researchers called school leaders’ expectations for novice teachers unrealistic. For example, principals expected the teachers to have a deep understanding of pedagogy, such as implementing cooperative grouping and providing differentiated instruction, that teachers did not feel they possessed yet (Rose & Sughrue, 2020).

Perhaps even more telling, leaders and teachers had very different perceptions of the influence of the professional learning available for new teachers: While 91% of administrators believed that it influenced teachers’ decisions to stay in the profession, only 59% of teachers said this was the case.

Based on those findings and her own personal experience in schools, Rose believes that “principals need to have an open-mindedness that there are differences depending on teachers’ education pathways and that alternatively certified teachers need a lot more support.”

Coursework

One of the ways district and school leaders can boost the usefulness of professional learning for alternatively certified teachers is by advocating for and designing coursework that these teachers have not had because of their nontraditional pathways.

''One of the ways district & school leaders can boost the usefulness of PL for alternatively certified teachers is by advocating for & designing coursework that these teachers have not had because of their nontraditional pathways.'' Click To Tweet

Scott Richman is supervisor of professional development for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. His district runs an alternative certification program that includes tailored induction support. It encompasses the components of the district’s larger teacher induction program but also includes additional elements that he describes as “additional layers of support.”

That support includes intensive coursework on pedagogy and focused support on reading instruction. Enrolled teachers take one or two courses at a time, typically taking 18 to 24 months to complete the program to keep their workload manageable — though it’s still heavy, with teaching full-time and working toward licensure exams. Last year, the district provided that support to about 550 new teachers in the alternative certification pathway.

Richman says that one of the keys to the success of the coursework is the instructors, most of whom are current classroom teachers, but some of whom are mentors or district coaches. The instructors, who work with teachers in the evenings and on weekends, are paid for their work and receive rigorous training and ongoing support from Richman and other leaders. He respects their expertise and relies heavily on their feedback and advice to shape the program and policies.

Richman also takes an active role, reaching out to instructors and candidates frequently, observing classes and teachers as much as he can, and making himself available by phone whenever he is needed. “I make it my business to visit every class we offer at least once. It’s hard to [observe teaching with] more than 500 teachers in 200 different schools, but I make sure I interact with them in their coursework.”

Mentoring

Teachers enrolled in Hillsborough County Public Schools’ alternative certification program also have mentoring support for the first year. Last year, the district hired retired educators to help the new teachers with planning, social and emotional support, and coaching. Richman says they have been particularly helpful in helping the teachers understand “the inner workings of the school.”

Research suggests that mentoring is particularly effective for alternatively certified teachers, as compared to traditionally certified teachers, predicting decreased attrition rates (Redding & Smith, 2016). That tracks with Amanda Rose’s experience. She points to mentoring as an important part of her school’s strategy for supporting alternatively certified teachers and recommends selecting the mentors thoughtfully and strategically. She sometimes matches more than one person to a new teacher, especially if the formal mentor and mentee do not teach in the same subject area.

One of the ways mentors can be helpful is modeling social and emotional responsiveness and support. Nancy Markowitz is the founder of the Center for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child, which has worked with districts to incorporate a social, emotional, and cultural lens into teaching.

“It’s important for the people who support new teachers to understand the need to keep the cortisol level down,” Markowitz says, referring to the hormone associated with stress. Research shows that high levels of cortisol, especially over a sustained period, interfere with executive functioning skills that teachers need, like planning, organizing, and managing multiple sources of information. Effective social and emotional support, Markowitz says, “creates a possibility of the new teacher being able to use their prefrontal cortex to evaluate and make good decisions.”

Markowitz remembers when she was a new teacher with little support. Everything felt overwhelming, and her confidence was low. “No one came into my classroom and told me what I was doing well. It was all negative, and it wore me down,” she remembers. That’s why she set out to provide more social and emotional support to teacher candidates, who she says need opportunities to identify and build on their strengths. “When I was a new teacher, I couldn’t find my voice for a long time. I kept hearing all these things you’re supposed to do, like ‘Don’t smile before Christmas,’ but it wasn’t me.”

She wants all new teachers, regardless of the pathways they have taken to the profession, to have time and support for reflection so they can develop into their roles, and she believes that well-trained mentors are key to that process. “The sooner teachers can discover who they are as teachers, the better. Mentors can be instrumental in that process by listening and helping new teachers understand themselves.” For that to work, mentors must be thoughtfully selected for skills in relationship-building and fostering reflection.

Social, emotional, and cultural responsiveness

Attending to the social, emotional, and cultural dimensions of teaching and learning is not just about providing emotional support to teachers. It’s also about cultivating teachers’ ability to be responsive to students, especially those whose lived experiences are different from the teacher’s. Too often, new teachers, especially those with little or no background in education, don’t know the importance of learning about students’ contexts, cultures, and needs, Markowitz says.

She points out that new teachers tend to take students’ behavior — especially defiant or challenging behaviors — personally, and such behaviors have been exacerbated by the stress and trauma of the health and social pandemics of the last few years. By cultivating social, emotional, and cultural competence, mentors and others supporting new teachers can help them better understand challenging behavior and interact with students in constructive and supportive ways.

To address alternatively certified teachers’ lack of experience in this area, CalState TEACH has been working to incorporate the Social, Emotional, and Cultural Anchor Competencies Framework developed by Markowitz’s center. The framework outlines seven anchor competencies that are foundational to an equitable education: build trusting relationships, foster self-reflection, foster growth mindset, cultivate perseverance, create community, promote collaborative learning, and respond constructively across differences (Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020). It also addresses the assumptions and beliefs both students and educators bring to the classroom and how they affect teachers’ practices. The goal is to help teachers develop reflective habits and weave social, emotional, and culturally responsive practices into their work.

CalState TEACH incorporates the framework throughout the program’s coursework in a way that director Ernest Black describes as spiraling. “Unlike in many programs, where you focus on one concept at a time, we embed the social, emotional, and cultural framework into every module, and we circle back to what we’ve discussed before. The more you hear it, the more you learn it and the more you do it. It becomes ingrained in pedagogy.”

In addition, faculty advisors who observe candidates in their schools look for whether they are incorporating attention to social, emotional, and culture competence. Markowitz points out that it’s important for everyone involved in supporting the new teacher — including faculty advisors, course instructors, and principals — to be on the same page about the importance of these competencies and how to develop them. “If you don’t deal with the human side,” she says, new teachers “aren’t going to succeed.”

All hands on deck

Many educators who support alternatively certified teachers say it’s important to take an all-hands-on-deck approach. “We’ve got to try everything to support these people,” Amanda Rose says. “And we have to have a plan for multiple years of support when we hire them.”

Leslie Hirsh Ceballos, an assistant principal at Brentfield Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, agrees. Her school will have three new teachers this fall, one of whom is taking an alternative certification path. “This teacher has top priority for support,” Ceballos says, because of her lack of experience. She has been paired with a “super strong” veteran teacher, and both of the school’s assistant principals, who come from coaching backgrounds, plan to work with her as well. Because there is no separate track for alternatively certified teachers, Ceballos and her colleagues are also leaning on a mentoring program for all new teachers, and they are working to make it deeper and more focused on instruction than in the past.

That approach — strengthening new teacher support across the board while attending to the unique needs of alternatively certified teachers — is one that many districts and schools may find themselves looking toward this school year and beyond. A wave of job openings means schools are welcoming a large group of new teachers with a diverse array of experiences, strengths, and needs. For all students to access an equitable and excellent education, all of those new teachers — regardless of how they have come to the profession — need veteran colleagues who are ready to answer their questions, address their fears and doubts, reinforce their skills, and help them be the best educators they can be.


References

Diliberti, M.K. & Schwartz, H.L. (2022). Districts continue to struggle with staffing, political polarization, and unfinished instruction. RAND Corporation. www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA956-13.html

Howarth, R. & Stifler, L. (2019, March). The failings of online for-profit colleges: Findings from student borrower focus groups. The Brookings Institution. www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/The-Failings-of-Online-For-profit-Colleges.pdf

Huguet, A., Doss, C.J., Master, B.K., Unlu, F., Sousa, J.L., Christianson, K., & Baker, G. (2021). Widening the pathway: Implementation and impacts of alternative teacher preparation programs across three contexts. RAND Corporation. www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA281-1.html

King, J.E. & Yin, J. (2022). The alternative teacher certification sector outside higher education. 2022 update. Center for American Progress & American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/AltCertification-report_CX.pdf

Markowitz, N.L. & Bouffard, S.M. (2020). Teaching with a social, emotional, and cultural lens: A framework for educators and teacher educators. Harvard Education Press.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Characteristics of public school teachers who completed alternative route to certification programs. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/tlc

National Education Association. (2020, April). Alternative routes to certification: State-by-state analysis. Author. www.nea.org/sites/default/files/2021-04/Alternative%20Paths%20Report-Final%20Apr2020.pdf

Redding, C. & Smith, T.M. (2016, August). Easy in, easy out: Are alternatively certified teachers turning over at increased rates? American Educational Research Journal, 53(4), 1086-1125. doi.org/10.3102/0002831216653206

Richter, E., Lucksnat, C., Redding, C., & Richter, D. (2022, June). Retention intention and job satisfaction of alternatively certified teachers in their first year of teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 114. doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2022.103704

Rose, A.L. & Sughrue, J.A. (2020, March 19). Promoting retention of alternative certified teachers through professional development. NASSP Bulletin, 104(1), 34-54. doi:10.1177/0192636520913624

Schaeffer, K. (2021, December 10). America’s public school teachers are far less racially and ethnically diverse than their students. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/12/10/americas-public-school-teachers-are-far-less-racially-and-ethnically-diverse-than-their-students/


Vice President, Publications | + posts

Suzanne Bouffard is vice president, publications at Learning Forward. She is the editor of The Learning Professional, Learning Forward’s flagship publication. She also contributes to the Learning Forward blog and webinars. With a background in child development, she has a passion for making research and best practices accessible to educators, policymakers, and families. She has written for many national publications including The New York Times and the Atlantic, and previously worked as a writer and researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Duke University and a B.A. from Wesleyan University. She loves working with authors to help them develop their ideas and voices for publication.


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