A heart for teaching

National | But not a certificate: Alternate certification is catching on

Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

New Jersey native Jay Wilson, 23, was pursuing a traditional college career track to become a teacher when he bailed out and moved to the Youth With A Mission teacher training school in Tyler, Texas. "I just wasn't learning anything useful [for teaching]," he told WORLD. "I wasn't being prepared."

Melani Hartwig, 19, never even considered attending a traditional teacher's college back in her native South Africa. She eventually worked in England, saving her money to get to YWAM's training program. "I heard about this program and it seemed to be everything I wanted," she said in crisp, British-tinged diction. "God brought me here." Now, instead of being halfway through her sophomore year of college, she's a few months away from becoming a teacher.

YWAM's training program is just one of many alternative routes available today to aspiring teachers, marking a growing trend that even President Clinton is warming to. Other alternative certification programs include: The "Peace Corps Fellows Program" in Kansas that puts former Peace Corps volunteers into classrooms with "mentor teachers" for two years; Utah's "Eminence or Special Qualification Program" that allows professionals from various fields to teach for a maximum of two class periods per day; Georgia's "Permitted Personnel" effort that seeks artists, native speakers of foreign languages, and other "recognized experts" to teach, so long as they can pass any applicable teacher certification tests and the district can show there are no regularly certified teachers who could fill the slot; and Michigan's "Emergency Permit" program, in which schools-not teachers-get permission to hire non-teachers with other degrees.

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In his speech two weeks ago to a governor's education summit the president casually suggested opening the schoolhouse doors to professionals who want to be teachers, but who lack traditional teachers' degrees. His interest underscores growing evidence that some of the best teachers are those with real-life training, not ivory-tower diplomas.

The Hoover Institute's Thomas Sowell questions the traditional track: "Not only do such credentials not guarantee any intellectual quality, they are all too often signs of a lack of intellect. Highly qualified college students are repelled by the kinds of Mickey Mouse courses and programs that lead to such credentials."

Not surprisingly, teachers unions oppose the new trend as vehemently as they oppose school choice, since those pursuing non-traditional routes to teaching positions usually lack union sympathies, and are more open to free-market ideas for reforming the education system, such as voucher plans. "[Teachers unions] say the alternative programs are scab programs, quick-and-dirty ways to get a certificate," says Emily Feistritzer of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, which tracks alternative certification efforts. "The whole [traditional] school of thought is that more education is better, not less, and it's a problem for them that you can become a good teacher in just two years, as opposed to their four-year or six-year programs."

The increase in alternative teaching options came about in the 1980s when good teachers were in short supply. "Some states developed 'emergency certificates' and 'alternative certificates' for people who wanted to teach but hadn't met all the requirements of the state education agency," says Mrs. Feistritzer.

States such as New Jersey found, to their surprise, that the certificates were snapped up fast, often by successful professionals who wanted to move into teaching while avoiding added years of school to get a teaching degree. States were happy to oblige, and now 41 states have developed alternative certification programs. The most popular seems to be the Department of Defense's "Troops to Teachers" program, which helps put out-placed military personnel into classrooms. Based in Pensacola, Fla., the program has placed teachers in 40 states and 340 school districts.

In most of these programs, men and women with college degrees and real-world experience are given crash courses in things like drawing up lesson plans, teaching theory, and behavior issues. The summer-long courses are then followed by a year-long apprenticeship, but during that time the aspiring teacher is active in the classroom. After a year or two under a "mentor teacher," official and permanent certification is granted.

More than half of those seeking alternative certification are men, compared to less than a third in traditional degree programs, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Information. Of the men seeking alternative certification, a third previously were in business and another third were in the military. The average age is 38. More than half the aspiring teachers have never taught before.

Jim Kilkenny helped Youth With A Mission develop a program for training teachers that doesn't even require a college degree. "We look at whether that person has truly been called by God to teach," said Mr. Kilkenny, who was a public school teacher in California before coming to Texas with YWAM.


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