The bell rings on the first day of school. Two first-year teachers with perceptible nerves greet their students for the first time. One is a 22-year-old who has spent the last four years studying courses on instruction, educational theory, and pedagogy. The other is a 30-year-old who spent the last eight years working in finance and received a teaching certification through an alternative certification program over the summer. Is one of these teachers doomed to fail, or is the playing field relatively level?
Why Do People Choose the Alt Cert Path?
Is alternative certification deserving of the often-palpable stigma it receives? And why do people choose “alt cert” anyway?
In an effort to find the answers to these questions, I spoke to both alternatively and traditionally certified educators about their perceptions of and experiences with the alt cert route. Many of the alternatively certified educators I spoke with knew they wanted to teach long before they entered the profession, while some found a calling for education later in life. Regardless of when they decided to teach, many of these individuals found it almost impossible to quit their jobs or go back to school for a second degree.
Why? Perhaps my own experience can help illuminate the issue.
I grew up north of Dallas, and both of my parents were Texas public school teachers. I knew early on that I wanted to teach. After high school, I attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and while I had a wonderful experience, they did not offer an education program or a teaching certification option. So, I majored in history and creative writing and moved back to Texas after graduating.
I wanted to get my master’s in education but knew I needed to save some money first. I landed a job as a leasing consultant for a property management company and planned to stay only a short time. Five years later, after several promotions, marriage and a baby, I was managing a midsize staff and a 300-plus-unit luxury townhome community. It was then that I realized there would never be a “right time” to quit my job and go back to school. I received my alternative certification in 2015 and started teaching in Lake Dallas ISD the same year.
My story is not unique. Like many people who choose the alternative certification route, going back to school to get a second degree in education was not a feasible path for me.
While the reasons people choose to teach are diverse, for many educators, the choice to go through an alternative certification program is straightforward. One teacher I spoke with said the choice was easy: “I needed to work on my teaching certification requirements while I was still working a full-time job and taking care of a family. Alternative certification was the only thing that made sense.”
If you decide you’d like to teach and you already have a college degree in a field outside of education, you have three choices: (1) go back to school to receive a second bachelor’s degree, (2) pursue a master’s degree that includes a teaching certification, or (3) go through an alternative certification program. A second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree may take two or more years to complete, but an alternative certification program can often be completed in as little as a few months while still working a full-time job.
Perhaps it is because of circumstances like these that we’ve seen the number of alternatively certified teachers increase. In the 2013-14 school year, the number of teachers certified through an alternative route surpassed those certified through the university undergraduate route, and the number of alternatively certified educators has steadily risen each year since.
The Texas Education Agency officially recognizes more than 140 unique alternative certification programs. There are alt cert programs offered through universities, school districts, education service centers, community colleges, and private entities. With so many programs available, it’s no wonder alt cert is on the rise.
Are the Negative Perceptions of Alt Cert Teachers Justified?
Despite this upward trend, it’s no secret that we have all heard some negative stories about alternative certification—alt cert was generally frowned upon in education in the past. But is its poor reputation warranted?
Many skeptics have touted poor retention as one of the main reasons for their negative views toward alternative certification. In the 2015-16 school year, 89.7 percent of alternatively certified educators remained in the profession after the first year and 64 percent remained after five years. Admittedly, these numbers are markedly lower than the retention of university undergraduate certified teachers (94.5 and 75.6 percent after the first and fifth years, respectively).
Even so, the alt cert teachers’ retention rates are far from abysmal. In addition, statistics show that more alternatively certified teachers find jobs in education than their traditionally certified counterparts, shattering the myth that it is impossible to find teaching positions with an alternative certification. In the 2015-16 school year, 88.5 percent of alternatively certified teachers were employed in education, while 76.5 percent of university undergraduate certified educators were working in teaching positions (up from just 47.4 percent in 2011-12).
Conversations with alt cert teachers confirm the suspicion that the negative stigma surrounding alternative certification may be dissipating among administrators across the state. Of the alt cert educators interviewed, all confirmed that they had little to no difficulty finding a job in education, and many reported that their certification route played a minimal role in the interview process.
Are Alt Cert Teachers Properly Prepared for the Classroom?
In short, the answer is no. Regardless of education, background, training, observations, and student teaching, virtually no one is prepared for their first year of teaching. Teaching is a profession that requires ongoing flexibility, preparation, and the bravery to face potential failure each day.
Of the alternatively certified educators I spoke with, an overwhelming majority said they felt comparatively prepared and adequately supported during their first year of teaching. As one alt cert teacher said, “I felt overwhelmed and unprepared my first year, but no more so than my four-year counterparts. In fact, my life experiences gave me some advantages in particular situations.”
In my own experience, and in interviews with other alternatively certified educators, I have found that diverse backgrounds can bring unique and interesting perspectives to the classroom. The experience I gained while working in management translates well to the education setting. Marketing, budgeting, sales, management, training, coaching, motivating, and customer service are all valuable skills that I use every day as an educator. As one alt cert teacher said, “I think alternative certification is a great option. If I could do it all over again I would—just sooner.”
Teaching is one of the hardest and most important jobs in the world, and we need people in education who want to be there. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone found their calling to teach at 15 or 50—or the path they took to get there.
Katie Landaverde is a technology integration specialist at Lake Dallas ISD. She received her bachelor’s degree in creative writing and history from Eckerd College, and she is currently a graduate student in educational leadership at UNT. In 2017, Ms. Landaverde was named the winner of the second annual Rather Prize.
Numbers in infographics provided by the Texas Education Agency at tea.texas.gov/Reports_and_Data/Educator_Data/Educator_Reports_and_Data/. Numbers have been rounded to the nearest whole number.