So You’re Considering Alternative Certification?

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Once you've answered the question "to teach or not to teach?", the next question you'll have to answer is "how will I get certified?" These days, aspiring teachers have a number of avenues into the classroom, through either traditional pathways or alternative certification pathways. Whether you're a recent college graduate who didn't major in education or you're a career changer, the alternative certification pathway represents a viable option.

If you're considering alternative certification, keep in mind that not all programs are the same. You'll want to research the structure, quality, and cost of programs before you apply. Getting some important answers up front can help you find a program that will set you up to give your students a great education from day one - and for years to come.

As an easy first step, use Path To Teach to learn more about the quality of programs. While Path To Teach does not have an exhaustive list of all alternative certification programs, it does include quality information for 85 programs across 22 states (see the search function on the left-hand side of your screen and select "Alternative Path to Teaching"). After reviewing these rankings and identifying programs of interest, you'll want to find out the answers to a few more questions before making a final decision. Some of these may be answered on Path To Teach, while others may require some additional digging on your part.

What is the program's model? Alternative certification programs come in different forms, and you should know the differences. Internships are programs that focus on quickly getting participants into the classroom as the "teacher of record." Internships can be offered by public or private universities, school districts or free standing organizations like Teach For America. On the other side are Residency models, where candidates train in the classroom of a mentor teacher for a school year before becoming the teacher of record.. Both types of  programs will require you to take coursework while serving as an intern or resident, but the experience of taking coursework -- not to mention the whole weight of the responsibility of teaching! -- will be very different depending on whether you are teaching full-time and also taking coursework on evenings and/or weekends, or only taking on some classroom responsibilities and taking coursework as well. More on this later.

What is the program's coursework structure? Alternative certification pathways differ from traditional pathways in that they will typically get you into the classroom quicker. That said, many states still require alternative certification candidates to complete additional coursework (either through the program itself or from a local university). Typically you will complete at least some of this work concurrently with your work in the classroom, taking classes on nights and weekends. Since teaching already requires a tremendous time commitment, it's important to understand how much more time you'll need to commit to coursework, especially during your first year.

What type of "clinical practice" model does the program use? Alternative certification programs utilize a number of different approaches for "clinical practice," or the time you spend in the classroom before you're the official teacher in charge. For example, Teach For America uses a summer institute during which candidates take classes and teach summer school under the tutelage of a certified teacher. The organization then provides ongoing professional development and support from teacher mentors once candidates are placed in a full-time teaching position. In contrast, residency models typically place candidates in a position as a support teacher for up to a year while candidates take classes and before candidates accepting a full-time role.

What is the program's time commitment? Some programs also have differing time commitments. Teach For America requires a two-year teaching commitment whereas some residency programs require a four-year teaching commitment. It's also worth noting that many cities and states have their own alternative certification programs and that I've only described two out of hundreds of possible options with varying time commitments.

What do the program's support systems look like? Speaking as a teacher who struggled mightily in his first semester, the kind of help you get can make or break you. In particular, you should explore how programs coach teachers and how often they provide feedback on your teaching, whether they have collaborative opportunities like content teams, whether they cluster teachers together at schools, and whether they offer experienced teachers as mentors. This may seem like a small piece, but trust me, it can be the difference between succeeding or failing in year one. I wouldn't have made it through my first year without my teacher coach, my content support team, or the group of five teachers going through the same alternative certification pathway as me that were clustered together at my first school.

What are their graduates' track records? Before I selected my alternative certification route, I spent a considerable amount of time looking for evidence that the program was successful - because I knew my success as a teacher depended on the program's ability to teach me how to teach. Not all alternative certification programs are created equal - some produce better results than others when it comes to student performance. You want to make sure you pick one that has a good track record of preparing quality educators. Unfortunately, not all programs publicly share their results, so this is something to ask about as you explore potential programs. Some topics you might ask about include student achievement under program participants, how long program graduates typically stay in the classroom, and graduate satisfaction. Those data points should be enough to give you a good idea of the program's quality.

What is it going to cost me? There's no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true about teacher prep programs and it's something you need to consider before going that route. It's not enough just to ask about costs, however. You also need to consider whether you will be paid a stipend or a salary while completing the residency or internship. Going back to our models from the first section, interns (as teachers of record) draw the same salaries as novice teachers. By contrast, residencies provide stipends that are usually less than teacher salaries. This is because residents are not teachers of record. Regardless, you will likely need to pay some amount to complete the coursework required to obtain certification in your state. Alternative programs will each be somewhat unique in their individual costs, so it's important to ask about both the costs and the compensation you will receive.

Once you've answered all these questions, the final and perhaps most important one for you consider should be - Is alternative certification the right model for me? Some candidates will excel in a program that puts you in the classroom immediately, while others may rather take the traditional approach of attending a school of education over a number of years before stepping in front of kids. That's a question that everyone must answer for him or herself. But if you decide that alternative certification is the route you want to take, I hope these questions can help you identify a program that will set you on the path to achieve the kinds of transformational outcomes I know you want for your students.