The Third in a Series:Why Alternative Teacher Certification Programs are Uniquely Designed to Meet the Needs of at-Risk Students

Two Million by 2002?
Can Teachers Be Found and Certified to Teach Students at Risk?
by Vicky S. Dill, Ph.D. Delia Stafford-Johnson

Background. This is the third in a series of research-based columns about the form and functions of teacher certification and how teacher certification as a regulatory process effects students in classrooms every day. The first in the series, "Why Traditional Teacher Certification Programs are Systematically Designed to Fail Children At-Risk and In Poverty" discusses barriers traditional programs consistently pose to finding and hiring the best teachers for the nation’s neediest children and youth. The column concludes that the very teachers we need the most - the diverse, mature, male, and content-steeped candidates-are the most likely to be eliminated by the traditional route.

The second in the series, "How Alternative Teacher Certification Programs Serve At-Risk Youth" highlights the success of alternative teacher certification programs across the nation and notes basic program components. This column introduced the data and gave an overview of how alternative teacher certification programs progress throughout a typical year. Seeing the dramatic ways in which alternative teacher certification is different from the traditional helps readers understand the implications of many diverse models.

Today’s column, "Why Alternative Teacher Certification Programs are Uniquely Designed to Meet the Needs of At-Risk Students," addresses the shortage issue and focuses on two aspects of alternative teacher certification programs that provide advantages to diverse candidates: teacher maturity and at-risk student resilience. The short answer is yes, enough teachers can be found. But does the nation have the will to make the changes necessary to provide an excellent teacher for every child?

Yes! Yes! The short answer is yes; with thoughtful changes, an adequate supply of excellent teachers can be found so that every child has a teacher of great knowledge and who has the desire to help him or her succeed. There is no shortage of individuals who wish to be teachers; there is simply a shortage of individuals who can arrange to be certified in the traditional way - that is, via a program which requires a fulltime commitment to field experiences of increasing longevity at the individual’s expense, to fulltime student teaching at 12-credit hours’ expense, or to undergraduate coursework fulltime at considerable expense for a varying number of years. Yet there are many individuals with baccalaureate and more advanced degrees wishing to teach. Says Emily Feistritzer, President of the National Center for Education Information, an independent research firm which frequently testifies to various committees in Washington (DC) on the issue of the teacher workforce, "There’s no doubt about the increasing interest in alternative teacher certification; that interest is growing, not diminishing" (Telephone interview with Dr. Emily Feistritzer, January 15, 2001; see <>). Regional and school district-based directors of alternative teacher certification programs "second" the opinion that interest among mid-career switchers is increasing, not decreasing, despite a labor shortage nation wide. They turn away potential candidates every day because most programs only have enough resources to certify a limited number of candidates yearly. Directors of alternative programs can afford to be more selective. How do we know? Interest in interviews to select the best candidates is growing and Human Resource departments are demanding more research-based knowledge about how to select the best.

Among entities whose vested interest is not so much in gathering tuition-paying clients but in choosing teachers who will perform and be retained - alternative teacher certification programs and school districts selecting already certified teachers - inquiries about various selection instruments is on the rise. At The Haberman Educational Foundation, a not-for-profit organization which teaches principals and sitebased teams how to select the best teachers for at-risk and students in poverty, demand for training in The Haberman Star Teacher Selection instrument is up 65% over the last five years. Understanding the power of appropriate selection and the right interview to determine which candidates will stay and improve student achievement is a privilege which comes with having an adequate number of candidates from which to choose. This happens most often in the alternative teacher certification programs that can afford to be highly selective and in school districts aware of the high cost in achievement and raw dollars of high teacher turnover (more will be disclosed about research-based teacher selection in upcoming columns). When selected appropriately and when thoroughly prepared in a hands-on fashion for teaching in the exact vacancy in which they will be hired, alternatively certified interns bring a unique blend of qualities urgently needed by students at risk and in poverty - maturity and an understanding of the need to model resilience.

Teacher Maturity. Teacher Maturity. Alternative teacher certification program candidates or "interns," research has shown, blend a unique combination of qualities that well suit them to meet the needs of the nation’s underserved students. The programs recruit from cohorts of individuals whose background and situations would make access to a traditional program nearly impossible. Frequently, these individuals are changing careers after they have gained some experience in the workplace; they are likely to have been attorneys, realtors, shop foremen, soldiers, managers, homemakers or software developers. The field of candidates for alternative teacher certification programs includes anyone who has a baccalaureate degree from an accredited four-year college and who meets program specifications. These specifications vary from state to state, but might include assessment of grade point average, content knowledge, and other criteria such as passing a criminal record check, possessing skills to have excellent rapport with students, and demonstrating a keen desire to motivate and teach even the most challenging -- students who may be oppositional, resistant, or without hope.

What type of person would lay down their career midway and take up such a challenge? Individuals coming through alternative programs tend to have degrees in subjects other than education. They are likely to be older, to have work experience in occupations other than education, are more likely to be individuals of color and to be male than traditional cohorts. Moreover, they evidence a "strong commitment to helping young people learn and develop" (see Dill, Vicky Schreiber, M. Jo Hayes, and Delia Stafford Johnson, "Finding Teachers With Mature Life Experiences" Kappa Delta Pi Record, Fall 1999 Vol. 36, No. 1, 13ff. and Feistritzer, Emily and David Chester, "Alternative Routes to Teaching Escalate in Just the Last Two Years" <> ). Clearly, these are individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of the students they touch. Many have already made a considerable and visible mark in their own careers and no longer need the plaques, ribbons, or perks that mark "success" in the traditional job (see Barkley, Brenda, "Lessons from an Alternative Certification Program" in Kappa Delta Pi Record, Fall 1999 Vol. 36, No. 1, 23). So, in short, these are individuals who have themselves reached "maturity" - that time in their lives when they want to give back to others.

No where in any traditional nor in many alternative programs is it a prerequisite for students to understand or be able to demonstrate that a good teacher--particularly of students at risk--should be someone who wishes to "be there for others." The value of the place of "other-centeredness" in the lives of at-risk children cannot be taught in classes. Rather, it is a function of maturity. Renown author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes, "People develop their concept of who they are, and of what they want to achieve in life, according to a sequence of steps. . . The beginning of adulthood is characterized by a focus on others. The dominant themes of life shift from ‘me-ness’ to realizing oneself in activities such as helping, working with, contributing, giving, and responding to the needs of others as well. At this point the main goal in life becomes the desire for growth, improvement, the actualization of potential. The fourth step, which builds on all the others, is a final turning away from the self, back toward integration with other people and with universal values" (Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row, p. 222). This point is often reached mid-career.

In turning away from strictly viewing their own life’s progress and investing in the progress and growth of their students, teachers who empower students at risk do whatever it takes to help the student succeed. This may mean helping the students get into college, obtain a driver’s license, interview for and keep a decent-paying job. It may entail reading a student’s poetry, helping build a website, listening to a rock band, finding an auto repair school. In short, teachers who are "there for others" find the task involves doing whatever is necessary to help any promise within the student come to completion.

Resilience. Resilience. Why do some students, apparently against all odds, succeed? Their families are non-supportive or even dangerous; they live in violence-saturated neighborhoods; their peers are living on the edge. These students have become, seemingly miraculously, "resilient." They succeed despite having many strikes against them. A whole literature now exists examining these qualities and one of the most frequent findings is that many of these resilient students have a teacher in their lives who made all the difference in the world to them. Teachers reach out and support student resilience in a variety of ways, but one of the most effective ways a teacher can support the promise in the life of a student who, apparently, is working against many odds, is to model resilient behavior. Teachers from diverse backgrounds, who have themselves known hardship, who have lived or currently live in low-income neighborhoods, who are divorced, were teenage mothers, or developed--for a variety of reasons--the same skills students need provide excellent models of resilient living.

This type of model is unlikely to be found in the cadre of individuals graduating from traditional programs; traditional grads are often too young, tend to be middle or upper class, and are usually suburban in their orientation. Alternative teacher certification interns, on the other hand, are more statistically likely to meet the profile of an individual who is resilient and to be able to model this behavior.

In sum, In sum, alternative teacher certification programs, sixteen years ago, were begun to "fill vacancies." Over the last decade and a half, however, many positive effects of these programs have emerged. Not the least of these is a completely revolutionary paradigm for educating individuals who wish to teach, bringing them into the nation’s classrooms in larger and more effective cohorts, and finding they have more to offer than we ever could imagine. And because interns usually start their careers and stay teaching in traditionally "hard to staff" areas, these unexpected bonuses--the benefits of mid-career, mature, resilient, and highly motivated teachers - continue to be explored in the research. To date, that research brings us to the unexpected and amazing conclusion that alternative teacher certification will not only provide us with most if not all of the teachers we need; it will also provide exactly the type of mentors our most at-risk students so sorely need and so absolutely deserve.

Delia Stafford-Johnson and Dr. Vicky Schreiber Dill are President and CEO and Senior Researcher, respectively, of The National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information (NCATCI) at The Haberman Educational Foundation. Dr. Dill is Associate Director of Special Programs for Round Rock Independent School District (Round Rock, TX.) NCATCI and The Haberman Educational Foundation comprise a not-for-profit foundation providing extensive training to school districts nationwide in teacher and principal selection and development of alternative teacher certification programs. The selection instruments are based on the research provided by Martin Haberman, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and as discussed in his award-winning publications, Star Teachers of Children in Poverty and Star Principals of Children in Poverty. For further information, see

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