The First in a Series: Why Traditional Teacher Certification Programs are Systematically Designed to Fail Children At-Risk and In Poverty

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

Scenario. A kid on a field trip to a space museum uses his considerable athletic ability to jump the fence guarding an exhibit of old plutonium and other flammable liquid chemicals. He hides where only his peers can see him, banging on the metal canisters with an old kitchen hammer. He’s in the process of scoring "way macho" points with his admiring peers when one of the canisters tips, rolls, and crashes into the wall. An alarm goes off and sirens start to scream. As the students exit in an orderly fashion, out of the corner of her eye, the teacher notices Raymond and ensuing is the conversation the teachers had about this clearly at-risk student.

The first teacher: "That kid! He’ll be the death of me! The minute I turn around, he’s into trouble! Always the same thing, same kid, same rotten family, same story."

"Who’s supposed to be in charge here?" says the next teacher in line. "I just came along because they needed somebody. I’m not in charge. Who’s in charge?"

Ms. Behrens, the most senior of the teachers was overheard saying to a novice, "Why don’t the parents bring these kids up better? I’ll tell you, I never would have done that when I was young. We’re lucky we’re not all dead!" Looking back at the kid now terrified behind the fence, the novice responds, "I’m sure as heck not going in there; these are new jeans."

So while a young life stands in mortal danger, one adult blames the victim, another pins the parents, yet another passes the buck, and the youngest one worries about her outfit.

Who can teach children at risk? "Behind the fence neck-deep in plutonium" describes the context of teaching children at risk and in poverty. It’s simply wrong to educate teachers generically. Most teacher training programs fail to differentiate for the context in which the teacher will actually ply his or her skills. Can someone who learns to swim at the YMCA in a heated pool greeted with warm fluffy towels at the end of a short session necessarily swim the English Channel? Yet that is the model we currently persist in trying to make succeed. Traditional teacher certification is like learning to swim at the Y. Nursed along in gradually increasing increments up until several weeks of fulltime teaching are attained--usually in the suburbs where it is easy for professors from the local college to supervise--new teachers then are hired to teach at-risk kids. It’s like suddenly being asked to swim The English Channel on a stormy day - teaching in the classrooms of the nation’s neediest children.

Teacher turnover is largely due to not being prepared for the context in which a teacher often first finds herself teaching. Typically, no endorsement for "Urban Teaching" or "At-risk Teaching" exists in any state. Yet teaching at risk youth involves finding, certifying, and keeping teachers who see it as their life’s work to jump the fence, to mentor plutonium lovers, to extricate them from land mines, and to set their feet on solid academic ground. Happily, finding and certifying such teachers is a science about which educators now have significant research and knowledge. This can be done; these teachers can be found, but they cannot be found in traditional teacher education programs or in the same old ways we found teachers in the last millennium.

In short, teachers who succeed with children at risk have to be more committed, more perseverant, more resilient, and far more mature (not necessarily older, but more mature) than teachers of students who are broadly advantaged. Teachers who succeed with at-risk youth are often certified in alternative teacher certification programs, and not in traditional ways. Why is this so?

Perfectly Designed to Fail Children at Risk: Traditional Certification Programs. The traditional teacher certification system is perfectly designed to fail. It ensures that the nation will continue to provide a teaching force exactly like what we have been getting in decades previous: late adolescent Anglo females from the suburbs. Why does the traditional teacher certification route systemically ensure this failure-a drearily inadequate pool from which to draw teachers for the nation’s neediest kids? There are at least four reasons.

First, because many of the students who study education do so as part of an undergraduate program, the traditional model weeds out those who are mature and caters to those who are immature. Youth twenty years old (some younger during student teaching) cannot be expected to put others, especially students at risk, first. Their stage of life is centered on "me-ness." They can be expected to worry instead about typical late adolescent concerns: what will I wear? Who will I date Friday night? Will I get enough sleep and will the alarm really go off? What if the principal doesn’t like me? Will the children love me?

These and other similar concerns are the normal concerns of any youth just starting a first regular job. However, new teachers are not just starting their first regular job; the stakes are much, much higher. Because there are few "perks" in teaching beyond working your way out of teaching "basic" courses and into "advanced" gifted, or advantaged students’ classes, novice teachers disproportionately effect the fate of some of the neediest of the nation’s students in their early years. They often struggle so hard they quit or fail, apparently adding to the teacher shortage.

The second reason why traditional teacher certification programs are perfectly designed to fail is that students in a traditional undergraduate teacher certification program, because of who they are demographically - Anglo suburban-raised females - are unlikely to understand the basic survival need of youth, resiliency. While successful urban or rural teachers might be able to teach suburban students, the reverse is not necessarily true.

Teachers build their understanding of at-risk students’ resilience either on their own backgrounds or on a cerebral or researched understanding of the resilience needed by at-risk youth to survive and thrive in less than optimal conditions. Many novices from traditional teacher certification programs have no idea what resilience is, why it is important, or how to support resilience in their at-risk students. They themselves may not have encountered life-threatening hurdles or had to become resilient. Yet research demonstrates recurrently the pivotal role of teachers in mentoring at-risk youth, moving them along to college attendance, to careers of value, and to productive lives (Levine, A., and J. Nidiffer. 1996. Beating the odds: how the poor get to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. xxvii.) Precisely what students need is someone who is there for them, not there for themselves. Yet in the traditional model, a culture of resilience is practically unknown. Little is taught or demonstrated about resilience in college courses or by tenured professors, yet little is of greater consequence to the nation’s at-risk youth.

Third, traditional teacher programs fail because the structure of college-based certification itself keeps out of the profession those the schools most earnestly need: older, mature, mid-life or career switchers or early retirees who want to "give something back" to others. This is the cadre forming the bulk of alternative teacher certification programs (Feistritzer, E.and David Chester. Alternative Routes to Teaching Escalate in Just the Last Two Years. <>. November 27, 2000, p. 2.) Traditionally, classes are frequently scheduled for the convenience of the professors, causing mature or mid-career individuals to have to either miss work or choose between entering teaching or feeding their families. Not only do mature candidates need after-work classes, they require continuity of retirement benefits, insurance, and other life necessities to make a switch from their current career to teaching. In the traditional model, early field experiences of increasing lengths of time interfere both with taking courses and work. Student teaching is another major hurdle to mid-career teacher education candidates. Student teaching requires individuals quit any fulltime employment and give the "cooperating" school a fulltime but non-paying commitment. Further, the university charges at least 12 credit hours in tuition. The experience may further require a second rent payment for housing at the site, and may entail purchasing a new wardrobe. Few mid-lifers, unless independently wealthy, can afford the luxury of becoming a teacher using the traditional route.

Finally, the traditional model of teacher certification is perfectly designed to fail because it practically ensures that new teachers will have to learn the basics about relating to students who are culturally, demographically, gender, and ethnically diverse from themselves. New teachers may not understand their students’ language, may find students’ religious or philosophical backgrounds totally foreign, may inadvertently denigrate dress, hair, or accessory choices, may ignore body language or otherwise fail to register the basic coin of the realm of classroom success: respect. An orientation to the language of the culture is helpful; however, teachers born and raised - homegrown - in the culture of the students are certainly the optimal models for at-risk youth. The process of acclimating late adolescent novices to a range of cultural realities may take several years; on the other hand, individuals entering teaching through alternative routes are more likely to be themselves older, people of color, more likely to be male, to have real life experiences in occupations other than education, be local or "homegrown" and to have a degree with a major in the subject they wish to teach (Ibid).

Next issue: How Alternative Teacher Certification Programs Serve At-Risk Youth

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. For further information, see

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