Traditional or Alternative Teaching Certification?
July 31, 2008 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm seriously considering becoming a teacher, and am not sure if I should pursue traditional or alternative certification. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's done either, and what the pros and cons were for you.

I have an English degree and worked as a teacher's assistant in preschools for several years through and after college. I know I love kids, and I THINK I would like teaching, but I'm not completely sure I want to leave my fairly comfortable, well-paying, but passionless job to risk it. If I do decide to become a teacher, I want to make sure that I'm well-prepared enough to deal with everything that it will entail, but I'd also prefer not to waste time and accumulate debt in a traditional program if it's not completely necessary. So, what do you think? Any anecdotes and advice would be much appreciated!
posted by odayoday to Work & Money (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if you live in the US or not, but many private schools here do not require any certification at all to teach. That may be another route to pursue.
posted by bitterpants at 11:17 AM on July 31, 2008


The cost, in time and money, will be (should be) much lower. Since you won't earn large sums of money afterward, this is important.

Here's my general suggestion - if you have a particular location in mind (e.g., you don't want to move), contact the school districts the area, and see if they run their own alternative certification program. Districts that are chronically short of teachers may; those typically are also the districts that are, for most people, tougher to teach in. Also see if you can sub in them. Get the view on the ground. Avoid TFA.

If you decide to jump in, here's something else (potentially important for success and your general happiness): since you've been in the classroom ... consider What you want to teach, and How you want to teach it, How you want to run your classroom. Some schools / principals will fit you better than others.

As for non-public schools, I've known a few Montessori school teachers over the years, and they were outrageously happy with what they were doing.
posted by coffeefilter at 11:21 AM on July 31, 2008

I started in a traditional program, dropped out to pursue other options, and when I went back to teaching I did the alternative licensure program in my state. It was definitely a better way to go for me because while I was taking my classes, I was working full time and moving up my district's salary schedule. That alone has a benefit of several thousands of dollars per year. Also, student teaching is kind of a scam. You work full time for a semester, but instead of getting paid, you have to pay tuition for the "privilege." With alternative licensure, I didn't have to go that route.

That said, alternative licensure is not for everyone. I already had several years of teaching experience in private schools and on the college level, so I had acquired some of the basic skills that teachers need to succeed. My first year was rough, and if I hadn't already had some experience with lesson planning and classroom management, I may well have quit mid-year.

My advice to anyone who thinks they want to be a teacher is to apply to be a substitute teacher with your local school district. If you can handle being a sub, you can handle almost anything. And if you decide you hate it, you haven't wasted time and money on an educational program that isn't for you.
posted by baho at 11:26 AM on July 31, 2008

I'm about to enter my 4th year teaching in an urban middle school. I started under a provisional license after having had only 2 classes related to teaching, but worked my way through grad school (MAT) over the course of 3 years. This worked very well for me, ultimately, but was a little roiugh in the beginning.

While it was good for me to immediately get into the classroom and to have the actual classroom exposure while in grad school, the lack of teaching training my 1st year made the job difficult and frustrating. I almost quit several times. I have seen a number of yet-to-be-certified teachers quit during or after their first year. I made it through, but many don't.

My education in teaching has been very valuable in both framing how I approach the profession of teaching and the tools and knowledge available to me while in with the kids. Being in the classroom made my grad classes more applicable along the way, too. A good teacher training program will have you well-prepared to be a teacher.

Also, most school systems will pay for classes along the way.
posted by john m at 11:32 AM on July 31, 2008

Go with the alternative certification. In Texas, it cost a little, but it got me into the classroom within basically 2 months of deciding I wanted to teach. I took about a month and a half of classes, and then we observed throughout the year. It was a great experience, and even though I'm not teaching anymore, with my certification, I'm still able to, if I were to so choose.
posted by SNWidget at 11:37 AM on July 31, 2008

I would imagine that more than a few people here and elsewhere will tell you about how wonderful the teaching profession is, how it’s fulfilling and righteous and noble. These people are all correct, but there’s another side to the whole thing, and people don’t like to talk about it, because to do so makes one sound like a prick. I’m going to be that guy right now. I’m going to tell you about some of the serious problems with the teaching profession. Not to discourage you exactly, but because I think our teachers would be better off knowing some of this stuff ahead of time, so they wouldn’t have to spend the first few years being completely clueless and naive about how the system works.

Before I do this, I want to protect my own hide and say that I really did enjoy being a teacher, and I have nothing but the greatest respect for my former co-workers and teachers everywhere. They really are doing good work; the fact that I quit teaching is more a reflection of my temperament than anything else.

I went through an alternative certification program in Texas. It was set up so that you take a majority of your classes over a summer, with a smidge of time spent in a summer school classroom. Following that, you get hired as a teacher (hopefully), and then you have a teaching job w/ night/weekend classes for about six hours/week.

The summer stuff isn’t hard, especially if you don’t have to do any outside/money-making jobs in the meantime. (FWIW, I did have a part-time job working evenings and weekend during the summer program.) Additionally, it is really nice to be able to get the majority of certification done in 12 weeks, rather than over two years or whatever.

However, a couple of caveats: first, I had a HARD time taking classes while I was a teacher. Most of the teachers with whom I worked thought I must have been the terminator or something to be able to do that, because the first year of teaching is VERY stressful, no matter what type of program you take. Generally, you are entrusted with 20+ children, with very little oversight. You will try to keep way too many people happy: principals, assistant principals, 20+ children, their 40 (or sometimes 60+) parents, other teachers, specialists, other staff members. It’s more than a little overwhelming. (I taught 3rd grade for a year, and then moved up for 5th grade for several years.)

Additionally you will feel like you need to put in 50 or 60 hours or more each week into your job. This won’t be just because you want to work hard: this will be suggested to you by your teaching program as well. This is in addition to the classes YOU are taking, and the homework for those classes. This is hard to pull off if you have a family, or any kind of social life.

However, once you get through that first year, you don’t have any more evening classes, and you will already have a year under your belt. It won’t become super-easy, but it will be considerably easier than before. Even then, though, you should expect it will STILL be very difficult. Most teachers and principals I know think that it takes at least five years before a teacher has been around enough to really be comfortable in the job. This is a long time. And I suspect that it’s why so many teachers walk out between 2 and 5 years.

This isn’t to say it’s too difficult. It simply requires a HUGE commitment.

However, there are a couple of other hurdles that make it difficult. There is a fair amount of soul-killing bullshit to the profession. You are going to sit in meetings about whether little Johnny should be placed in some alternative program, whether special ed or speech or what-have-you. You’re going to have to listen to people who are “experts” in their field and who have spent all of half an hour with Johnny you see every day all day give their opinion. Maybe they’ll be right. Maybe not. But in the end, you’ll probably defer to them, because they’ve been working in the school for much longer than you.

Further, you are going to see early on that all of your great ideas won’t mean bupkiss if your students’ standardized test scores don’t cut the mustard. Everybody – and by that I mean EVERYBODY – in the school system knows that the standardized tests by which we grade schools is complete bullshit. But nobody will ever do anything about that, and in fact these same principals who know that the testing is bullshit will still hold YOU accountable if your students don’t keep up. Many times, they will be right. My point here isn’t to say that principals are stupid. It’s just hard for people like myself, who became a teacher after working in a for-profit world, to see a person’s job performance graded according to a set of standards that by all accounts doesn’t work.

Finally, the elephant in the room: pay. If you’re just out of college, 30 or 40 grand a year sounds pretty good. And it is. It’s great pay for a person who has no major debt (besides college), no family, no house payments, etc. And one could continue to live off of that kind of salary one’s whole life. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But sometimes, it’s hard when you see veteran teachers. You watch them teach and you think, “damn. This woman is incredible. She should be videotaped, and shown to new teachers all over the world, because if we could all teach like this, we could change the world.”

And then you look at the pay scales for your district and you realize that she, a veteran teacher who was teaching 5th grade when you were IN fifth grade, makes about ten thousand dollars more than you. And you see that you will never, ever be rewarded financially for good work. There will be no bonuses, there will be no raise based on performance. You will get a raise of x% next year. And that moron who teaches next door to you? The one who literally can’t find Iraq on a map? That idiot is going to get the exact same raise. (And believe me, those people are working in your local school system right this very minute.)

And the more years you teach, the more years you are going to have nothing on your resume that looks attractive to the non-educational world. This isn’t to say that there aren’t lots of non-teaching job opportunities that can come out of teaching. But many of those opportunities (sales, IT, libraries, etc.) are probably just as available to you already. You don’t have to be a teacher to become an IT guy for a school system. However, if you decide you want to do sales in anything other than educational items/books after ten years of teaching, you’re going to have a tough go of it.

My point here isn’t to make you not want to teach. It’s to warn you. Teaching can be a very rewarding profession. Everybody will tell you that. I’m sure you’ll hear a billion stories about those kinds of rewards, so I’m not going to go into them. But there are rewards and then there are rewards. The kinds of rewards that teaching affords aren’t the kind that I’m interested in. And that’s okay. My point here is to let you know that, since you appear to not be 100% absolutely gung-ho about teaching, to really sit down and determine what it is you want to do with your life. If you really, really care about working with students, if you really do eschew financial rewards in favor of emotional ones, if you really are content with working a job that is an honest-to-god struggle on a daily basis, then you will probably be a GREAT teacher. But think about it first.
posted by nushustu at 11:58 AM on July 31, 2008 [11 favorites]

Very good points, you guys. It's definitely something I'm still unsure about, and yeah, I think that I tend to look at the glowy-I-love-kids side of things, when that's not the full picture, obviously. Finances aren't my main concern; I'm more worried about whether I'm suited for the job and would enjoy it, so information in any form helps a lot. Thank you for taking the time to reply, I really appreciate it!
posted by odayoday at 1:00 PM on July 31, 2008

nushustu, there is a considerable amount of research out now that shows that principal and teacher accountability really does make a difference in student achievement. The question is whether or not you want to be accountable. Teachers in unions don't have to worry about merit increases. We get raises whether or not our students learn. Google "90/90/90 Schools" for a beginning point on the documentation of schools that are amking a difference with kids because they hold everyone in the building accountable. I also worked in the corporate world for a long time and saw plenty of people fail their way up the ladder!
posted by archimago at 1:00 PM on July 31, 2008

I think nushustu's point is that the current standardized tests in many schools *are* bullshit and holding teachers accountable to performance on those is what is stupid.
posted by R343L at 1:28 PM on July 31, 2008

archimago, I'm not arguing that it's perfect out in corporate world, on the contrary. And I grant you that teachers/staff absolutely should be held accountable for their work, just like everybody else. But the fact is that there are eleventy-seven different ways to game that system, so that schools can keep their exemplary ratings, and almost all of those ways are detrimental to the students.

Furthermore, it's no big surprise that schools in wealthier neighborhoods have less worry about keeping their high ratings, while poorer schools oftentimes struggle with their testing numbers. As a result, many schools in poor neighborhoods end up doing much more standardized test prep, as opposed to really good, higher-level thinking that one finds at wealthier schools. This just widens the gap.

The problem isn't that teachers shouldn't be held accountable, the problem is we grade everybody on the same scale. I've had students who have had parents in prison, who don't get enough sleep or enough food, who's lives I wouldn't wish upon any child. Many times, these children don't focus their lives around learning geometry or social studies: they focus it around survival. I've had a child who I let sleep the first hour of school every day. She just couldn't handle school without a little more sleep. Technically, this was against the law, but it's what that child needs. Now, my job is going to be judged based on how my students do on a single test, and my level of achievement based on comparisons with other teachers. Not other teachers in my school, mind you. Other teachers throughout the state. So that the teachers who see 20 children who all get enough to eat, plenty of sleep, after-school programs, individual tutoring, etc. are compared to me. As if they are better teachers.

And see, here's where it gets ugly. Because what I'm kind of hinting at is, you can't judge the teacher's work based on the students he or she gets. And the reason for this is, some students are just going to have so much easier times in school. And the ugly part is when I say this, it sounds like I'm saying that some kids are smarter than others. But that's not what I'm saying. What I AM saying is, some parts of society are predisposed to placing importance of a good education higher on their priority list than other parts. Which means that if you teach in the latter part of society, your job is exponentially higher than if you teach in the former part.
posted by nushustu at 1:38 PM on July 31, 2008

or on preview, what R343L said, lots more succinctly.
posted by nushustu at 1:38 PM on July 31, 2008

If alternative certification is available, do it. I just finished my certification in California and it was a bitch. I had to student teach all day and take classes at night. When you student teach, you're in charge. You write all the lesson plans, you teach all the lessons, you manage the classroom. But you're not paid. Had I been able to, I would have done alternative cert. At least you're getting paid for what you would be doing otherwise.

The downside to alternative cert is that you begin teaching before you get a chance to take any teaching methodology courses. That can make operating your classroom more difficult, but you'll figure it out if you're good at improvising and adapting. You're going to have a tough year, to be sure. But you would have a tough year regardless of how you get certified. At least get paid for your time, effort, and stress.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:02 PM on July 31, 2008

I struggled through a secondary education program at University after earning my BS in Math. I say "struggled" because: (a) I found about 3/4 of it not particularly useful (b) certain things just felt harder to deal with as I got older -- either the education professors were more inclined to treat their college students like secondary students, or as I got older, I was losing patience with University study (or both). And when it got to be time for student teaching, I also felt like it was a scam -- paying to work full-time with no vacation for four months wasn't easy.

On the other hand, some of the useful stuff was *very* useful (thank you, Sec Ed 376, for introducing me to William Glasser), some of the earlier practicum was revealing about my strenghts and weaknesses, and as for student teaching, dropping a few grand to really get an inside view of the challenges and rewards involved in actual public school teaching may have been cheap comparing to spending an entire career year.

I don't know much about the alternative certification process, but given that you already have significant experience as a teacher's assistant, I suspect that you've already derived the benefits I got from the traditional route.

nushustu sums up a raft of concerns that I saw (and I did my student teaching in a place that was quite likely above average). Ultimately they weren't the reason I bailed out, but they played a contributing role, and they're worth considering.
posted by weston at 2:02 PM on July 31, 2008

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