This school year, Arizona administrators having trouble recruiting certified teachers filled about 22 percent of their open classroom positions by hiring educators through alternative pathways that include long-term substitutes, certified teacher interns, emergency teaching certificate holders and teachers from outside the United States, said Justin Wing, president of the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.
Of the 8,190 teacher positions that school administrators knew they needed to fill for this school year in 130 Arizona school districts and charter schools, about 1,831 were filled through alternative pathways, said Wing, director of human resources for Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix.
Alternative pathways provide experienced professionals who want to get back into education a way to do that and that’s good, but it’s also “a desperate measure to fill a desperate need,” said James Lotts, superintendent of Parker Unified School District in La Paz County.
Parker Unified started the year off with 12 teacher openings it wasn’t able to find certified teachers for, and filled them with long-term substitutes, teacher interns and emergency teaching certificate holders in order to provide an instructor in each classroom.
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Alternative certification programs for teachers “provide us a way to tap into a market of potential employees who have unique experiences and talents that can help our students in a variety of areas,” said Bryan Fields, superintendent of Joseph City Unified School District in Navajo County, which serves about 420 students.
Simplifying the teacher certification process would also help ease the teacher shortage, and “should include a clear and simple pathway for professionals in other fields to transition to the classroom and be monitored by the individual districts,” Fields said.
Nearly 50 percent of teacher openings would still remain vacant without alternative certification, Wing said. “It’s a good method to fill some slots, but it shouldn’t be the number one (method.)”
Catalina Foothills Unified School District is reporting great success with certified teacher interns who bring content expertise to hard-to-fill positions like science, math, special education and world language immersion classrooms, said Dr. Mary Kamerzell, superintendent of the Pima County district which serves about 4,943 students.
“Many of the language immersion teachers are native speakers who did not go through a formal teacher preparation program for certification,” Kamerzell said. “They are interested in being able to teach content in their native language, and it provides a valuable experience for our students.”
The development of a certified teacher intern program in early childhood education would also help the district staff harder-to-fill kindergarten teacher positions.
In Parker, administrators are encouraging school paraprofessionals with qualities and characteristics to be effective teachers to complete their bachelor’s degrees and go through alternative certification, and starting a Future Teachers of America program to encourage high school graduates to return to teach, Lotts said.
Mentoring new teachers
Arizona education leaders agree and studies have shown that mentoring is the key to developing new teachers and retaining current teachers. They say it may be even more important for those who take non-traditional paths to the classroom.
“Rural schools are really struggling to recruit certified teachers, and there is a contingency of professionals out there who are currently not teachers and are attracted to education because of the intrinsic rewards that it has to offer,” Fields said. “Some of these professionals, with a little guidance and training through an effective mentoring program, can become very effective teachers for our students.”
Joseph City Unified pairs new teachers with highly-qualified, highly-effective, and experienced mentors who provide resources and guidance in preparing lessons and analyzing data.
All teachers in their first three years in Catalina Foothills Unified, Washington Elementary and several other Arizona school districts are involved in an induction program.
“The support includes curriculum mentors, building mentors, and instructional coaches for support and coaching,” Kamerzell said. “They are also involved in professional development where they have a choice to pursue topics that are of special interest or address a need for them.”
Washington Elementary’s BEGIN program is led by master teachers who help new teachers in a particular grade level or subject area with classroom setup, classroom management, lesson plan development and more. Instructional coaches at each school and the district also support new teachers.
Coaching sessions often include reviewing observations and providing constructive feedback and can also include analyzing a video of the teacher presenting a lesson and working with students.
Or a coach might arrange for a substitute for the new teacher and take the new teacher to another school to watch master teachers. Then the coach will whisper to the new teacher “You see how they’re doing this?” to help the new teacher build their skills, Wing said.
Parker Unified’s instructional coach frequently visits new teachers’ classrooms to observe, informally evaluate and give teachers immediate suggestions, Lott said.
Pay: ‘The elephant in the room’
Most administrators agree that increased funding for education and higher teacher’s salaries would reverse the teacher shortage and are necessary to retain teachers no matter what pathway they take to the classroom.
“This teacher shortage is one of the most critical crossroads we’ve been at in education for a number of years,” Lotts said. “We can’t provide quality education to students if we don’t have quality people in the classrooms.”
He added that what our policy makers do will dictate how public schools deal with the teacher shortage in the long term.
“Teacher pay is the number one, number two and number three issues. That’s the elephant in the room for some, but if that doesn’t get addressed, it doesn’t matter,” Wing said.
“I’ve seen more teachers in the last couple of years crying and saying, I can’t support my family, I need to leave the profession, I love Washington Elementary School District, I love teaching,” Wing said.
Teachers’ salaries are very low relative to the importance and intensity of their work, Kamerzell said.
“Teachers don’t necessarily become part of this profession for the pay, but they should not be penalized or discouraged from following their passion to help kids because they see that becoming a teacher will not provide them with an adequate salary,” Fields said.
When Lotts goes to job fairs in other states, he sometimes finds his booth next to school districts from other states that offer from $5,000 to $15,000 more in salary than Parker Unified, which means few people stop by to talk with him.
Another key issue is respect, and it is related to pay. The accountability systems in place have had a negative effect on public perception of the teaching profession, Kamerzell said.
“If teacher pay is not an urgent and meaningful priority to the state, it (the teacher shortage) is going to get worse,” Wing said.