Classrooms seeing nontraditional teachers

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Jordan Garner, a psychology major, works as a fifth-grade teacher in Norman Public Schools, made possible through Oklahoma's emergency certification program.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Working with children has long been Jordan Garner's passion.

After graduating from an Oklahoma college with a psychology degree, the 27-year-old took a job in mental health working with children. Then she decided to try her hand at substitute teaching in Texas.

She learned from a family member that Oklahoma offered aspiring educators an alternative route into the classroom through the state's emergency certification program. Being able to gain both classroom and teaching experience while taking the certification tests appealed to her.

So she took a leap of faith, accepted a fifth-grade teaching job with Norman Public Schools and moved north.

During the 2011-12 school year, emergency teaching certificates were relatively unheard of -- only 32 teachers were using them. As districts struggle to find teachers to fill their classrooms, the number of educators using the certification has increased by nearly 9,400 percent, according to data compiled by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Last school year, a record 3,038 teachers were emergency certified, according to the group. And ahead of the upcoming school year, 818 people have already been emergency certified.

Traditional certified teachers graduate from approved college teacher programs and have passed several competency exams.

To get an emergency certification, most applicants must have a college degree, two years work experience or graduate coursework related to their degree field and verify they're competent in the subject they plan to teach. An emergency teacher then has two years to complete the requirements to become alternatively certified.

"It just is a continuation of what we've seen as a trend," said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

She said teacher shortages are problems all over the country, but most states aren't experiencing it to the same extent.

"We disincentivized going into teaching as a profession, by all the cuts and not treating educators as professionals for so long," Priest said. "It's going to take time to reverse that trend. It's going to take years of investment to make up the deficit that there was in that pipeline."

When schools cut teaching jobs during the last recession, that hid the reality of the crisis, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the State School Boards Association.

Last year, districts added 1,100 new teaching positions.

Hime said he wouldn't be surprised if districts added at least 1,000 more this year as increased legislative funding helps reduce class sizes.

Making the transition

Now as they struggle to find traditional teachers, Oklahoma districts are increasingly turning to emergency certified teachers.

When she started teaching in Norman, Garner was nervous that she'd be stigmatized for being emergency certified.

The initial transition was challenging at times as Garner learned how to balance classroom management, student behavior and instruction. Still she was able to put her behavioral health background to use in her classroom to help students struggling with trauma.

"The best part was making a difference and seeing from the beginning of the year to the end of the year how much my students grew -- not just academically, but socially," she said.

Garner also found herself embraced by experienced teachers during her two-year quest to become alternatively certified. She received information, tools and resources for her classroom.

"When parents found out I cared and wanted to be there, I never felt judgment or anything," she said.

She also found preparing for certification tests while teaching a challenge.

"Just the reward of teaching kept me going, feeling like I was really making a difference," Garner said.

Priest said emergency teachers are "well-meaning." And, there are some amazing ones, but they may not have been amazing on day one.

"They have a college degree in some subject, and they feel like they want to give back by teaching, but the reality is teaching isn't about just knowing the subject," she said. "There are a lot of things that go with it that aren't just about knowing the subject matter."

Hime said it's important that schools and universities partner to ensure that emergency teachers are trained effectively and quickly to perform the duties required of them.

Still, Hime and Priest agree that having an emergency teacher is better than having none at all, increased class sizes or rotating substitutes.

It's going to take time to fix the teacher shortage crisis, Hime said.

It starts with incentivizing more students to go into teaching and finding ways to get those graduates to stay in Oklahoma, he said.

Increased teacher pay is helping too, he said. In the past four years, many districts have raised starting teacher pay from the low- to mid-$30,000 range to above $40,000, Hime said.

It's also going to take a continued financial investment in schools.

"It really does come down to properly funding public education," Priest said.

"We need to work together to solve this problem," Priest said. "Our students can't afford to miss a year of schooling because we didn't have a trained teacher in the classroom with them."

Garner, meanwhile, recently passed the tests necessary to become alternatively certified.

She'll soon start her third year as a fifth-grade teacher in Norman.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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