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Thinking about switching career paths to become a teacher? It’s daunting, but might be getting easier

State lawmakers recently paved the way for five initial alternative teacher preparation programs to take root in Minnesota.

photo of teacher standing in front of classroom of students
According to the state’s 2017 teacher supply and demand report, 15 percent of teachers leave the profession after one year; and just over a quarter leave the profession after three years.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Jessica Borba stayed home to raise her three children when they were young. When she first entered the workforce as an adult she worked for a clothing company geared toward mothers, eventually going back to college to study business while still working for the same company.

About half way through her program, though, she decided to change course and pursue a teaching degree. She’d always wanted to be a teacher — a dream inspired by her international travels, where she’d witnessed the power of education to transform lives, especially for girls.

It just took her a bit longer to get to a point where she felt it was a feasible option.

“It was a huge confidence booster — in my job and in my parenting — to feel I could actually be successful as a teacher,” she said, noting that she’d also come to realize, as an adult, that she didn’t have to be loud and outgoing to be a good teacher. “That was a big thing for me — realizing I could bring my personality to the table, as a teacher. I could be calm and bring the peaceful nature that I have to teaching.”

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While working on her teaching degree, through a college program that offered night and weekend classes, she worked as a paraprofessional in the Buffalo Public Schools district to gain classroom experience. It took her 10 years to complete college, but she finished in 2013 with a degree from a traditional teacher preparation program.

Now the 39-year-old teaches fifth grade in the Osseo Area Schools district. This marks her sixth year of teaching; she started out teaching in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. No matter where she lands, she has her sights set on serving at-risk youth — those who come from low-income families, have experienced trauma, and are often left behind, academically.

These are tough teaching environments, she says. And she often sees her younger colleagues leave after a few years. But her delayed pathway to teaching equipped her to do this work.

“The advantage, I think, is that as you get older you know so much better what you want to do and what strengths you bring to the table. You’re so much more self-aware. And as you get older, you have more stability as a person,” she said, noting this clarity gained with life experience gave her a solid sense of mission. “So even when the going gets tough, you can fall back on: ‘This is like a calling for me. So what can I do about the situation?’ You don’t necessarily walk away because it’s hard.”

A need for alternative pathways

Whether discouraged by the steep learning curve inherent in those first few years of teaching or by the pay or other factors, a number of new teachers end up walking away from the profession. According to the state’s 2017 teacher supply and demand report, 15 percent of teachers leave the profession after one year; and just over a quarter leave the profession after three years.

In an effort to address retention issues — and support homegrown teacher talent that’s more reflective of the diverse student population in many Minnesota schools — district administrators and state lawmakers have invested in a number of Grow Your Own teacher pipeline programs. For instance, the Minneapolis Public Schools district currently partners with the University of Minnesota to help paraprofessionals interested in becoming licensed teachers gain experience co-teaching in a classroom while completing college coursework simultaneously. To eliminate barriers for these nontraditional students, the program is expedited, allows them to continue working while working toward licensure, and comes with some funding attached.

Borba is familiar with this program because she welcomed a Grow Your Own program participant into her Minneapolis classroom last year. It meant more work for her, since she was both running a classroom and mentoring. But she felt vested in this model, she says, because it’s much more effective than learning how to teach largely from books and lectures, plus just a short stint of student teaching.

Reflecting on her own pathway to teaching, she questions whether the more traditional college program she attended really did much to prepare her for success in the classroom. On top of that, she’s still saddled with student loans.

In an effort to help alleviate some of the barriers to teaching that have long kept many would-be high-quality teachers from entering the profession — whether it be teachers of color or trades professionals, who are both in high demand, or simply career changers who bring their own unique assets to the profession — state lawmakers recently paved the way for five initial alternative teacher preparation programs to take root in Minnesota.

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As the initial batch of applicants moves through the approval process with the state’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, Alex Liuzzi, executive director of PELSB, says there’s a potential to see a new first in Minnesota: an alternative teacher preparation provider that operates independent of an institute of higher education.

“They may have partnerships with institutions of higher education … as an add-on to their program, but are very intentionally trying to be the actual entity that will recommend candidates [for teacher licensure],” Liuzzi said.

Eliminating barriers

Last session, the state Legislature allocated some seed funding to aid five initial alternative teacher preparation providers in pulling together an application. The review process currently under way is twofold: Each applicant must seek approval to become a program provider or unit; and they must seek approval for each individual program that they wish to offer prospective teachers seeking licensure in particular content areas.

The proposals are varied. But they seek to alleviate some common barriers to the teaching profession in Minnesota — by reducing costs, weeding out coursework that overlaps with prospective teachers’ professional experiences or certifications, offering greater flexibility for adult learners who can’t afford to go back to school full-time, and the like.

photo of mikisha nation
Mikisha Nation
“If there’s a way for us to reduce costs, to have more flexibility in our delivery modality, it makes it more accessible. It will also increase the diversity of our teacher candidates,” says Mikisha Nation, executive director of Teach for America Twin Cities, one of the alternative teacher prep provider applicants.

The local arm of Teach for America currently partners with St. Mary’s University in the Twin Cities. Corps members come in with a four-year degree under their belt and serve for two years in a Twin Cities school as the teacher of record in the classroom, while getting ongoing training and mentoring and completing a traditional teacher preparation program through St. Mary’s.

In seeking approval to operate as an alternative teacher prep provider in Minnesota, Nation says her vision still includes partnering with an institute of higher education to offer some key coursework, for things like pedagogy. But it will also aim to help prospective teachers check off more requirements for licensure through the practitioner-based model that TFA places such a strong emphasis on.

In terms of creating a more feasible pathway to teaching for potential career changers, Nation says this is a population that already tends to gravitate toward TFA. Anywhere from a quarter to a third of all corps members in the Twin Cities were working professionals beforehand.

“To me, there’s a value added that folks bring when they come into education knowing they’re deeply committed to education equity, having experienced other career fields and seeing those connection points and their relevance,” she said. “If they’re dedicated to this work, we’re going to work with them to make sure they learn pedagogy for the grades that they’re teaching, that they learn the content, and that they’re fully prepared to teach, right away.”

Troy Haugen, career and technical education coordinator at Lakes Country Service Cooperative — which acts as an education resource hub for nine counties in west central Minnesota — has been spearheading a separate application for approval as an alternative teacher prep provider in Minnesota. He says PELSB recently granted them approval to be a provider, making LCSC the first applicant to cross this initial threshold.

Starting out, his vision is focused on helping currently licensed teachers in the Career and Technical Education specialties obtain additional licenses and endorsements that are currently made inaccessible to educators in his region due to expense and on-site coursework requirements at higher-ed institutes that would pull teachers away from the classroom.

There’s one element, in particular, that makes his proposal distinct from the rest: It’s not affiliated with an institution of higher education.

Instead, he’d implement a micro-credentialing process that would allow teacher applicants seeking additional licensure to demonstrate their competency of each licensure standard through things like video submissions and proof of content mastery based on work experience they may have acquired through various trades jobs that they hold during the summer months. As they identify specific credentials for a particular licensure area that a candidate doesn’t have, LCSC would connect them with a resource to gain that competency and later assess their application of that content in a classroom setting.

In advocating for the creation of alternative programs such as this, over the years, Haugen has weathered a great deal of pushback from higher education leaders and others who maintain that these sorts of pathways threaten to lower standards.

“To imply that the only way you can be a good teacher is to go through a traditional teacher prep program is not in tune with reality,” he said. “This is not about competition. It’s not about pushing any particular institution in or out of the business. It’s simply about providing more access in a different way — to get high-quality teachers in our classrooms.”

Skepticism, funding limits still exist

Heading into the next legislative session, Liuzzi says that PELSB is considering asking for an extension of the alternative pathways grants. The funds allocated for this year were enough to help attract interest and allow applicants to start the application process. But he says many will need additional funding support to pull together applications for program approval and prepare for program implementation.

But the fate of these initial alternative teacher prep programs depends on more than resources. They also need to convince PELSB members that they are equipped to uphold the high teaching standards that Minnesota lawmakers and educational professional often tout.

Ann Krafthefer
Anne Krafthefer, the outgoing chair of PELSB — one of two holdovers from the old Board of Teaching — says that she has a number of concerns.

She says people who are looking to enter teaching through an alternative pathway — whether they’re paraprofessionals looking to move quickly to licensure or career changers seeking a expedited pathway into the classroom — are “highly valued” for their content area knowledge and willingness to come into education. But she questions whether an alternative teacher prep program can truly prepare them in the same way that a traditional teacher prep program could.

Namely, she’s leery of the qualifications of whomever an alternative prep program may have evaluating and mentoring prospective teachers.

“Do these folks have experience in the classroom and understand classroom management, pedagogy — how children learn, how you teach to a diverse population in terms of students who immediately understand and are ready to move on and students who are struggling and need more time with the content? That’s probably my biggest concern,” she said.