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What to say when someone asks, "Should I do an alternative certification program?"

I’ve been asked a handful of times recently if I recommend for someone to enter teaching through alternative certification program. It’s a tricky question.

I’ve been through both of the main induction models into teaching. First I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows alternative certification program and endured a chaotic rookie experience in the Bronx; later I earned a master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University in a program based on taking time on learning the craft.

With that perspective I feel it’s important to trumpet the crucial benefits of a teacher preparation program that includes significant time for apprentice-teaching. For me, this was the master’s program, but it also applies to residency programs as well, where teachers learn the craft for a year or more before assuming full responsibility for a classroom of vulnerable young people.

So when someone eagerly inquires about Teach For America or some other alt-cert program, I usually respond with a grimace and lay out the pros and cons.

POSITIVES

  • You jump right into the classroom, instantly fulfilling your desire for having an important and meaningful job. Then you can jump out after a couple years with minimal guilt since that’s essentially the expectation.
  • You immediately begin earning a paycheck and do not have to go into debt.
  • You might end up in a school with great administration or great colleagues who, over time, can support your growth toward becoming an effective teacher.

 NEGATIVES

  • You won’t know what you are doing for a long time, which will create constant stress. You’ll struggle to get through each day, and you’ll feel like you are letting down your charges, which— real talk here— you probably are.  This frazzled feeling will dominate your life. You’ll reach for the rationalizing salve of the alternative certification program’sraison d’etre— no one else would take this job, so there’s no one better than you waiting in the wings. It provides cold comfort.
  • You might end up in a school with a hostile climate among adults.
  • You’re not setting yourself up to last in the teaching profession.

I think alternative certification should exist solely out of necessity. Despite its bringing in altruistic doers— some of whom stay in the profession— the proliferation of this trial by fire model makes it harder to boost the standing of teaching as a profession. Indeed, in America no other serious profession (think medicine, law, accounting) would hand off massive responsibilities to a rookie with essentially no practical training.

But if you can’t take on that grad school debt… and you need to earn a paycheck… and you just want to give it a shot… well… 

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