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Tulsa World 

Oklahoma teachers take nontraditional paths to the classroom


January 9, 2019

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Susan Kleps is an art teacher at Tulsa's Webster High School whose first career was as a medic in the United States Army.

Emilee Iverson teaches remedial geometry at Broken Arrow High School after recently graduating from college with a degree in psychology.

Both took nontraditional paths to become classroom teachers, but a Tulsa World analysis of state teacher certification data found that nontraditional paths are becoming increasingly common amid Oklahoma's teacher shortage.

"The alternative certification has kind of morphed into something it wasn't intended to be," said Robyn Miller, deputy superintendent for educator effectiveness and policy research at the Oklahoma State Department of Education. "These are real supply and demand issues. We've got to come to terms with the fact that we are not supplying (teachers) in Oklahoma only from the traditional path. We are having to look to other paths, including alternative certificates, but what we want most out of any of these eligible pathways is that there be a level of effectiveness applied so we're not compromising quality."

Kleps actually got an education degree, but rather than complete internships as a student teacher and complete traditional certification tests and head into the classroom, she enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2006 as a medic and served for six and a half years.

She still serves in the reserves as a chaplain but got her alternative certification to become an art teacher four years ago through a program called "Troops to Teachers."

"What I did in the Army is not applicable to the subject matter, but it has been a lifesaver with classroom management stuff," Kleps said. "You learn a lot about leadership in the Army. When I first became a noncommissioned officer, I learned a lot about how to be firm without being cruel and that you can be kind without being a pushover. That really helped me a lot when I became a teacher."

State leaders have zeroed in on the spike of nonaccredited teachers being hired across the state with emergency certificates — up from 34 in all of 2012-13 to nearly 2,900 for only the first half of 2018-19.

"The present-day emergency certificate was what the alternative certification was two or three decades ago, in some regards," said Miller, the deputy state superintendent. "The teacher shortage task force met recently, and one of the ideas being considered is to eliminate some avenues to emergency certification. There is particular concern about the quality of early childhood education teachers."

Similarly, the segment of Oklahoma's teacher labor force certified through an alternate route — meaning not through a traditional teacher preparation program — has also been ticking upward.

In 2012-13, 4,065 or 7.8 percent of the state's public school teachers were alternatively certified. Last year, those figures had climbed to 5,746 teachers, or 11.6 percent overall, representing a 41 percent increase over the last half dozen academic years.

Nicole Gerber, manager of strategic initiatives at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said it's worth noting that research has repeatedly shown that programs for alternative certification can be just as effective or ineffective as traditional teacher preparation programs.

The key, Gerber said, is for states to hold alternative certification program applicants to rigorous academic standards and to provide tests to ensure that their knowledge of the content they are going to be teaching is strong enough.

NCTQ is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit research and policy organization that conducts research to assist states, districts, and teacher prep programs with teacher quality issues.

The organization's most recent analysis of states' laws and regulations for teachers came out in December 2017. It recommended that Oklahoma tighten up its admissions standards to limit admission to alternate route candidates with strong academic backgrounds.

Specifically, NCTQ analysts said Oklahoma should either up its minimum grade point average for college coursework from 2.5 to 3.0 or require "a rigorous test appropriate for candidates who have already completed a bachelor's degree" such as the exam used as an admissions requirement for most graduate schools.

They also recommended that Oklahoma start requiring all alternate route candidates to pass a subject-matter test and eliminate its use of a basic skills test it says only checks for skills that should be acquired in middle school.

Leaders at Broken Arrow Public Schools said it would be ideal to reduce their growing reliance on new hires with emergency and alternative certifications but that some of those hires turn out to be diamonds in the rough.

Larry Lewis, senior grade principal at the high school there, said it's true that hiring applicants without student teaching experience or a full battery of education courses doesn't always pan out so well, but he said Iverson is a model alternatively certified teacher.

"We have been amazed and impressed by her maturity, work ethic and willingness to learn from her peers," Lewis said. "She's not significantly older than some of the students she's working with, but her youth allows her the opportunity to relate to students in a more effective and efficient manner. And geometry is a very different course to teach for a non-math major, but she is very knowledgeable as a math teacher."

Just like Kleps, Iverson brings to the profession some experiences and an outlook she picked up along the nontraditional path she took to becoming a classroom teacher.

Iverson said she chose to major in psychology because she thought she wanted to go into family and marriage counseling. Among some of the batteries of tests and inventories she learned to administer in psychology were some she has shared with her students to help them figure themselves out.

"A lot of kids don't know what type of learner they are, so the first week of class, my students took a test to find out. It's crazy how much they learn when they know this about themselves — what type of environment is ideal for them, like lighting, temperature, music or silence. For kinetic learners, I told my kids if you want to stand in the back of the room, stand in the back of the room. I've got a lot of kids who will tap their fingers — whatever they need to do to focus is fine with me."

So it was no coincidence that her students' final presentations before winter break weren't formal affairs.

They had about 20 minutes to double-check their PowerPoint slideshows before it was go time, and Jeremiah Johnson, a junior, was in constant motion as he sought help from Iverson at her desk at the front of the class. He handed her his textbook and pointed, then busted out some robot and floss dance moves while she took the pages in.

"Chapter 5?" she asked, incredulously. "We're on chapter 4! Remember, for these presentations, I'm not the teacher. You are."

"That's the scary part," Jeremiah said, as he and Iverson were joined by the whole class in a laugh.


Information from: Tulsa World,


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