In an article in the January-February issue of Teacher Magazine, author and educator Gregory Michie chronicles the experiences of a 33-year-old former options trader who entered teaching through an alternative-certification program. A former teacher himself, Mr. Michie spent three years as a doctoral student in education helping to coordinate the Golden Apple Teacher Education alternative-certification program in Illinois, and is now an assistant professor of education at National-Louis University in Chicago. His most recent book is See You When We Get There: Teaching for Change in Urban Schools (Teachers College Press). Recently, CAREER COACH spoke to him about teaching and the alternative-certification movement.
Question: What do you see as the role of alternative-certification programs in today’s schools?
Answer: Mostly fulfilling a need to get teachers into city schools. For me, early alternative-certification programs showed an ability to attract more teachers of color—especially black and Latino teachers. Studies have shown that minority students tend to do better when they have teachers of their own race. I think if we’ve got schools that are 97 percent Latino or 100 percent African-American, it’s important for those kids to have teachers of their race as role models.
Q: What should prospective teachers be looking for, and looking to avoid, in an alternative-certification program?
A: They should be looking for programs that offer continued intensive support. Achieving success as a first-year teacher has a lot to do with the support system that’s created for you. The first year of teaching is hard anyway, whether you’ve come in via the traditional or an alternative route, or had no preparation at all. So the more support you have the better. The amount of follow-through a certification program gives can be critical.
Also, enrollment numbers are a key consideration. If the training program is really large, then it’s going to be really hard to get that individual attention you’re going to need to help get through that first year.
Q: What do you see as the biggest difference between traditionally and alternatively trained teachers?
A: In general, teachers coming through an alternative certification program have had other life experiences. I think that typically serves them well in schools and in dealing with kids.
I didn’t start teaching until I was 27 but I still felt very young. I try and put myself in the place of some of these 22 year-old college undergrads—it’s tough at that age to really have the maturity and the experience for all the challenges you’re going to face in a classroom situation. I think adults feel more confident with who they are, and I think that’s a big part of classroom management.
But I want to be clear that these are generalizations. There are plenty of undergraduates who come out of traditional schools of education and hit the ground running.
Q: Are there conflicts in schools between traditionally trained teachers and those from alternative-certification programs?
A: I think there’s sometimes resentment on the part of teachers who have been through a four-year program because they feel that these new teachers are going to be on the same pay scale or track that they’re on, having done only eight weeks training! But I feel that’s an oversimplification, because alternatively trained teachers have bachelor degrees, so they’re not coming in with high school diplomas and becoming teachers. They did their four years.
Some veteran teachers can also be a little skeptical of young teachers’ enthusiasm and idealism. But I have to say that our experience more often than not was that veteran teachers were helpful and welcoming to our teachers. A lot of the veteran teachers felt that, “Hey, we need more good, committed teachers, and if this person’s committed, whether they’re coming from a traditional or an alternative program, they can help make our school better.”
Q: In your Teacher Magazine article you mention that “teaching for social justice” is a major component of the GATE program, yet the teachers quoted in the article suggested a greater need for “nuts-and-bolts” training. Do you still think the social justice component is crucial?
A: Yes, absolutely. I was involved in the GATE program for three years, and if I was going do it over again tomorrow, I would definitely try to incorporate more of what you’d call “nuts-and-bolts” aspects. But I still believe that some of the most important components of teaching are building relationships with students. How do you do that? By thinking about what it means to be an educated person and what are schools for. By questioning whether schools serve all children equally. Or whether they can. Those questions are really important to ground the kinds of decisions you are going to make as a teacher.
There has to be a balance. I think the words from educator Martin Haberman I referred to in my Teacher article were right on: Teachers don’t fail because they haven’t learned to teach a direct-instruction lesson or how to read from a textbook, they fail—city teachers at least—because of a lack of understanding of poverty, or lack of ability to connect with their kids.
Q: Do you think that this is something traditional schools of education would benefit from?
A: Absolutely. There’s been a huge surface level acceptance of ideas like multiculturalism and diversity and teaching for social justice. I mean you can hardly go to a college of education anywhere in the country that wouldn’t say somewhere that this is what they emphasize: “Yes we emphasize multiculturalism; Yes we believe in diversity; Yes we believe in teaching for social justice.” But I think often these take a backseat to “Oh but we have to have a content methods course and we have got to have a adolescent psychology course and foundations and philosophy.” All those things are important, but I do think that a social context of teaching—where you’re going to be teaching, and who you are going to be teaching—is critical for urban educators.
The vast majority of young people going into teaching are white, the vast majority of kids in urban areas are of color, how do you [as an educator] negotiate that as a white person, or middle class person, or whatever your race is? How do you think of issues of social class when you’re coming into a community of poverty, as a person who has never experienced poverty yourself? How do you understand those issues and work with your students to try to help them see where they are and see where they could be going?
So yes, I don’t think it’s something that should just be a component of alternative programs.
Q: What advice would you give to someone thinking about entering the education profession?
A: Be resilient! [laughs]. That first year of teaching is tough, very tough, and you are going to be inundated with demands and rigors you did not experience during your training. But you have to hold on to the belief that you can withstand these pressures—things like accountability, test scores, being evaluated by your principal and so forth. You have to be resilient, you have to be steadfast. Stick your own beliefs, and teach to the kids that are in front of you. After all, you will get to know them better than anyone else and will get to know what is best for them in the classroom.
Read Gregory Michie’s TEACHER MAGAZINE story, “Trading Places,” from the January/February 2005 issue: