Shia Smith

For a long time I did not know exactly what job I wanted, but I knew I had a passion for helping the voiceless.

I worked as a faculty research assistant for the Oregon Water Resources Research Center, led professional workshops for Dell Computer Corporation, became a mentor for young people through the the Austin Writers’ League’s writing and poetry workshops and was a part‐time teaching artist with the Theatre Action Project.

I finally settled on being a creative writer at Compass Learning, where I worked with a team of teachers, subject-matter experts and programmers to produce innovative educational software designed to support challenged learners in the area of mathematics.

Yet I wasn’t satisfied. After designing curriculum and learning activities for students with learning difficulties, I realized that I actually wanted to work with the students rather than simply design the lessons. I realized that I wanted to become a teacher.

I became a teacher through the education specialist intern credential program at the University of San Francisco, where its alternative certification program fit my needs perfectly.

I was already working as a teaching assistant at the Phillips Academy in Alameda – a private school that provides services to public school students in special education – so I wanted a program that allowed me to continue in that position.

While earning my credential through USF, I was a full-time assistant teacher at the Phillips Academy, earning a salary and benefits. Instead of stepping out of the workforce for two years to earn my credential through a regular teacher preparation program, I was able to take night classes in person at USF for four to eight hours a week, while still getting a paycheck. My personalized credential courses taught concrete skills that I got to use in my classroom the very next day. The extra supervision and mentoring I received as part of the program further honed my teaching skills, making me a confident and successful fully credentialed teacher.

Unfortunately, for every story like mine there are stories of people like me who cannot afford to become teachers – at the very time that California has a need for more of them.

I am convinced that my experience in different fields has made me a better teacher, and made me more able to understand the backgrounds and needs of my students from diverse backgrounds. But too many mid-career professionals cannot afford to stop working and attend school full-time to become a teacher.

That is why alternative certification programs like the one I attended at USF are so important.

In particular, we need more special education teachers to work with the kinds of students I work with every day. The U.S. Department of Education has found that 46 out of 50 states, including California, face a teaching shortage in special education.

For many people the path to becoming a teacher is too expensive, too removed from the actual practice of teaching, or not conveniently situated to where they live.

Alternative certification gives would-be teachers the opportunity to remain in their community and learn their craft while in a classroom. Intern teachers, as we are known, study teaching techniques and put them into practice as we assist experienced teachers. The number of intern credentials issued in California is up more than 30 percent since 2009-10, comprising a small but growing percentage of California teachers.

Imagine if these programs were expanded. We could help ease the shortage and make sure that more of our children – especially in cities and remote rural areas – are working with an attentive, prepared teacher.

Without the availability of an alternative certification program, where I could earn a salary while working in a classroom, I might never have had the chance to teach. I now work at the Phillips Academy in Alameda teaching English Language Arts and Social Studies to students with special needs.

Schools need teachers from a variety of backgrounds and skill sets. Alternative certification programs are not for everyone. But they have worked for thousands of California teachers: teachers with varied experience in business, nonprofits and the arts; teachers living in rural communities who want to stay and teach the next generation of community leaders; teachers who are entering the classroom and staying when so many leave.

I hope that school districts and colleges will train more teachers through alternative programs. Opening up that path to teaching will benefit our children and communities for many years.

•••

Shia Smith is an English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Phillips Academy in Alameda, and earned her teaching credential through the University of San Francisco.

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  1. Lucille Cuttler 1 year ago1 year ago

    Thanks for sharing. We share a passion to help kids struggling with literacy. In New York, my residence before 2004, I established Project Literacy/Outreach, Inc. This 502=C-3 trained volunteers to teach how English combines 26 letters into 44 phonemes and 6 syllables - the Orton method established 100 years ago. Private schools and tutors use this approach. It's time to train - not blame - teachers - by preparing them what has been proven … Read More

    Thanks for sharing. We share a passion to help kids struggling with literacy. In New York, my residence before 2004, I established Project Literacy/Outreach, Inc. This 502=C-3 trained volunteers to teach how English combines 26 letters into 44 phonemes and 6 syllables – the Orton method established 100 years ago. Private schools and tutors use this approach. It’s time to train – not blame – teachers – by preparing them what has been proven empirically and scientifically. An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure. Let’s think out of the box.

  2. Gary Ravani 1 year ago1 year ago

    I think you can have a rigorous, classroom based, teacher credentialing and induction program, or you can have “alternative” methods of credentialing. I doubt you can have both. That being said, with the after effects of the finance industry created budget crisis and the relentless media and billionaire funded attacks on the teaching profession creating the “teacher shortage,” the state will likely have to make some compromises with teacher preparation. Maybe that was the idea all along?

  3. Rigel S. Massaro 1 year ago1 year ago

    Alternate route teaching is an important source of new teachers, particularly for those transitioning from established careers who bring important skills and perspectives and can only pursue teaching if they are able to continue working while they complete their teacher preparation. District over-reliance on these underprepared teachers to fill open positions is problematic, however, particularly when these districts serve high numbers of high need students. I speak from the perspective of a civil rights attorney, … Read More

    Alternate route teaching is an important source of new teachers, particularly for those transitioning from established careers who bring important skills and perspectives and can only pursue teaching if they are able to continue working while they complete their teacher preparation. District over-reliance on these underprepared teachers to fill open positions is problematic, however, particularly when these districts serve high numbers of high need students. I speak from the perspective of a civil rights attorney, former advocate for students with disabilities, and former intern teacher who lacked the preparation or support I needed to succeed in teaching students reading far below grade level, English learners and students with exceptional needs.

    Unlike me (and most intern teachers), Ms. Smith did it right: she “was a full-time assistant teacher at the Phillips Academy” while she earned her teaching credential. As an intern, she “stud[ied] teaching techniques and put them into practice as [she] assist[ed] experienced teachers.” This residency-like situation is not the norm for intern teachers, however, who are routinely designated as the teacher of record before they have had substantive classroom experience. Programs that reflect Ms. Smith’s experience should unquestionably be expanded and supported.

    Unfortunately, many districts cannot afford to pay their teaching assistants a living wage while they complete their teacher preparation. My guess is that Phillips Academy, a private school for students with disabilities, does not have the difficulty districts in Alameda county have recruiting and retaining fully-prepared special education teachers. The last available data we have, from the 2013-2014 school year, shows that 50% of the education specialist credentials being issued in California are intern credentials. While some of these are certainly fully credentialed general education teachers, many are people with no education background receiving a few weeks of training before they are expected–on their own–to understand and implement the developmental, pedagogical, and social-emotional needs of students with disabilities, as well as the legally-mandated case management processes.

    This is particularly troubling when there is no specific training required of interns in California going into special education, nor are there clear expectations regarding the mentoring and support these teachers will be provided once they are placed in the classroom. I have recently spoken with special education interns that received only two days of their entire intern training dedicated to needs of students with disabilities, only to then receive minimal on-the-job support once they were classroom teachers. Their experienced left them disheartened about teaching and unsure of the positive impact they had on their students.

  4. Andrew 1 year ago1 year ago

    I noticed that undergrad tuition, exclusive of room and board, is over $40,000 per year at the University of San Francisco, something over 60% higher than average for such institutions. Is the cost per year of doing their teaching internship program comparable?