This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia, like many large urban public school districts, has a history of struggling to fill classroom vacancies with qualified teachers.
During the past several years, however, school districts, state officials, and other public education stakeholders have collaborated to develop some additional routes to classroom teaching in order to address the needs created by chronic teacher vacancies.
Traditionally, most educators received their teacher training by completing the requirements of a state-approved college or university teacher certification program. In Pennsylvania, these requirements include doing supervised student teaching, passing a series of standardized state teacher exams called the Praxis to demonstrate proficiency in subject matter and basic skills, and coursework in an academic major and education.
To get a snapshot of what some of the available routes look like now and how some recently arrived teachers are faring in their classrooms, we interviewed six teachers – each representing a different pathway to the classroom.
(Photos by Beandrea Davis)
College/University Certified Teacher
Nelson Flores English as Second Language (ESL), K-8
Munoz-Marin Elementary School
Certification status: Fully certified to teach social studies in grades 7-12. Plans to pursue ESL certification at LaSalle University next year. Pennsylvania is the only state without ESL certification, but that will change next year.
Educational background: B.A in Political Science & Education, Swarthmore College, May 2003. His senior thesis compared Latino student achievement at District-run and charter schools.
Work/volunteer experience: Afterschool tutor; teacher’s aide at Mariana Bracetti Charter School and a Congreso de Latinos Unidos summer program.
Prior teaching experience: Student-taught eighth grade social studies at Central East Middle School for three months. Team-taught seventh grade literature and creative writing at Summerbridge, a summer enrichment program for Norfolk, VA public school students.
Teaching highlights: The school’s first ever ESL teacher, he is helping to establish its program there. Enjoys team-teaching a fourth grade reading class where most students are reading at the first-grade level. Finds that not being afraid to take risks in the classroom has paid off: "I’ve made a space for the kids to actually feel safe enough to practice their reading."
Teaching challenges: His teacher preparation program emphasized that creating engaging lesson plans would help solve discipline problems. While he found this helpful, he wishes he knew more about classroom management. "Kids are kids. You have to have classroom management techniques even with the most engaging lessons."
Teaching supports: Lauds his new teacher coach who has given him advice on how to successfully navigate his first year of teaching. "She’s been very supportive."
Why he became a teacher: Grew up in Olney and graduated from LaBrum Middle and Central High. Acknowledged that he was not as well prepared for college as many of his peers were at the elite liberal arts college he attended. "I’ve always wanted to give back to the community I come from."
– Interview by Beandrea Davis
Former Apprentice Teacher
Claudia DiCrosta Spanish I & II, Grades 9-12
William Penn High School
Certification status: Fully certified. Began teaching at William Penn in 2001 as an apprentice teacher with all requirements met save Praxis completion. Passed Praxis I & II and received certification in 2002.
Educational background: B.A. in Education from Chestnut Hill College. Major in Spanish for Education, minor in Psychology.
Work/volunteer experience: Teaching at William Penn was first professional work experience.
Prior teaching experience: Student-taught Spanish at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. "As far as classroom management and [subject area content], I was ready [when I first came to William Penn.]"
Teaching highlights: Successful classroom management. Started a ‘curse jar’-students must either contribute 25 cents (used to buy classroom supplies) or get two detentions when they curse, which curtailed profanity in the classroom. "I have a reputation as mean, but [students] come back for more and tell me, ‘You’re not mean, you’re just strict’"
Teaching challenges: Building issues and lack of parental involvement.
Teaching supports: Participates in GEAR-UP program for new teachers, in which she is observed weekly by an adjunct teacher and has the opportunity to meet monthly with other new teachers, which is "very helpful." Also, had a helpful first-year mentor "who guided me and clarified my questions as far as paperwork was concerned." Is occasionally observed and evaluated by administration and receives help with behavioral and supply issues from Spanish department head. Enjoyed professional development workshops on technology: "[They] gave me the opportunity to earn a computer for my classroom as well as knowledge on how to incorporate technology in the classroom."
Why she became a teacher: "Philadelphia is where I started out." Graduated from Fels High School in 1996. During college found she enjoyed teaching and discovered a "passion for Spanish."
– Interview by Benjamin Herold
Chaim Jacobs Math, 10th grade
Kensington High School
Certification status: Through teacher apprentice program, began teaching secondary mathematics at Kensington in 1998. Is teaching on an emergency certificate, but has since completed all certification requirements except Mathematics Praxis exam, which he is registered to take in January 2004.
Educational background: B.A. in Philosophy and Law Degree from Emory University in Atlanta. Has completed math and education coursework at Georgia State, St. Joseph’, and Arcadia. Has also attended rabbinical school in New York.
Work/volunteer experience: Previously a lawyer.
Prior teaching experience: None before coming to Kensington. "I was surprised that I could have begun teaching math before taking any math [education] courses. Fortunately, I was already competent in math." Started his career with the District in October 1998 in "an unfortunate situation," where his students had not had a regular math teacher since the beginning of that school year.
Teaching highlights: Feels he’s doing a good job when his students learn to "enjoy doing math and learn to think in a mathematical way."
Teaching challenges: "I believe that the whole system is limited in its ability to respond when students have no intention of success in the classroom. I have always had at least a couple of disruptive students, and I still don’t know what I can do when they have no interest in anything that I have to offer them."
Teaching supports: When first began teaching at Kensington, was part of small learning community teaching team, which was very helpful. "I enjoyed that connection, being able to talk about how to handle record-keeping and student discipline." Also had a first-year mentor, but "I don’t think there is very much anyone could do to make [the first year of teaching] easier. I had a very difficult first year." Generally finds professional development to be "just an annoyance – too formally structured. The informal contact I have had with other teachers has been more valuable than either professional development or the education classes I have taken."
Why he became a teacher: Teaching was a career that he had always imagined for himself, and "I liked the idea of a schedule that coincided with that of my children."
– Interview by Benjamin Herold
Literacy Intern Teacher
Pascal Marcelin 4th grade
Alcorn Elementary School
Certification status: First-year literacy intern teaching on an emergency certificate. Co-teaches with two more experienced partner teachers, rotating between them every other day. Has not yet taken the Praxis. Currently enrolled in elementary certification program at University of Pennsylvania.
Educational background: B.A in Film from Temple University.
Work/volunteer experience: Freelance filmmaker and photographer; as a District TSA for two years, worked with students with behavioral problems and also worked at youth afterschool programs.
Prior teaching experience: Taught two summers in a North Philadelphia "Freedom School," a literacy-based, academic curriculum emphasizing community empowerment and social justice. Also taught photography in a summer youth program.
Teaching highlights: "Kids have such a bad relationship with school," so he tries to engage his students through his lessons. Has "always been a creative person visually and otherwise" and he tries to bring this to his teaching as well. "I don’t want to be a teacher who only reads from the script." Overall his experience has been good. "The best part is seeing that you’re actually helping somebody. You can see it in their faces, that they actually understood."
Teaching challenges: Feels limited by the scarcity of resources, large class size, and the pre-structured curriculum. Although working as a TSA helped prepare him for dealing with student behavioral issues, classroom management is still difficult. "There’s a lot of reasons why kids misbehave." Said being organized and prepared is key to successfully managing a classroom.
Teaching supports: Meets regularly with an adjunct faculty member who provides specific feedback and support-as do all other first-year literacy interns-which is "helpful." Also finds the experience of co-teaching with two different teachers beneficial. "It’s good because I get to see different styles of teaching."
Why he became a teacher: Of his personal experience with past teachers, he says, "I was inspired by the good ones and encouraged by the bad ones to try it myself." Is dedicated to teaching in urban public schools: "That’s where I’m most needed."
– Interview by Beandrea Davis
Teach for America corps member
Clarisse Mesa Math and Science, 8th grade
Turner Middle School
Certification status: Teaching on a Pennsylvania Intern certificate through TFA, which recruits and enlists select recent college graduates to help alleviate teacher shortages in public schools across the nation. Passed Praxis I & II for state-level certification and is currently pursuing elementary-level certification at St. Joseph’s University.
Educational background: B.A. in Political Science and Public Policy from University of Chicago, May 2003. Her senior thesis analyzed teacher quality at three Chicago public high schools.
Work/volunteer experience: Afterschool tutor and bilingual aide; interned at Boston nonprofit Project for School Innovation, which tries to implement best practices in public schools; conducted research with education professor.
Prior teaching experience: Completed five-week TFA Institute where she took education courses and taught 7th grade summer school in collaboration with three other new TFA teachers.
Teaching highlights: Started a weekly afterschool enrichment program to accelerate the math skills of 12 of her highest-performing students. Has worked closely with school social worker to help some of her students receive behavioral health counseling.
Teaching challenges: Lack of a science lab and adequate supplies for all her students. Was’t prepared for problems with student discipline. "So much time is spent redirecting kids [and] dealing with different issues, [which makes] it hard to get through a lesson."
Teaching supports: Participates in District’s new teacher induction program, but has not yet been assigned a new teacher mentor. Receives feedback from TFA program director based on regular classroom observations and attends TFA-run Saturday professional development workshops. Support from the three other TFA teachers in her school is "what keeps [her] sane." In order for professional development to be useful, "it needs to be constant. You don’t always know what questions to ask."
Why she became a teacher: Aspires to work in urban public education policy and administration in the future and wanted to have classroom teaching experience. "You have to be educated in order to make [choices in life]. That’s huge in urban schools because education isn’t seen as a vehicle a lot of times or it’s not given to kids as a vehicle. [These students] don’t receive the same education and it’s not at all that they’re not capable."
– Interview by Beandrea Davis
Duane Johnson Science, 7th & 8th grade
Maritime Academy Charter High School
Certification status: Teaching on an emergency certificate; scheduled to take the two remaining Praxis exams she needs for middle-level certification in science this December. Has already passed four of the six required Praxis tests for her content and grade level.
Educational background: Earned B.S. in Education specializing in General Science from Drexel University through the School District’s Career Ladders program, which pays for a select group of paraprofessionals to pursue teaching certification at local universities. Completed her degree in 2003. Took five years to complete it because she worked during the day and went to school at night. "It was all worthwhile, even though there was a lot of sacrifice."
Work/volunteer experience: Spent 17 of her 23 years as a District NTA at Olney High School. "That really prepared me for what to expect in a classroom."
Prior teaching experience: Student-taught for three months at Beeber Middle School and taught summer school last year.
Teaching highlights: Knows how to relate to students and doesn’t have difficulty dealing with behavioral problems in her classroom. "Unless you’re able to manage the students, it’s very difficult to get the real learning across to them."
Teaching challenges: "I was not prepared for all the documentation, grading of papers, [and] paperwork." Needs more adequate supplies, like microscopes, for teaching science. "Students need to have hands-on assignments in science. They need to do investigations." While now very happy at Maritime, her "real dream and goal" was to teach in a District-run school that faced challenges similar to those at Olney. When District failed to offer her a school placement by early September, however, she chose to take a prior offer. "I just wish the School District could have benefited."
Teaching supports: Lauds two part-time science consultants who perform model science demonstrations and teach a class of her students once a week. Participates in schoolwide professional development every first Friday. Finds Maritime administration very supportive and helpful.
Why she became a teacher: Many teachers and staff at Olney encouraged her to get teaching degree. Having worked in a large, overcrowded public high school, she saw the need: "I had seen students go without really good science teachers for many years." Hopes more long-term NTAs will become classroom teachers as she has done.
– Interview by Beandrea Davis