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Alternative Pathways to Teaching: Filling a Gap

Jan 21, 2021

With enrollment in public K-12 schools expected to rise between now and the end of the decade, many school districts will be scrambling to hire enough teachers to head those additional classes. The gap between the supply and demand for teachers of math, science, English as a second language, and special education has been particularly wide.

Filling the teacher shortage will require reversing the downward trend of enrollment in teacher preparation programs, as reported by the Center for American Progress. Many education advocates are therefore looking to boost the numbers by promoting alternative pathways to teaching.

They aim to broaden the hiring pool by providing more opportunities for those who haven't taken the traditional route (high school, teachers college, then certification) to become educators.

Expanding the teacher pipeline.

School districts and state education officials have a wide range of potential recruits in their efforts to attract more people into the teaching profession. They include those who already have formal or informal experience working in classrooms and those who might be interested in switching to teaching from a completely different career.

These are some of the key groups being added to the pipeline of new teachers.


With about 1.4 million employed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paraprofessionals assist licensed teachers with tasks like taking attendance, grading students' work, reviewing their lessons, and supervising them outside the classroom. Paraprofessionals are sometimes called paraeducators, teacher assistants, or teacher aides.

Their familiarity with classroom and school environments, as well as their experience working closely with students, would give paraprofessionals a head start in any teacher education program. That's why many proponents of alternative pathways to teaching have identified paraprofessionals as excellent candidates to earn their formal credentials and becoming licensed teachers.

Substitute teachers.

More than 600,000 substitute teachers are employed in the U.S., according to the BLS, and they make up another great resource for replenishing the supply of full-time teachers. They often have experience teaching multiple subjects at different grade levels, and they have learned how to manage a classroom and work in a variety of school settings.

Like paraprofessionals, the hands-on experience of substitute teachers makes them ideally suited to explore a full-time teaching career.

Stay-at-home parents.

In 2019, an estimated 2.5 million U.S. students in grades K-12 (or 3% to 4% of all school-age children) were being homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.

The parents who create those daily lesson plans and constantly develop inventive home learning experiences may discover that, after they've guided their own kids through high school graduation, they have a calling to teach others. Stay-at-home parents of children who attend traditional school may want to explore teaching careers after years of volunteering to chaperone field trips and organize class fundraisers.

Career changers.

People contemplating second careers are another prime choice for efforts to develop more teachers. From business executives to military veterans, many in this category have relevant knowledge and skills to share with students preparing for the world beyond school. They may have degrees and work experience related to the subjects they're interested in teaching, or they may be thinking of pursuing credentials in something brand new.

By going back to school to earn the credentials they need to become licensed teachers, these career changers can help fill a critical need and enjoy a rewarding second act in their work lives.

Incentives for teaching.

Local school districts and state education departments looking to promote some of these alternative pathways to teaching have several ways to support those who embark on the journey. For instance, they might offer tuition assistance to paraprofessionals and create programs enabling them to take classes and do student teaching while continuing their paid work as teacher assistants—an idea a number of school districts have already implemented.

Another effective strategy is to offer scholarships or loan forgiveness to teacher candidates who agree to serve a high-need locale for a defined period of time. At least 40 states have established this type of incentive program, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

Teacher residencies, which are paid apprenticeships working alongside experienced teachers in the classroom, are another option the institute notes in its report. Grow Your Own programs are another that focus on training people with personal connections to local schools to become teachers, including paraprofessionals, after-school program staff, and community professionals changing careers.

Teacher training and certification.

Aspiring teachers who have a bachelor's degree, but need courses in teacher education to become certified, can look into the options their state authorizes for completing the requirements. For those looking to start their teacher preparation while working in other jobs or being full-time, stay-at-home parents, a flexible study program can make all the difference.

Online teacher education programs are an attractive solution for many. Online universities offer the convenience of self-paced study, on-demand access to course materials, and often the possibility of an accelerated path to degree completion and teacher certification that can save money on tuition costs.

At Western Governors University's Teachers College, for example, students in bachelor's degree programs earn their teaching licenses in less than three and a half years on average. Degree requirements include a four- to six-month student teaching experience at a local school. WGU offers financial aid through its Become a Teacher Scholarship Program, which awards up to $4,000 per student.

Through alternative pathways to teaching, people from a variety of academic and career backgrounds are beginning rewarding new chapters in their professional lives. At the same time, they're helping to fill a crucial need for more educators in K-12 classrooms. And many of those who are making this transition have chosen an online degree program as their best path forward.

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