05/08/2011 12:42 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

A Better Approach to Alternative Teaching Certification Programs

Last year, my principal came to me with this unexpected proposal: Would I be interested in mentoring a student teacher as part of a yearlong residency program?

The program, which offered mentors a stipend and resume boost, came with a catch. Unlike other models for teacher education, my student teacher would be with me all day for an entire year and eventually take over one of my classes. Oh and, by the way, he'd never taken an education course in his life.

There are now an abundance of programs, similar to this one, aimed at getting talented, non-education majors into the teaching profession. Teach for America is probably best known and most reputable, followed closely by regional organizations such as the New York City Teaching Fellows. Pledging unflagging support and perks, such as subsidized degrees, these programs thrust rookie teachers into the classroom after nothing more than a summer blitzkrieg of training courses.

For career-changers or recent grads overwhelmed by a sudden desire to teach, this is an excellent option. No longer is one entrapped by the trajectory of a college major mistakenly declared in the mercurial tumult of our late teens! Alas, an escape from the bottom lines and suits of the corporate world! In so many ways, these programs are wonderful. They flood the profession with bright and energetic people. They fill classrooms in high-need neighborhoods. They create opportunities for impassioned individuals to get into schools and make a difference.

But for all the good they do, there is one regrettable caveat.

I am the product of the New York City Teaching Fellows, and while I am grateful for the opportunity this program afforded me, I would give almost anything to undo the inadvertent damage I may have caused my students as a novice educator. Did I mean to have shoddy lesson plans? Absolutely not. At the time, I probably fancied my pedagogical campaign a work of innovative genius. Would I have given my right arm to end the unpredicted behavior debacles that always seemed to occur right before lunch? You betcha! But fresh out of college and new to a position of authority, my classroom management skills left something to desire.

That year, my students were slighted. It was neither malice nor indolence that diminished the quality of their academic experience, but unfortunate naivete. Before entering the program, I'd never taken an education course, let alone stood at the helm of a classroom. Words like "differentiated instruction" and "performance standards" were totally Greek to me. Not to say that nothing good was accomplished, but my first year -- as with many others who enter into education via these alternative conduits -- was a mess.

So how do we train teachers in these types of programs while still maximizing student learning? As I've witnessed in the past year with my own student teacher, a more effective and controlled approach might be found in the residency model.

Here's how it works: Much like a medical residency, a student teacher is partnered with an experienced teacher for an entire year and receives training through guided, hands-on experience. Departing from the "trial before fire" approach many alternative certification programs employ, residencies wean prospective teachers from the role of observer to that of leader.

A student teacher is not given full control of the classroom until midway through the year, and even then, they receive comprehensive coaching and support. As a means of preparation for their future careers, student teachers are treated like regular staff members. They are observed by principals, attend school meetings and are held to the same instructional standards as everyone else.

While this system is effective for training new teachers, it also ensures that the students in their classrooms still receive the same quality of instruction an experienced teacher would deliver. Instead of using our children as guinea pigs for first-time educators, the seasoned teacher remains in the classroom to act as a consultant, thus buffering the sometimes unfortunate side-effects of an almost mandatory learning curve.

As I wind down the year with my resident, I am impressed by the progress he's made. Students absolutely adore him, and I have seen considerable growth in his instructional practice. Whereas I suffered several melt-downs in my first year, his transition to leader of the class has been devoid of catastrophic hiccups. No longer does he need my assistance in planning units or lessons, though I am always available for feedback when he asks. As he has discovered his own teaching persona, he rarely needs my intervention for management issues. What makes his success even better is the fact that our students have also performed well. Because he was given a chance to observe, learn and do, everyone had a better year.