WASHINGTON – Amy Gorman had no teaching experience and no teaching certificate when she was put in charge of a 12th-grade English class in Prince George’s County last winter.
It wasn’t long before she found herself a bit out of place.
“It’s difficult having not ever taught before to know what to expect in a classroom setting,” said Gorman, who was hired to replace a long-term substitute at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. “I don’t think I felt capable when I was (teaching).”
In a state with chronic teacher shortages, school systems have been signing on uncertified teachers for years. But schools are hiring fewer uncertified candidates who lack teaching experience, according to a CNS analysis of State Department of Education data.
In the 2002-2003 academic year, 2,076 uncertified teachers got jobs in Maryland, and 30 percent of them had experience, the state’s 2003 Teacher Staffing Report shows.
Four years later, in 2005-2006, almost 66 percent of the 1,646 newly hired uncertified teachers had experience, the most recent report shows. Experience is broadly defined as any salaried teaching job.
“When school systems hire teachers, they are always looking for people with experience,” said John Smeallie, assistant state superintendent for certification and accreditation.
The Maryland Education Department, Smeallie said, is focused on making sure schools meet federal No Child Left Behind regulations, which require teachers of core subjects to be highly qualified, meaning they have state certification. As of this academic year, schools were supposed to have highly qualified teachers in all core subjects, but states missed that deadline and are now catching up.
Monitoring uncertified teachers’ experience, Smeallie said, is not a priority because Maryland is trying to employ certified teachers.
“There’s no mandate under federal or state regulations to hire teachers with experience,” he said.
But in districts like Prince George’s County, where the percentage of newly hired uncertified teachers rose from 28 percent in 2002-2003 to 45 percent last year, paying attention to experience is a good thing, educators said.
Even if they are uncertified, teachers who have already worked at a school come in with more background and skills than uncertified teachers who never set foot in a classroom.
Uncertified teachers hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Unless they have taught before, these teachers must gain experience on the job, unlike people in teacher education programs who have opportunities to student teach.
School systems issue two-year conditional certificates to give uncertified teachers time to prepare for and obtain a state license.
“There’s a world of difference between coming with experience, albeit uncertified” and walking into a classroom cold, said Sue Nash Travetto, coordinator of teacher professional development at McDaniel College Education Department. “If I were in the hiring position, I would definitely be looking for teachers with experience.”
Recruiters in Prince George’s County have been doing just that.
“Over the past few years, the Internet has allowed the school system to expand its geographical region for sourcing and attracting experienced teachers from outside of Maryland,” said spokesman John White in an e-mail interview.
The school district also has had hiring success at national professional conferences, White said.
As a result, the system’s percentage of newly hired uncertified teachers without experience fell from 60 percent in 2002-2003 to zero last year.
Some of these newcomers were certified in other states, and need to complete additional coursework or exams to receive a Maryland license. Others have taught in private schools, where certification wasn’t necessary.
“It’s great that (school districts) are able to get these experienced teachers,” said Jennifer King Rice, associate professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland. “They’re doing something right to attract experienced teachers.”
While educators aren’t sure if experience offsets certification, they say it is an important component of effective teaching.
People who have been in the field, develop a “knowledge of children,” said Travetto. “They understand learning styles and they can tailor their instruction.”
Statewide, newly hired uncertified teachers continue to account for about one-fifth of all newly hired teachers in Maryland. The percentage was slightly higher in 2002-2003 at 33 percent.
But the percentage of uncertified teachers with experience has been rising steadily for the past few years, reaching 47 percent in the 2003-2004 year and 55.5 percent in 2004-2005.
Not all districts, however, have seen this trend. Smaller systems, like Wicomico which serves 14,387 students, have consistently failed to attract experienced people.
The Eastern Shore district has not hired an uncertified person with teaching experience in the last four years, though it did reduce the overall percentage of newly hired uncertified teachers from 37.5 to 12.6 percent.
“Most of the time, if (applicants) lack full certification, then they lack teaching experience,” said spokeswoman Tracy Sahler in an e-mail interview.
Other districts gear efforts toward employing certified teachers, and say they don’t place an emphasis on experience when hiring uncertified teachers.
“As we look toward No Child Left Behind, the number of uncertified teachers needs to be decreasing because those are not highly qualified teachers,” said Donald Peccia, a Baltimore County assistant superintendent. Ideally, there will be no uncertified teachers in the system next year, he said.
The percentage of newly hired uncertified teachers in Baltimore County fell last year, but the percentage of uncertified teachers with experience hasn’t changed drastically since the 2002-2003 Teacher Staffing Report, when it was at 33.6 percent.
“We look for the best teacher,” Peccia said, adding that experience doesn’t necessarily speak to a teacher’s success in the classroom.
Meeting federal benchmarks is also key for parent organizations, like the Maryland PTA.
“We support highly qualified teachers,” said President Mary Jo Neil. “We support all efforts to get teachers to that level of highly qualified.”
Uncertified teachers, with or without experience, aren’t bringing Maryland closer to achieving No Child Left Behind goals.
But for Gorman, who struggled with everything from setting academic expectations for her students to handling misbehavior, experience is a central part of successful teaching.
Now an elementary school academic coordinator at Community Bridges, a Silver Spring after-school program for low-income girls, Gorman said she learned valuable lessons in her first teaching job.
“I think that being in front of a classroom every day gives you confidence about speaking to the kids. I have a grasp of how kids learn.”