An Interview with Delia Stafford: About Alternative Certification

Dec 29, 2011 by

In the past, teachers have generally arrived at the schools after four years of a liberal arts education, with some pedagogy courses, and a major and perhaps minor or endorsement area. These teachers have typically been 22 or 23 year old largely developmentally late adolescents who were fresh out of college.

Delia Stafford is the President and CEO of the Haberman Educational Foundation, Houston, Texas.

This approach to procuring teachers had been in place for many years until a teacher shortage struck America, and many school systems were forced to re-think how to procure teachers and began examining the  “alternative certification” route. This paradigm shift was spearheaded by Delia Stafford who implemented a Texas state department mandate, an entirely new approach that provided a new type of teacher that was uniquely suited to work in the urban schools with at-risk students in the Houston Independent School District. She was assigned as Director of Alternative Certification by then Superintendent Dr.Billy Reagan. Coupled with Martin Haberman’s Star Teacher interview, her efforts were successful and later recognized by the first President Bush. She was awarded the “Commendation for Meritorious Service Award” by Dr. Rod Paige.Her efforts have increased exponentially the number of alternatively certified teachers for thousands of schools across the nation. Her combination of careful selection and district based on-site training has made this paradigm shift of alternative certification possible. Her courage, persistence and insight have challenged the decades old approach to teacher training and certification. Currently, she heads the Haberman Educational Foundation. Inc. and in the last thirty years she has touched the lives of more children, teachers, principals and schools in her work than any other leading pedagogist in America. In this interview, she responds to questions about the domain of alternative certification, it’s history and importance, and reflects on her challenge to the status quo in American education.

1) In a sense, alternative certification has “challenged the status quo”. In terms of teacher certification, why do you feel it important to “challenge the status quo”?

Over the decades we learned from experience that a teaching certificate did not predict how an individual would perform in the classroom. And it still doesn’t. So challenging the status quo via alternative certification, simply put, was an initiative to solve a teacher shortage at the time, by developing programs with little or no input from the universities; minimal amounts coursework, while matching mature adults with master teachers mentoring individuals who were engaged in on the job training. That is the way it began and certainly not without the nay sayers. But today, we may have to challenge the altcert. routes since at least half reside in the universities. Should we say, not much has changed, but everything has changed.

2) Over the years, what have you learned about alternative certification?

I know first hand that altcert. programs must be carefully crafted, using discretion in selecting individuals to teach in order to ensure that the children do not become victims of a system of teacher training. In the beginning, all programs in Texas were constantly scrutinized, especially in the area of selection, training, testing; today there are few regulations to ensure quality.That goes for traditional programs as well. I can say truthfully, that as a pioneer in alternative certification having produced quality teachers, I do feel some disappointment in the lack of “quality control”for the programs. The only criteria that I know exist now for all programs, is that all alternative and traditionally certified teachers must pass the required test for a teaching certificate; there are classes provided to help them pass the test. Not so in the beginning. For now however, “anything goes”as long as it has the name alternative certification connected. Some programs are good, some not so good. What separates may be a fine line of what is best for the children. Accountability for student learning should be the criteria for earning a teaching certificate both at the traditional and alternative certification levels.With the NAAC national organization in place , there has been a direct movement to change and become closer to the NCATE standards and ensure that quality is paramount on every count.

3) Why should school systems be looking at alternative certification, and particularly older teachers with more maturity?

In my mind, maturity is the ability to control our impulses, to think beyond the moment, and consider how our words and our actions will affect others and ourselves before we act. In schools, especially urban districts, maturity is not an option if we intend to make a difference for students;it is a must. Alternative certification candidates lean towards maturity, with few exceptions. However maturity doesn’t necessarily come with age. There are many 23 year olds from our traditional education programs who are very mature and can do the job.

4) What do you see as the some of the main causes of the teacher shortage?

There is no teacher shortage; there is a shortage of teachers willing to teach in large urban districts. Most young graduates from our traditional teacher education programs know they can’t do it and they do the districts and the children a favor and never apply. That is not an indictment, it is just a fact. Perhaps experience over a period of years would better qualify them to teach in urban areas, if they choose to do so.

5) Do you find that older more mature teachers do not burn out as rapidly as younger teachers?

I am sure they feel the heat of the bureaucracy, but they are generally are more interested in teaching the children than bothering with the politics of the local district. There are many causes for burnout, one of which is the mundane requirements sent down by central office. Good and great teachers handle the paperwork, attend meetings and then get back to the business of teaching, always keeping in mind that the clients in every school district are the children and youth being served.

6) Are teachers who go through alternative certification programs just as well prepared to deal with the wide diversity of special education students that seems to constantly be growing?

I would say absolutely, yes. Alternative certification programs can and do specifically prepare teachers for that population of students. As director of the HISD alternative certification program and as time progressed, we teamed with the universities to develop programs for the emotionally disturbed and autistic, severe and profoundly handicapped, diagnosticians, resource teachers,librarians and lastly, leadership programs for aspiring principals . The program work very well then and to my knowledge, the programs continue today.

7) Why do you think we will continue to have to explore the realm of alternative certification?

That is just what we do in education. The concept of alternative certification and its’ success is not going away. Alternative Certification Programs that once were “just New Jersey and Texas” have now spread to almost every state. The programs are needed, or they wouldn’t be operational in so many sites across the states. There is always a call for more research. We have been accused of not having enough research on alternative certification teachers. I would say 20 plus years of success may be research enough. When we begin focusing the research on student achievement as the ultimate goal for traditional and alternative certification, the research issue will be moot. This goes for traditional and alternative certification.

8) Are there school systems or states that seem to prefer alternative certification and teachers who have gone that route?

Texas and California probably have the most programs, and they are thriving. It would be a guess on my part to say which states prefer one over the other since all states have both traditional and alternative certification teacher education programs.

9) What challenges are faced by those teachers who certify through alternative methods?

In the beginning, they were faced the ire of the traditional university teacher education programs, mentors who did not want to be bothered, and in general were viewed as a”group of those who went through a shortcut or back door to teaching”.They faced the same challenges that every other teacher had and more because they were required to do so much more because of the training program requirements.
Today, alternative certification interns are viewed by their peers and administrators as individuals who really have a desire to teach and want what is best for students. Individual trainees that I worked with and for, always had the children’s ’best interest in the forefront. We selected the candidates very carefully. The Texas Education Agency, now the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, introduced the new alternative certification directors to Dr.Martin Haberman. He taught us his Star Teacher Selection Interview. We selected Haberman Star Teacher candidates, many of whom, were selected by their peers for the school districts teacher of the year award.

10) In your experience, are alternatively certified teachers more concerned about classroom management, or curricular issues?

Probably both, which is the reason programs must be carefully crafted to ensure that the students do not become the victims of teacher training programs. The candidates need to be given ample time to learn the craft of teaching because most know the content. I would never advocate “learning to teach at the children’s’ expense”.The focus should be this; does the person understand the value and need for engaging students in professional relationships and finding interesting activities to make learning the primary goal. If the relationships with students are not apparent or present, neither content nor management procedures will work.Programs should select candidates early and provide ample lead time for training. No practicing on the students!

11) Are alternatively certified teachers better prepared to cope with parents, principals and the bureaucracy?

If they are mature adults and have the children’s interest first ,they can they be successful in the school community and its’ systems approach. Dealing with parents, principals and other teachers is part of the job. Problems are an expected part of the job. All good teachers know what is expected and are not afraid to inquire if they have problems in any area of the profession.

12) What tools and skills have you developed over the years in terms of working with and training alternatively certified teachers?

One memory stands out. Those selected individuals for our program were so willing to learn and be successful, so as school educators training potential classroom teachers, we tried to be patient, caring trainers, because we knew the challenges they would be facing in our schools.We knew it was not going to be easy. We were always extremely supportive, and tried to ensure that were trained and ready to teach so that they could experience success early in their career. We were very strict however, in observations and on-going development of the interns. We held each potential teacher to a very high standard. They had to be better in order to survive, especially when the programs first evolved.

13) What programs have you been involved with over the years, and what have you learned about them?

I was involved with the first school-based teacher education program in the states for ten years. Teach for America had their first co-hort as a part of the Houston ISD alternative certification program and Troops to Teachers participate in altcert programs as well. Today we have Transition to Teaching programs. They all appear to survive and produce teachers, and since the movement is nearing two decades, like anything else, some are good, some not so good. There are training programs providing teachers that are not alternative certification programs. They are simply teacher training organizations. Alternative Certification has become “bandwagon” approach to teaching. Jump on!

14) A bit of history lesson here. When did the alternative certification movement begin and who was at the forefront?

It began in the early eighties in New Jersey under the leadership of Dr. Leo Klagholtz, who later became Commissioner of Education in that state. Texas was next, and the language was crafted for alternative certification by Ross Perot with the state department in Texas and implemented in Houston Independent School District by then Superintendent Dr.Billy Reagan. During the first year of the program, 6000 individuals applied for the program. Four-hundred-fifty were selected, and I feel safe in saying about two hundred sixty survived.Today, about fifteen hundred or more a year are hired via the alternative certification program. Retention rates are very good. Today,Texas alone has twenty-eight programs across the state, including school based, university programs and education service centers that serve school districts. To those who said it wouldn’t work, I would say,”never underestimate the power of an idea from those who seek solutions to better the lives of children”.

15) What question have I neglected to ask?

You didn’t ask about when and where the National Association of Alternative Certification was chartered.

That happened April 1991, when the Texas Alternative Certification Association, composed of the Directors of Alternative Certification and alternative certification intern members, there were five directors by then, decided to host the first national conference. We invited every state department of education and others who were involved in the research the first programs. I was naive enough to invite then Vice President Al Gore to speak; he didn’t speak or respond, but the conference was a success! Dr. Martin Haberman, Distinguished Professor UWM, and Dr. C.Emily Feistritzer, Bill Smith, U.S. Department of Education were the main speakers for the 500 participants gathered at South Padre Island for the first annual conference. At that conference , The Houston Independent School District Alternative Certification Program won the “Trail Blazer Award”.
At the second annual national conference April 1992, we gave President Bush his teaching certificate from the state of Texas. He wanted to teach when he returned from the arm services and living in Midland, Texas. He wasn’t allowed a teaching position because he didn’t have a teaching certificate. The Texas directors of alternative certification requested and received from Texas State Department of Education a teaching certificate for President Bush.He sent Dr. Charles E.M. Cobb,his Senior Policy Advisor, to speak to the conferees and bring the certificate back to Washington DC.

I have a picture of President Bush in the oval office looking at his Texas teaching certificate and a note thanking me for getting him his teaching certificate. This coming year 2012, the NAAC Annual Conference will be held in Washington D.C., I will be there. I have attended every conference, to date, and in Washington D.C.2007, I was honored as Founder of the

National Association of Alternative Certification.
Delia Stafford is the President and CEO of the Haberman Educational Foundation, Houston, Texas.

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