Special Report: Career changers transition into Utah classrooms

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Utah has one of the highest teacher to student ratios in the nation, and for years educators have been warning about the shortage of qualified teachers in the classroom. As one creative solution, Utah has introduced transition programs to help people enter the classroom later in life. 

For most careers, a person needs an undergrad degree in the field, but that’s no longer true for K-12 educators. With a bachelor’s degree in any field, a person can work on getting their teaching license while already teaching full-time. 

Staci Velarde is a 4th-grade teacher in the Jordan School District. She’s in her third year of teaching and she’s almost done with the coursework needed for her teaching license. Mrs. Velarde got her undergrad about ten years ago then began working and raising a family. 

“It’s nice because I’ve had an eclectic background of work experience and I’ve been able to tie every bit of it into the classroom,” she continued, “If you’d asked me ten years ago, would I have taught, I would have said no. But I think after raising my own kids and being in the classroom and helping and just seeing the impact that teachers make, I thought about the takeaway from teaching and the reward that you got; it settled nicely and I thought I’d give it a try.”

Prospective teachers here in Utah have access to two transition programs called the Academic Pathway to Teaching and the Alternative Route to Licensure. They allow people to take classes and fulfill licensing requirements while teaching. 

Velarde explained, “I couldn’t take time off from work, so this was the perfect in-between where I could get paid and not lose that time at work and be working towards my license.”

Travis Rawlings is the Educator Licensing Coordinator with the State Board of Education; he says that the alternative routes have become an absolutely vital part of our teacher pipeline. “Quite frankly the traditional model of a bachelor’s degree in education doesn’t supply the volume of teachers that we need to keep up with population and retirement and all of those other elements of human capital management.”

Before stepping foot in a classroom, these career changers pas the PRAXIS test, the same test someone with an undergrad in education would take. Then, depending on their degree, they take coursework to fill in gaps in their education. 

Rawlings said, “What we’re providing in these transition programs is the how you teach, the pedagogy of how you work with young adults and children.”

Along with training, these teachers are assigned mentors by their local district. 

Velarde said she feels a great deal of support and camaraderie from the other teachers transitioning with her. “I have never been with a more supportive group of people than in my classes, pursuing the license. You have all of these professionals that have worked these other jobs and are going into this profession because they want to make a difference in kids’ lives.”

Beginning next school year the two programs will essentially merge, giving local districts more autonomy in the licensing process. 

Velarde says she’s so grateful she was able to make this choice, but it hasn’t been an easy path, “If I was someone that was 23 or 24, this would be a really tough route. But for someone who has lived a little bit of life and has perspective and some grit to get through those days, it has to be something that you find joy in and you see that intrinsic value in your job.”

Find out how to take advantage of a transition program here

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