Jay Chilton | October 26, 2017

Demystifying ‘emergency’ certification

Jay Chilton

Shawn Sheehan did not grow up planning to teach public school. But just a few years after taking a substitute teaching gig in Norman, Sheehan was named Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.

His story is not unlike that of many other great teachers who never intended to make professional education their career. They’ve found their calling in the classroom, after starting their own secondary and post-secondary education with a different vocation in mind.

Teachers who did not start out intending to teach, but who take that path eventually, are often introduced to teaching as substitutes or through the “emergency” certification process—a misnomer for an alternative route that often has little or nothing to do with a true emergency.

Contrary to popular belief, alternative certification is not proof that the state has a chronic teacher shortage being salved with numerous “unqualified” teachers. Instead, it is cited as evidence of local districts doing what’s best for their situation.

For Sheehan, it all started with a sort of emergency: the lack of work. He found his true calling in 2009 in the Norman school district.

“I really just happened into it,” he said in an interview with 405 Magazine. “I was a military brat, and I always thought I’d go into the Air Force after college, but I had a medical issue that prevented me from doing what I’d always thought I’d do. I got my degree in journalism and public relations from Arizona State, and when I came to Norman in 2009, I didn’t have a job yet, so I thought I’d like to substitute teach for a while.

“One principal told me he thought I was really doing some great things in the classes where I substituted and he encouraged me to be a teacher.”

That magazine interview was published in 2015. A year later, Sheehan was named Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year. Sheehan made the news again earlier this year when he announced that he and his wife, also a public school teacher, would relocate to Texas in search of better pay. In between his award and his departure, the math teacher unsuccessfully sought a seat in the state Senate.

Sheehan isn’t alone in bolting for greener pastures or in becoming a teacher through alternative or “emergency” certification.

Alternative certification (the technical term is “exceptions to the requirements for licensure/certification”) is a tool used to fill teaching vacancies in a school district when traditionally certified teachers are not available or when a particularly attractive teaching candidate is not already certified.

As happened with Sheehan, principals recognize teaching talent, recruit that talent, and submit a certification exception request to the State Board of Education.

The term “emergency” certification has become en vogue in recent years, creating confusion and leading to the false belief that such teachers are unqualified. Full-time teachers entering the profession through the alternative approach are first vetted by a school principal. They’re scrutinized again by the district superintendent and, finally, by the state board.

Amber Fitzgerald, director of human resources at Enid Public Schools, told me that her district currently has 25 educators who went through the alternative certification process.

“Due to the teacher shortage,” Fitzgerald said, “we have hired numerous teachers with emergency certification over the last several years. We are very grateful that they have stepped up to assist with this significant need.” The district employs 460 teachers in all.

She said the necessity to hire emergency-certified teachers means the district must devote more time and resources for professional development and training prior to employment and early in the newly certified teachers’ career.

“Unfortunately, it can be difficult to retain teachers with emergency certification for multiple years—often because they are new to the profession and it is not what they expected or because they decide to return to their previous career path,” Fitzgerald said.

“Ultimately, once a teacher is part of our team—regardless of their path to certification—our goal is to provide support to help them be successful so that students will be successful, too.”

News stories about emergency certification have become part of a prevailing narrative, one that says these alternative professional entry paths prove that Oklahoma has a chronic teacher shortage. This belief is challenged in an 1889 Institute policy analysis entitled “Oklahoma’s Teacher Supply: Shortage or Surplus?

According to authors Baylee Butler and Byron Schlomach, those who advance this narrative argue that “the fact two percent (of Oklahoma’s teachers) have emergency certification is evidence of a major teacher shortage. This assumes emergency certified individuals are not qualified to be in the classroom, and that administrators hire them out of desperation. However, no evidence is presented to back up this assumption.”

To truly be unqualified, they wrote, “the holder of an emergency certificate should lack adequate content knowledge and/or teaching experience. It is true some lack teaching experience, but none should lack content knowledge.”

In an interview, Schlomach told me that the use of certification exemptions is an expression of local control within the school system. In order to utilize the exemption process, he said, local administrators must verify the content expertise of the individual within the subject matter. Also, the requesting district superintendent is required to write a letter of support explaining why the State Board should approve the certification.

“It boils down to the fact that ‘emergency’ certification is local certification,” he said.

Teacher recruitment needs are often filled from within a district’s own pool of teaching staff, many times using the certification exemption tool to allocate human resources to meet the needs of the school and its students.

Oklahoma’s State Department of Education has confirmed that more than a quarter of the “emergency” certified teachers in the classrooms across the state were certified teachers—without an “emergency” label or other qualifier associated with their certification—teaching in the school prior to being granted a certification exemption.

Oklahoma’s teaching certification designations are more specific than many states. As a result, a teacher who taught fourth grade in the previous school year may not be certified to teach kindergarten. When this situation arises, even though the principal in the school may want the teacher to change to a different grade in a subsequent year, the teacher is not allowed to teach the new class without being granted a certification exemption.

Jay Chilton

Independent Journalist

Jay Chilton is a multiple-award-winning photojournalist including the Oklahoma Press Association’s Photo of the Year in 2013. His previous service as an intelligence operative for the U.S. Army, retail and commercial sales director, oil-field operator and entrepreneur in three different countries on two continents and across the U.S. lends a wide experience and context helping him produce well-rounded and complete stories. Jay’s passion is telling stories. He strives to place the reader in the seat, at the event, or on the sideline allowing the reader to experience an event through his reporting. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma with a minor in photographic arts. Jay and his wife live in Midwest City with three dogs and innumerable koi enjoying frequent visits from their children.

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