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New Online Program Helps Non-Traditional Teachers Get Licensed

Teacher helps student at desk.
Liz Schlemmer
Cyrus Henson helps student Matthew Trivette with a geometry problem.

Cyrus Henson arrives at his classroom at 7:15 a.m. each day after an hour-long commute through the foothills of western North Carolina. He teaches a full day of math to freshmen, then stays until 6 p.m. to prepare for the next day.

“I have this very large stack of papers here that are in need of grading, and that still does not include work that I will take home with me that I will do while I’m cooking or clothes are washing,” Henson explains, pointing to a two-inch stack of geometry homework he hopes to soon return to his students.

Henson is on a deadline to earn his teaching license in the next three years. He has a bachelor’s degree in English, but was hired to teach math at Hibriten High in rural Caldwell County, when the school was in a pinch. Both of his parents had taught at Hibriten High, which is also Henson’s alma mater.

Henson relearned calculus and trigonometry to pass the Praxis test in math, an exam used to license teachers in their subject area. Henson’s former calculus teacher, then retired, tutored him for several weeks after school to help him pass the most difficult parts. Henson had a support system, but the process to become a teacher was still a challenge – from strengthening his math skills, to pursuing full licensure, to managing his classroom.

“I came in and had a fairly rough first day. My mother was still teaching at the time. I go down to my mother’s room and shut the door and say, ‘I have no clue what I’ve gotten myself into.’” Henson said.

His mother, a veteran teacher, chuckled and told him to come back the next day and try again.

Henson is one of about 4,300 lateral entry teachers teaching in classrooms across North Carolina on a provisional license. That’s out of about 95,000 teachers in the state. Lateral entry teachers came to the profession later in life, without a four-year degree in education. They’re changing careers and often teaching in hard-to-staff schools and subjects, while also taking classes to earn a full teaching license.

The Process for Lateral Entry Teachers Seeking Full Licensure is Hard to Navigate

Henson, 26, is in his second year teaching on a provisional license. The hardest part for him now is just trying to get licensed. He’s tried several avenues, including pursuing a master’s degree in education.

“I remember when I was working on that master’s program there were several nights where I stayed up all night and then came in and taught the next day,” Henson said. One night he stayed in his classroom working all night, then taught, without going home – a more than 30 hour shift.

Henson says his options for licensure were complicated and slow. Either he could have a state agency examine his transcripts and give him a checklist of classes he could take at various colleges, or he could get a master’s degree, specialized in English. Despite teaching math, he’d have to pursue a graduate degree in English, because that’s what he studied in college. So Henson tried that, driving another hour for class once a week.

Henson was taking a special education course online and a transnational literature course at night, while also grading and planning math. He agrees it sounds illogical. And it was tough while being a first year teacher.

“I was trying to make the program work, and it just wasn’t going to happen with what the reality that was in front of me,” Henson said.

So he quit teaching, and went back to his previous job at Lowe’s. Several months later, the school called him again, to say they were hiring an English teacher. He applied and accepted. But then another math teacher left Hibriten High. The school needed Henson to fill that spot. He returned, and would still have to work toward his full teaching license.

Then a colleague told him about a new route to licensure. The colleges of education at North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill were launching a program this year for lateral entry teachers, called Pathway to Practice.

NC State and UNC Chapel Hill Launch New Online Program for Lateral Entry Only

Pathway to Practice is an all-online, self-paced competency-based program. Students complete tasks that show that they have a full understanding of the material and turn in examples of their work – from lesson plans, to graded papers, to videos of themselves instructing. The program was designed by a team of faculty at the two colleges of education to train and meet the needs of teachers like Henson. The end reward is a teaching license, not a graduate degree, and only currently employed teachers working on a provisional license can participate.

“There’s so many lateral entry teachers from across the state, that aren’t completing the lateral entry requirements, and therefore don’t get fully licensed,” says the program’s coordinator Alison Winzeler, “and in addition, the attrition rate of these teachers are higher.”

A little more than half of lateral entry teachers in North Carolina either don’t finish their requirements or quit teaching within five years. Henson was almost one of them. Now he’s in the first cohort of the new online program.

With the program now underway, he says his schedule is a big improvement over his last semester.

“There was little sleep. I pulled 12 or 13 hour days,” Henson said. In fact, after calculating from his description, he’s probably underestimating.

Now, Henson is hopeful that he can manage his workload, and earn his full license in about a year. 

Teacher at a computer.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Cyrus Henson works on Pathway to Practice schoolwork during nights and weekends.

“Even though I have only been working on it for a few weeks, it is a lot more efficient. It is a lot more practical,” Henson said.

He says he’s learning things he can apply right away with his students. One of his first assignments was to formally write down class rules and expectations, what teachers call a classroom management plan. He’s now thinking about implementing his after Thanksgiving.

The program is also more practical because it fits into his life as a full-time teacher.  Henson says the best part is that the online curriculum is self-paced. He can take as long as he’d like, and use whatever time is available.

“I was able to come in on my own time, on my own terms and not have to worry about sitting in a class, making sure I have an assignment done by this particular date. I was actually able to put in more thought without worrying about just having to get it done,” Henson said.

Program Coordinator Alison Winzeler says that’s the point: not only to license more teachers out in the field, but to train thoughtful, effective teachers, who will stay.

Data visualizations by Peyton Chance.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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