Should Undocumented Teachers Be Allowed to Cross Professional Borders? Part One

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development

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In an attempt to ease Arizona’s open-position crisis, Senate Bill 1042 permits schools to hire applicants with content expertise but no coursework in education. The law applies to grades six through twelve, as do the comments below. (Part Two contains vignettes of how open positions have been filled at my school.)

Arizona’s educators generally greet SB 1042 with fear and loathing as they imagine droves of undocumented fake teachers crossing career frontiers to invade the profession. Eavesdrop on any two educators and expect to hear, “What do you think is going to happen now that anybody can be a teacher?” Cue the eye rolls and head shakes.

Opponents ask how anyone can be a teacher without studying child development, learning theory, teaching methods, and the like. What’s left out is that right now pretty much anyone can be hired to teach as long as they agree to later spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars completing certificate coursework.

Opponents also point out that the law doesn’t address the root causes of the open position crisis.

And they claim the law demeans the teaching profession.

Well, I don’t fear or loathe the Senate Bill 1042. Mostly, I think very few positions will be filled due to the law. Where exactly are all these tired, poor, huddled uncertified masses yearning to storm the gate and contaminate our ranks?

Regardless, the bill does offer a real time means to get content-qualified individuals into open positions, and that merits discussion. Typically, students in a teacherless class at my school face an endless stream of substitutes. Sometimes we find a decent permanent sub or an on-site teacher willing to take on an extra class (for proportional compensation). Some positions remain unfilled all year. Then, if we don’t fill the position over the summer, we start the whole mess over in the fall.

It’s easy to imagine the impact of the situation on student learning, discipline, and morale. Assuming they have the talent, whoever ends up with the class permanently will need weeks to mold the students back into a learning community. By then, the class will be so far behind that the class’s material won’t be completed – a consequence that ripples through the next year and beyond.

What’s hard to imagine is how hiring a content strong but uncertified individual could make the situation any worse. Some SB 1042 hires won’t cut the mustard and bail after several weeks. Others will stick it out, but not be very good, hate the work, and quit after a year or so. Either of these worst cases is at least a marginal improvement over watching multiple substitutes parading through an out of control teacherless class.

On the upside, some will do ok but call it quits after a year. Others will have potential, like the work, and with some decent mentoring and professional development, successfully assimilate into their new career. That’s pretty much what happens with first year certified teachers now. An added bonus is the possibility that this new blood will add some spark to schools with their outsider skill sets and histories.

Nonetheless, each argument from opponents to Senate Bill 1042 deserves a direct response.

First, do teaching classes really prepare one for teaching? Teachers don’t seem to think so. I know because some years ago, at some kind of round table, the moderator asked a group of about 20 National Board Certified Teachers if anyone’s certification programs prepared them for the job. Not a single hand went up. I sure didn’t raise mine. Since then I’ve asked the question maybe six or seven times to diverse groups of teachers. Only one teacher has ever said, “Yep, mine did!” Perhaps readers will flood the comments testifying that their programs were indispensable. We’ll see.

Second, to those who oppose of SB 1042 because it doesn’t address root causes, I have some questions: 1) How do you know that the cost and inconvenience of taking classes of at best disputable value aren’t themselves a root cause keeping accomplished professionals in other fields from considering teaching? 2) How many years are you willing to hold students hostage to the current system until any conceivable future state legislature passes your favored policies that will address root causes? 3) And what do you have to lose, anyway? If SB 1042 fails – however you define failure – you have a slam-dunk, empirical, “I told you so.” If it succeeds – however you define success – that’s a good thing – like it or not. And don’t worry – in Arizona, you will never lack issues that still need your advocacy.

Third, SB 1042 doesn’t demean the profession. Respect for any career or professional depends on how much society values the work itself and the skill it takes to create an accomplished career. Our respect for individual practitioners in any career hinges on their personal demeanor and the quality of the work they do. Diplomas and alma matters mean nothing when practitioners turn out to be incompetent or unethical.

With that in mind, teachers routinely score high on polls asking which professions people most trust and respect. (Look it up!) So consider: Which will more likely lower the public perception of teachers and education – the stories students tell their parents about what goes on in teacherless classes or learning that a new teacher didn’t take a handful of easy education classes of limited use?

All of the above is speculation. Until it’s been given a chance, we won’t really know for a while whether SB 1042 does any good or somehow manages the inconceivable and worsens the already toxic system.

But we can dig deeper into the question of the correlation between being certified and being successful as a teacher by looking at several case histories. For that, see Should Undocumented Teachers Be Allowed to Cross Professional Borders? Part Two.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 4

  1. Donnie Lee

    Sandy, this is a piece that really raises a lot of interesting points. I am eager to see the conversation that this sparks. I have wondered how many people are going to to leave their field of expertise and enter the classroom. I got to hear a presentation from the AZ Department of Education. They have fielded several calls from people asking about getting a teaching certificate. I left that meeting thinking that this new law is not going to draw the best of the best in these fields. I will disagree with you on the teacher preparation program. My student teaching semester was crucial to my success my first few years as a teacher. I would not have been prepared for the classroom if not for not that experience. My coursework prior to student teaching was hit and miss. I can only think of a handful of classes that I strongly remember. I do realize that those courses leading up to student teaching helped me to understand why things were happening. These courses that cover classroom management, assessments, child development, and instruction are vital components of our profession. Teachers will either have to learn them in college or on the job. There could be some natural born teacher that picks these things up quickly but most will have to learn them. Now that this teacher is in the classroom, who will be responsible to mentor? If that teacher is lucky, the district may have someone whose sole responsibility is to train educators. I fear however that this will fall on a colleague next door or a team lead. These are teachers who are already juggling their own students. They may love helping new teachers as they enter the classroom but that is an additional workload. I am worried that as teachers enter the field without that educational background, it may speed up the number of teachers burning out and leaving the profession. I do think you are right when you said that if this works, than that great. I do hope that advocates don’t stop fighting for the causes that actually got us to this point.

    1. Sandy Merz

      Thanks for the comment Donnie. My comments were limited to grades 6 through 12; I’m not sure what level your certification is if for, but I don’t doubt that teacher prep programs for the primary years are more essential, given what I think is a greater need to know about child development. I want to know more about the meeting you attended, because your comment suggests there’s some truth to the bias that those who can do, and those who can’t, teach. And if we’re going down that path we need to point out the well documented data that college ed departments populate themselves with students scoring the lowest on the ACT/SATs. In my final comments I’m going to describe conditions that will increase the chances of success for teachers who join without education coursework as well as those who have the hours. Those conditions certainly included the mindset of the schools and districts they land in. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Jess Ledbetter

    Hi, Sandy! I appreciated this blog post because it represents a different dialogue, raises some questions, and makes me think deeper about the issues. I’m among those who have worried that SB 1042 sends a message to teachers that their training is undervalued, and I worry (like Donnie) that training new recruits will weigh down teachers who are already struggling. However, I think you bring up a great point that those same teachers are likely struggling already with the open, unfilled teaching position next door to them. I think you’ve possibly changed my mind: We don’t have much to lose. However, I think it’s important that teachers keep pointing to the bigger problems that are creating attrition in the profession so that this bill is not seen as a “fix” that allows the legislature say that they tried. A few months ago, you mentioned the term “open position crisis” as opposed to “teacher shortage.” I think that teachers need to keep pointing to this. Even if we are flooded with uncertified teachers willing to do the job, we want those teachers to have a decent salary, class size, and working conditions. Perhaps we should start seeing these brave souls as “part of us” instead of “one of them.” Anyone who comes to join the field can also tie us to the greater community in new ways and possibly increase advocacy for education by sharing their own stories with friends and past colleagues. Last, I really liked this quote: “An added bonus is the possibility that this new blood will add some spark to schools with their outsider skill sets and histories.” I think this is a great way to look at it. Teachers should embrace and accept any professional who chooses to call himself or herself a teacher: It’s important work and we need all the help we can get!

    1. Sandy Merz

      Thanks for this comment, Jess. If many uncertified teachers do take the opportunity SB 1042 provides, their success will greatly depend on the environment they land in – both the particular school’s climate and the working conditions. Anyone who claims the bill has fixed anything exaggerates. At best it’s one tool to ease the open position crisis. One thing I hadn’t thought of is that with their different experiences, skill sets, and connections, maybe some of these brave souls will be great advocates for better working conditions.

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