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

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, recently passed 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 vignettes that follow.

In Part One I replied to the most common objections that I hear my colleagues make to the law. Essentially, I don’t think the law will make much a difference when it comes to filling open positions. I do think, however, that it could hardly make things worse and that the reasons to give it a chance outweigh the reasons to reject it outright.

Part One is nearly entirely speculative. Below I outline how open positions in sixth through eighth grade have been filled at my school over the years. Good luck finding a correlation between being successful and holding a teaching certificate. For sake of anonymity, I’ve occasionally altered gender, left out grade levels, and only referred to subjects as being “core” or “elective.”

1) Many years ago a friend of a colleague wanted to try teaching. She took the necessary classes and student taught with us. She bonded easily with both colleagues and students. We were thrilled to hire her to teach a core class. After the first quarter, on Halloween of all days, in what the principal at the time said was an absolutely surreal meeting, the teacher, dressed in a Day of the Dead costume (including full face paint), told our principal she was quitting.

2) Sometime after that, we hired an uncertified elective teacher, subject to the timely completion of certification requirements. He was a natural – kids loved him, and the work they produced earned honorable mention in high school competitions. He then started teaching a core subject and did great there, too. During this time, he completed his certification, then after a couple of years left teaching for reasons of his own.

3) At about the same time, and under the same conditions, we hired a core teacher. Her impact was checkered, but she was a reliable colleague, and she connected with our most marginal students. She claimed to be working steadily toward certification, but it wasn’t true. When the district discovered she was making false claims and had made no progress toward certification, they fired her mid-year.

4) Another uncertified core teacher was hired with no education classes. He says that the mentorship of three colleagues was, “Way more valuable than any education class I took post bac.” He goes on, “I really do not really know what I got from those cert classes. I was very lucky that I had such a strong team… with teachers that were happy I was there.” He adds, “The only thing my cert classes taught me was how to write a lesson plan. But by the time I got to that class I had already been teaching for months.” He does offer that his cert classes gave him some ideas about class management. Finally, he suggests that a “teacher boot camp” would be a good idea. He stayed with us for several years and is now teaching at another school.

5) I told “Luke’s” story at length in How Not to Shuffle Teachers, Part One. Luke was hired as a long-term sub while completing his credentials, after which he’d get a contract and retroactive pay. The district required that we replace him and another long-term sub with their “highly qualified” teachers who received bonuses for taking the job. In one case we got a fine certified teacher who finished the year, stayed one more, and then left this year.

However, Luke’s case was an epic disaster. The certified veteran lasted roughly from Thanksgiving to Christmas then quit, leaving the position open. In late February few of us took on his classes for the rest of the year. Only one of us was certified to teach the content.

Luke completed his certification and returned to us. He’s starting his third year and plans to pursue his National Board Certificate when he becomes eligible. When I asked how essential his certification work was, he replied, “I reviewed my coursework and think that most of it did not translate into the classroom, at least to the level of PD’s and workshops. However, education in classroom management and the history of education (philosophies and legal matters i.e. IDEA) was essential.”

6) I was shocked to learn that a “core” teacher was actually a long term sub without a certificate. She taught two years in an open position. Her large, outgoing personality made her a favorite with students and teachers, and we considered her a full member of our faculty. When we talked near the end of the year she told me she wasn’t coming back. We weren’t close enough for me to ask why not.

7) We recently filled two open core positions, two doors apart, with veteran, certified teachers. One started at the beginning of the year. He did ok with some classes, not so well with others, and for reasons unknown to me, left with several weeks left in the school year. The other teacher took over a class that had been taught for a few weeks by a very capable substitute. Because of his success, it took a while for students to accept her, but they finally did in a big way. Beyond the classroom, she has emerged as one of our strongest teacher leaders.

8) We hired a certified teacher for an open position in the room next to mine. He lasted about a quarter and substitutes took over for the rest of the year. Some would last days, others weeks. But all left eventually, leaving the students cynical, distrustful, and out of control.

9) Two years ago, I filled in for one of Luke’s science classes for the rest of the year. Last year the position remained open, so I took one of the classes again. This year, I’m again taking on a sixth class, but it’s in language arts – a core subject I’m not certified to teach but will do well in. I’ve grown used to the added workload, as well as the extra money. (In fact last year I even told our admin team I wanted an extra class if one were available.)

So there you have it. I’ve made a case, speculatively and empirically, that SB 1042 deserves a chance to see if it will ease the open position crisis in Arizona. Time will tell if my arguments and data hold up. In the meantime, bring on the push back.


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. Jess Ledbetter

    Sandy, you have shared true stories of schools trying to give kids the best chance they have. My guess is that these many solutions have weighed heavily on school leaders and faculty who have had to juggle the workload and support the newly hired staff. I think these types of stresses in the profession (the open position crisis) are greatly contributing to attrition in the profession. Last year, I blogged that the teacher shortage is REAL ( I shared that my preschool special education position at my previous school had not yet been filled. I also shared that there was an open preschool special education position at my new school. At my previous school, the position remained unfilled all year long. (Granted, it was covered by a talented, retired teacher–but that teacher was not allowed to write IEPs or progress reports). Therefore, the burden fell on special education staff who remained at that school. Like you, they helped cover the extra caseload of an unfilled position for the whole year. In my new position, the open position was not treated like a burden to other staff. For the most part, issues were handled by administrators and I was never asked to help carry the burden. A teacher was hired for that position in October, and I was amazed that the burden was not passed to other special education teachers during the time the position was open. Perhaps this luxury was possible because there was only one open position at my school, but it filled me with gratitude and loyalty to the district. I think that school administrators should do what they can to minimize the impact these open positions have on continuing staff in case it can prevent stressors that contribute to additional attrition in future years. Thanks for the stories! It’s true that teaching is a talent that comes naturally to some–certified or not. I’m hoping our efforts to advance the profession will continue to make the working conditions better for all teachers so that we can retain the talented and create stability in our schools.

    1. Sandy Merz

      Thanks again for your comment and story. An open position sends waves through a school that effect just about everyone. Sometimes dozens of students’ schedules have to be changed as classes are collapsed and reconfigured. Office staff is burdened with the extra work of getting a 6/5s teacher’s contract revised, administrators have the unenvious task of asking full time teachers to take on an additional class. It goes on and on.

  2. Joan R. Buckley

    What about a program that matches a career changing teacher with a strong veteran? Add in professional development team core workshops run by the district that would best meet the identified needs of these trainer mode teachers. Give them release time to be coached in addition to the time they work with their team.

    1. Sandy Merz

      Yes, what about that? It would be a two way street. The professional entering teaching would be a great source of workplace trends, states of the art, practical applications, and the veteran teachers could coach them on how to make it in the classroom. Nice point.

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