By NY Educator Voice Fellow Jenn Chernis

In most occasions, when a teacher calls in sick, a substitute teacher is called in to “teach” their class for the day. The substitute teacher walks into the classroom and finds the day laid out minute by minute; students’ names, textbooks needed, and copies of assignments. The plans lay out what to write on the board, what pages to assign and whom to ask if help is needed, both students and staff. When the day is done, substitute teachers exit the classroom, with a quick note about what was completed and if there were any behavior problems. They may never see those students again, and their day is over. Substitute teachers can count these hours in a classroom  towards the hours they need to obtain their professional certification.

This summary is not to demean substitute teachers or the work they do, but rather to spotlight an important disparity: Each day, teaching assistants walk into the school building prepared to interact with students. Teaching assistants are in many classrooms when a special education teacher is somewhere else. They are working with students in small groups to re-teach and support the learning of struggling students, or they are addressing testing skills in an AIS, academic intervention services, program. They know students by name, they interact with parents. Teaching assistants provide valuable input to the learning style, development and well-being of the students. Their feedback results in more effective lesson planning for the students in their classrooms. However, their experiences do not earn them credit towards professional certification. This is a critical discrepancy between substitute teachers and teaching assistants in New York State.

What’s the process of becoming a certified teacher in New York? Here is the general process: A student graduates from college with the hope of finding a teaching job in their chosen specialty. They have attended innumerable class hours and practicum learning experiences, they have passed all certification exams. Then, the aspiring teachers send out resumes and participate in interviews. A school district who is facing budget cuts or limited funds cannot hire teachers to fill all necessary positions. The candidate is offered a job as a teaching assistant in their field of study, working with students every day. Helping students learn and grow both academically and socially. They become a positive contributor to the school and community. However, this experience does not help them achieve their certification.

They will have a choice to make. The choice is not an easy one. Do they make a difference in the lives of the children in their field of study, working everyday with students and professionals to improve the academic achievement of the children in our schools? Or, do they sign up as a substitute teacher? A substitute teacher who may or may not get to teach in their area of expertise, and who sees different children everyday and has little to no impact on their lives or the instructional planning for the students. Who may sit in the library all day because there aren't any teachers out that day. However, a substitute teacher who will get credit for the day towards their certification.

The role of teacher assistants in our school districts have changed. Many are highly qualified certified teachers, who are seeking jobs in a challenging limited job market in new York State, specifically Long Island. They chose to accept the role as teaching assistants to make a difference in the lives of children. However, when they accept this role they are really limiting their potential to maintain their certifications. The certification requirements mandate that you must teach for three years in five in order to obtain your professional certification. One’s time as a teaching assistant does not count towards this time requirement.  If you are unable to complete this requirement you may apply for one extension of two years. After that, you must start over and take the exams again, which are costly, especially on a teacher assistant salary.

The new guidelines for professional development for teacher assistants is another avenue for growth towards certification credit. Many teacher assistants within the school system are receiving the exact same professional development as the teachers. They are attending the same seminars and participating in professional development days at school. This meets the requirement for teacher assistants but does not further their opportunities for obtaining their certification. In addition, the school districts have not necessarily tracked the professional development hours for teacher assistants because they have never counted towards anything before. Currently, the new requirements teacher assistants are facing  to maintain their position are increasing at a higher rate than that of certified teachers. Yet, many of those positions are held by people who despite the increase in professional development, and contributions to the students and school, will lose their license and their jobs.

The guidelines and requirements to receive credit towards obtaining teacher certification need to be examined closely. It is important to evaluate the current roles and responsibilities of substitutes and teacher assistants in our schools. Who is having a greater overall impact on the lives and academic growth on our students? Who is making a difference in our learning communities? Who is teaching in their specialty area everyday? Who deserves the credit?

I propose acknowledging the contributions the teacher assistants make to our schools, to our children, and to the profession of educating our children by providing 60% credit for their service toward maintaining their teacher certification. This would allow teacher assistants who have been working with children, full-time for 5 years after earning their initial certification the required teacher hours to maintain their certification.

Jennifer Chernis is a Special Education Teacher for the East Moriches School District. She is the Response to Intervention Coordinator and the Aimsweb trainer and facilitator. She has implemented a 1:1 iPad program within the Special Education Department. Jennifer has been a member of the Blue Ribbon and District Curriculum Committees. She is a teacher mentor and is the Testing Coordinator for the Elementary School. She is the Director for the Summer SCOPE Enrichment Program. Jennifer is a New York Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.