At age 40, Christine Greiner wanted a career change.
“I went to college right out of high school but I never graduated,” she said. “I got married young and started a family.”
Greiner had worked as a secretary since graduating high school, but she wanted to be a teacher. Stopping or reducing work for years, plus the cost of traditional universities, wasn’t an option.
“We’re a two-income household, so I knew I had to keep working full time,” she said.
So Greiner started taking classes at Western Governors University of Washington, an online public school. While taking classes, she continued to work as a secretary. Three years later, Greiner is now biology teacher at Riverside High School.
Expediting the teacher certification process is something that some educators and school administrators see as a necessary step in addressing a national and statewide teacher shortage.
Mary Templeton, Spokane Public Schools director of certificated personnel, said the district is interested in encouraging para-educators and others who work in schools – but aren’t fully certified teachers – to pursue their teaching degrees.
In particular, that could help recruit in perennially understaffed areas, such as special education, science and math.
“A lot of us, Spokane included, are investigating how do we do that,” Templeton said.
The district is collaborating with Washington State University and in the fall sent a survey to para-educators asking if they had an “interest in moving further down the path in their education,” she said.
WGU Washington is hoping to help fill this shortage, according to Richard Cummins, WGU Washington’s chancellor.
“I heard one principal tell me basically ‘I know someone who I would hire tomorrow but they don’t have a credential,’ ” Cummins said.
WGU is an online, competency-based nonprofit university. It was created and endorsed by Washington’s Legislature in 2011.
In 2016-17, 40 percent of WGU Washington’s teaching graduates earned degrees in high-shortage areas – math, science and special education, according to spokeswoman Janae Frisch.
According to a survey of Washington teachers and principals from 2016, 20 percent of principals surveyed said they were in a “crisis mode” in hiring certificated teachers while 70 percent said they were in a “struggling, but getting-by mode.”
WGU costs significantly less than a standard university and allows students to skip subjects or classes after passing competency-based tests. Greiner spent about $18,000 for her three years in school.
Greiner said she found WGU to be rigorous and helpful.
“They keep a watchful eye on you, and they don’t let you run amok yourself,” she said.
Cummins said WGU targets those who already work in schools, but aren’t yet teachers, like para-educators.
“There is a pool of individuals who have demonstrated an interest in education, love working with kids but don’t have the degree,” Cummins said.
“Frankly, our state needs as many teachers as possible,” he added.
Templeton said by focusing on hiring more aggressively and helping teachers earn their certifications the state’s second largest district no longer has a teacher shortage.
But it’s a precarious situation, especially for special education and other hard-to-fill teaching positions.
“We’re crossing our fingers that nobody retires,” Templeton said.
The district has started hiring year-round and providing more thoughtful mentorship to new teachers. The district is planning to apply for a grant that would provide tuition reimbursements for para-educators who go back to school, Templeton said.
As for Greiner, she’s in the process of getting a master’s degree with WGU.
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