In recent years, area superintendents and school leaders have witnessed a growing number of teacher resignation letters at the end of the school year. In the summer months, school leaders devote time filling vacant positions. In the event a certified teacher is not found for a teaching job, many districts — including some in southern Oklahoma — are turning to emergency certificates. Those with an interest in education and a bachelor’s degree are receiving emergency certificates, granting one year of teaching in the public school classroom. At the July State Board of Education meeting, the board approved 182 emergency certificates from 67 school districts. Emergency certificates have been awarded to teachers at Ardmore, Kingston, Lone Grove, Madill, Thackerville, Turner and Wilson, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Mark Williams says his first year as a public schoolteacher was challenging, but he was up for the challenge when he became emergency certified to teach algebra I at Ardmore High School.

During the 2014-15 school year, Williams taught freshman students problem solving skills, polynomials, sequences and sums. Outside of the classroom, he devoted time to becoming a certified teacher, to continue in the profession. He completed the application process, passing specific tests in mathematics to earn a three-year temporary license from the state Department of Education. When academic classes begin at AHS on Aug. 19, Williams will teach freshman students in algebra I and an honors geometry class.

“Getting your certificate is not an easy process,” says Williams, who describes it as a small victory followed by a bigger payoff in impacting students. “It is amazing to see students struggling and then you reword something. You see that lightbulb go on.

“As much of a headache as it is, it is completely worth it,” says the Weatherford native, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. “It is such an amazing opportunity to know you have a role in the men and women students are becoming.”

The highlight of his first year of teaching came after his students completed the End-of-Instruction Algebra I test, a state-mandated exam conducted in April.

“They came in and they were so excited because they knew they did amazing,” Williams recalls. “I had a part in that. I can’t take all the credit because I know there were eight teachers before me that taught them math, but it was neat to see them succeed.”

It was an experience new to Williams, who, during college at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, had the opportunity to become a children’s pastor at his hometown church. Williams and his wife accepted, serving the church for nine years. During that time, Williams completed his master’s degree in math education and taught adjunct classes in remedial algebra at SWOSU.

Thanks to the state Department of Education’s emergency certification program, he was able to step into the classroom and begin his next career as a teacher.

“Teaching was something I wanted,” he says. “I knew I could effect kids lives and that was a huge reason to teach.”

The growth in emergency certificates

Emergency certificates are granted to an adult with a bachelor’s degree after a district makes a case that no certified teacher was found for the vacant position. All certification requests come before the Oklahoma State Board of Education.

With an emergency certificate, a new teacher can step into the classroom and teach with no formal training. Their educational background and professional experiences plays a role in their new teaching position.

For example, school districts can hire an accountant to teach a high school business course, a research scientist to teach biology or an artist as a fine arts teacher.

During the 2012 fiscal year, around 100 emergency certificates were awarded to school districts who had exhausted their options on bringing a certified teacher to fill a vacancy in their district.

At last month’s state board meeting, the board approved 182 emergency teaching certificates from 67 school districts. That’s up from 71 emergency certificates when compared to the same time last year, according to the state Department of Education.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister says 432 emergency teaching certificates have been awarded this summer and the board will consider approving more at this month’s meeting.

“We have on the agenda for the state Board of Education meeting a request by districts to give 250 (emergency certificates),” Hofmeister told The Ardmoreite (ITALICS) Friday. “That’s just in one month. That’s half of the certificates awarded during last year. To me that is astonishing.”

Hofmeister says the requests are coming from school districts across the state. About half of the requests are to fill vacant early childhood and elementary school teaching positions.

“That is typically where we have had the surplus in teachers,” says Hofmeister, who holds a bachelor’s degree in education and is a former public schools teacher. “This is really a point of crisis we have not seen in our state’s history.”

For a district to obtain an emergency certificate for a new teacher, several steps must to be taken, including a letter from the superintendent and documents of the teaching job posted. The potential new hire must provide a resume, transcript, a criminal history check and verification of passing a test in the subject area they plan to teach.

If the emergency certificate is granted, the new teacher has one year in the classroom. If they wish to continue to teach, they must undergo college course work or take certification steps by the state department of education to become a teacher.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said emergency certificates are a temporary way of dealing with the statewide teacher shortage and satisfying a need.

“Emergency certifications are really a stopgap for schools to put someone in the classroom to make sure they retain some resemblance of class sizes that meets the requirements of students per teachers,” says Hime. “It is not something most schools want to do.”

Emergency certificates are a growing alternative path for those interested in education. However, taking an alternative path into the field is nothing new. Nationally, programs like Troops to Teachers and Teach for America have brought many adults — with no formal training in teaching — into classrooms of school districts which have struggled to retain educators.

Struggles of the statewide teacher shortage

Several years ago, education leaders and superintendents across the state began to see the profession’s numbers dwindle as it became more difficult to hire educators.

Hofmeister, who began her term as the state’s 14th superintendent of public instruction on Jan. 12, campaigned as an advocate for finding the solution to Oklahoma’s teacher shortage.

“We ended the school year with about 1,000 teachers short,” Hofmeister says. “When you are a 1,000 teachers short you need to think of class size — it might be 22 to 30 kids. We are talking about the effects of 22,000 to 30,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren that don’t have a permanent school teacher or have someone in their classroom that requires emergency certification.”

Hofmeister says teacher pay is driving certified teachers to neighboring states. Oklahoma ranks at the bottom when it comes to paying teachers. The state superintendent lists only South Dakota and Mississippi as states with lower averages on teacher pay.

The starting pay in Oklahoma for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $31,600. The Oklahoma branch of Stand for Children, a nonprofit education advocacy group, recently reported statistics that compares starting teacher pay to cities in neighboring states. In Denton, Texas, the pay is $50,000. Wichita, Kansas, compensates new teachers at $38,762 and Fort Smith, Arkansas, offers $37,500.

Hime says it can be very difficult for teachers to not only recruit to an Oklahoma school district, but also retain teachers.

“With Ardmore being close to Gainesville, Denison and Denton, a lot of schools (in Texas) are able to offer $10,000 to $15,000 more than the schools in Carter County,” says Hime, who spent 10 years as a teacher and administrator at Ardmore City Schools. “It is very difficult to retain your high-quality teachers.”

School districts are also facing competition with other career fields in the state. Some teachers are leaving the profession, moving on to other opportunities, says Hime.

At the state Capitol, lawmakers have called for raising the state minimum pay for teachers the last two years. However, those bills have failed to gain traction in the legislature. This past spring, the state faced a budget shortfall ending hope for an increase in pay this school year.

Hime says for the teacher shortage to end, compensation has to improve, as well as recruiting college students into the study of education.

“As the compensation packages have been stagnate, people aren’t going into the field of education,” says Hime. “We need to find a way to recruit teachers — high school students into the colleges of education. Then we need to find a way to keep them in Oklahoma.”

Hofmeister names state testing as another factor of the shortage. Oklahoma teachers feel pressured to teach to a test and not engage their students in quality, enriched educational opportunities like taking field trips, performing a science lab or researching a person in history beyond what information is in the textbook. She says she is committed to taking a deep look at state assessment tests and pursuing testing that adds value to the learning process.

Both Hofmeister and Hime say lawmakers must become involved to combat the shortage and raise the number of certified teachers in the state.

“It is going to take bold leadership in the legislature to put students first,” Hofmeister says. “We know a high-quality teacher is the most important person in the school for effecting high outcomes for kids.”

“The key to finding the solution is for higher education, common education and our legislative leaders to get together and find those solutions that will ensure we have a high-quality teacher in every classroom,” Hime says.

In the meantime, those with a passion for education and impacting students are needed to fill vacant positions, just like Williams at Ardmore.

“I think it is sad,” says Williams about the teacher shortage. “I’ve lived in Oklahoma nearly my whole life and I love Oklahoma. I hate to see these teachers leaving, but I understand you have to be able to take care of your family. I know where they are coming from.

“With me being a math teacher, I see job opportunites with big-name schools as of this week. Some were looking for advanced placement math teachers. Honestly, I can pick an area of the state I want to teach in and have a job.”

@lauraeastes_ARD