Ahead of the Class

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 Ahead of the Class

Because candidates in Pathways-type programs come from nontraditional pools, their profiles differ markedly from those of traditional teacher education students.

Candidates from the paraprofessional and emergency-certified teacher pools tend to be older, to have families, and to have been out of college settings for some time. They tend to be less familiar with how universities work and correspondingly less confident of their ability to succeed academically. Most of them hold jobs.

Returning Peace Corps volunteers also show profiles markedly different from those of traditional students, but their differences are not the same as those of paraprofessional candidates. The RPCVs are younger than the first group and less likely to have begun families. They may be unfamiliar with teaching in U.S. public schools, and also have less teaching experience.

Providing Support Services for Candidates

Both groups of nontraditional candidates face stresses and demands that are atypical for most teacher education students. Not surprisingly, therefore, teacher education programs do not usually offer appropriate support services. Recruitment programs that target nontraditional candidate pools can raise retention and completion rates considerably by tailoring additional support services to nontraditional students’ needs, and thus improve the return on investment in the program.

This section describes unusual support services that Pathways programs have developed to help their nontraditional populations complete their studies and become credentialed in a timely manner. It also describes three types of support services for participants who have attained certification: placement in teaching positions, induction services for beginning teachers, and involvement in program activities. In closing, we offer basic principles for constructing an effective support services network to serve nontraditional teacher education students.

Supporting Participants over the Long Term

Often, Pathways participants progress through teacher training under difficult circumstances. Because they emerge from nontraditional pools, during school and their early months as teachers they need a network of services uniquely suited to them.

Main support services that Pathways-type programs have provided include orientation, academic advising, academic tutoring, preparation for certification exams, supervision of field experiences, mentoring, counseling, family support, and support in building a network of colleagues. Below, we describe these services in general, and then discuss their applications to different target populations.

Orientation. Typically, orientation begins soon after participants are admitted to the program. Orientation familiarizes new enrollees with the program’s goals and expectations, together with certification requirements. It also introduces new students to the host institution and the teacher education program, as well as to program and institutional support services they may use. Some programs’ orientation sessions last only a few hours or days at the beginning of each semester, while other programs make orientation part of a credit-bearing class that goes on throughout the first semester. In other cases, orientation to a Pathways-type program is embedded in the recruitment and selection process.

In the DePaul University Fellows Program, students in each cohort take their first three weeks of classes together during August, when they first enroll. Classes meet daily, giving students ample opportunity to become acquainted with each other, program staff, and the staff of the schools where they will intern. During this time they are also oriented to the city of Chicago and the Chicago Public School System. Key courses that program staff believe are helpful when completed before entering the classroom are also offered in August: “Instructional Strategies in Critical and Creative Thinking,” “Curriculum in Language Communications,” “Teaching and Learning Elementary Math,” and “Professional Practice.”


Orientation is of particular importance for RCPVs because it is the main source of their knowledge about the school districts where they will teach and their chief opportunity to learn about the teaching profession before they assume full-time jobs in it. Peace Corps programs often offer orientation in the summer, some integrating orientation into a set of summer courses. RPCV program orientation includes local orientation to the area, the host institution, the program, and the school district; pedagogical techniques are also taken up. Programs that serve predominantly American Indian schools offer orientation to American Indian culture as well.

Beyond preparing new students to participate most effectively in the program, orientation may also help to build support on the part of the new students’ family members, if they are included in certain sessions. Another, less obvious aspect of a successful orientation program is laying the foundation for future colleagueship among the new students by asking all entering students to attend the same sessions.

Academic advising/monitoring. All programs provide some type of academic advisory services focused on course selection and sequencing. In some programs advising is done by program staff, in others by faculty or host institution staff, and in still others by both program and host institution staff. Some sites offer group as well as individualized advising. A few programs embed advising into seminars that discuss issues such as required courses, manageable course loads, and potential difficulties. Because programs for RCPVs tend to mandate a set course sequence, most provide very little advisement.

Some Pathways sites used their own version of the Bank Street College advising model, in which project staff meet with small groups of students weekly or every other week to discuss problems participants may face in the program, questions about teaching and learning, general issues in education, and connections between educational theory and classroom practice. These sessions promote a sense of community and mutual support among the students, while ensuring they receive adequate academic advice.


Almost all programs monitor participants’ progress semester by semester. Transcripts and grades are reviewed to judge whether the academic program is being followed and how nontraditional students are faring in it. Several programs meet with participants at the end of each semester to discuss past or potential problems. Participants who are in academic difficulty may be referred to support services provided by either the program or the institution. A number of programs ask faculty who teach Pathways students to report periodically during the semester on their progress in class, so that problems can be addressed before it is too late. Faculty are also asked to give end-of-semester reports on Pathways scholars.

Academic tutoring. Programs for paraprofessionals and emergency-certified teachers offer academic tutoring on an as-needed basis to both individuals and groups. Tutoring sessions can be institutional or program-supported. For example, several host institutions hold workshops to develop skills in math, writing, critical thinking, test-taking, studying, time management, and use of the library. Institutions also have labs or learning centers—open to all students, not just Pathways scholars—that offer help with math, writing, and other subjects on request. Some Pathways programs hire in-house tutors on an as-needed basis, although most RCPV programs report not needing this type of support.

Preparation for certification exams. Almost all programs for paraprofessionals and emergency-certified teachers provide test preparation assistance. A wide variety of test preparation programs are used, including noncredit courses, a workshop series, skills development through tutors, student support groups, and regular courses that embed training in test-taking skills in a more content-focused syllabus. In addition to providing help with teacher certification examinations, some programs offer assistance with institutional admissions exams such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Miller Analogy Test (MAT). Many of these test preparation activities are sponsored by the host institution. Programs also provide this assistance, and boards of education may sponsor test preparation help. Such assistance is especially important for participants, such as paraprofessionals, who have been away from a college setting for several years and who may not have taken standardized tests in a long time.

Norfolk State University’s support for Pathways Scholars, who must pass the PRAXIS exam as part of certification requirements, begins as soon as the program accepts a student. He or she is assigned to a class called “Seminar in Assessment and Evaluation,” which is offered for college credit. Course participants’ weaknesses are diagnosed using “retired” versions of the National Teacher Exam (NTE), after which the remainder of the course concentrates on remedying those problems. Saturday workshops are held in conjunction with the classes, addressing specific topics assessed by the NTE. Approximately 85 percent of the students who take this course later pass the NTE.


Supervised field experiences. All Pathways students receive some type of supervised field experience. The experiences available include, first, school visitations, which consist of regular observations and feedback in their classrooms from other teachers, faculty, program staff, or principals. Field experiences may also be integrated into regular teaching responsibilities. Principals usually supervise all beginning teachers. Finally, there is student teaching, the most organized and consistent type of field experience.

Scholars in the University of Memphis Pathways program are monitored by a supervising instructor hired by the program. This person visits them once a week to provide feedback and support. In addition to evaluating participants’ teaching, the instructor may also perform some modeling of certain teaching strategies if students need it.


Field experience supervision may be provided by program staff, faculty of the teacher education program, or school-based personnel (such as a cooperating teacher or principal). Some Pathways programs employ a supervising instructor whose major responsibility is to provide supervisory support to program participants in their classrooms. Student teaching requirements range from one semester to one year. As explained above, most Pathways programs have negotiated with school district partners to help participants fulfill student teaching requirements without having to quit their jobs to do so.

Kean College assigns each entering Scholar a faculty mentor, whom he or she contacts regularly through individual conferences, classroom observations, telephone conversations, and group meetings. Faculty mentors are expected to provide individualized support in order to ensure that each student stays in the program through graduation. Faculty mentors also track participants’ progress, using monthly reports summarizing their contacts and flagging any problems their students may have. Faculty mentors then must refer their mentees to special support services as needed.


Mentoring. Mentors provided by Pathways programs might be teachers, program staff (such as the supervising instructor), retired school personnel, or program alumni. They provide feedback and support on classroom teaching, resources, and materials, as well as advice on negotiating the educational system. Mentoring offers critical support to nontraditional participants. Pathways program experience shows that several factors must work together to ensure high-quality mentoring. In general, mentors should be carefully selected and matched to mentees; they should be paid or given released time for mentoring; they should undergo mentor training; and other program staff must monitor the frequency and quality of mentoring contacts.

As programs have matured, with a critical mass of graduates in the cooperating school district, program alumni teaching in the district may mentor program participants. This has occurred especially in the RPCV programs, where Pathways graduates are still teaching in the schools where RPCVs are interning.

First- and second-year Fellows at Teachers College, Columbia University, are placed in teams of 8 to 12. Each team is assigned a project associate who is a graduate of the program. Beyond the monthly seminars Fellows attend, the teams meet regularly, sometimes at associates’ or program participants’ homes, with discussion topics generated by Fellows.


Counseling. Most counseling services are available through the host institution’s counseling center, although Pathways staff listen sympathetically to problems. Because most participants must juggle the demands of full-time jobs, family responsibilities, and coursework, they are under constant pressure and there is never enough time in the day. Spending many hours away from home to complete coursework and participate in other project-related activities, participants often find that spouses and other family members come to resent the program. For some participants, especially paraprofessionals, their participation in the program threatens the stability of relationships with spouses, many of whom lack formal education past high school. Access to counseling is essential for students in these unusually stressful situations.

Family support. Programs sponsor family support activities such as reimbursement for child care, family socials, activity days for families, awards dinners that invite families, and workshops for spouses. Although most child care assistance takes the form of reimbursing participants’ child care expenses, a few programs provide dedicated services at the host institution’s child care center, kept open in the evenings for the children of Pathways students.

Some programs include participants’ families in orientation activities, hold seminars or workshops to introduce families to the goals of the program, discuss its demands or requirements, and enlist the family’s support for participants. Because paraprofessionals and emergency-licensed teachers are more likely to be older and to have families, programs serving these populations list family support activities as a vital service. RPCV programs, on the other hand—which serve younger, single participants for the most part—do not place as much emphasis on family support activities.

Cohort-building. Cohort-building—encouraging a community of professional and personal colleagueship among program participants—helps graduates begin to develop their own support networks. In several programs, especially in the Peace Corps cluster, entering students are grouped together from orientation and in courses provided to program participants only during the program’s first semester. Programs follow up by arranging regular meetings and social activities for students in the same cohort.

The University of Michigan Fellows Program begins building a sense of group cohesion during the orientation session, when Fellows first meet each other and spend considerable time together. Subsequently, colleagueship is fostered by first-year seminars in which Fellows discuss their teaching difficulties and share classroom experiences.


Financial support. For program students who are substitute teachers and paraprofessionals who typically hold low-paying jobs, financial assistance with tuition and other expenses is a must. Emergency-certified teachers usually shoulder heavy financial responsibilities that bar them from paying for the additional courses a teaching certificate requires unless they receive financial aid. Pathways programs provide funding to cover at least two-thirds of tuition. Programs may also reimburse participants for child care, books, and transportation, and provide loans for emergencies that might arise. RPCV programs, where the typical participant is a younger, single person earning a teacher’s salary, are called upon to provide less financial assistance.

Easing the Transition into the Classroom

After participants have completed their programs and obtained a teaching license, three additional supports help to smooth their transition into the teaching force.

Placement in teaching positions. Programs—especially those that serve paraprofessionals—are faced with assisting their graduates in finding teaching jobs in targeted school districts. Some Pathways sites provide guidance for participants in negotiating the district bureaucracy and procedures; the guidance includes preparing them for interviews and helping them with paperwork. Placing school district staff on project advisory councils has strengthened this process. Sites also maintain informal communication with district personnel to learn about job openings and ensure that program graduates are considered for those jobs. Facilitating the transition of Pathways graduates into teaching positions in cooperating school districts ensures that these districts reap the main benefit of collaboration: an increased supply of highly qualified teachers to fill shortage areas.

Participants in programs that serve noncertified teachers or RPCVs are placed in teaching positions when they enroll in Pathways, and usually stay in those jobs after they are licensed. Obtaining this initial placement becomes easier when programs have a close relationship with the district. Other factors facilitating initial placements include a pressing need for teachers and a district hiring cycle that coincides with the program’s enrollment cycle.

Induction services: support for beginning teachers. Pathways programs often invite graduates to participate in seminars, workshops, and meetings that contribute to their professional development and support. In their first year of teaching, graduates also receive informal assistance from programs, which encourage them to consult program staff about questions or problems. Program staff observe graduates’ classroom teaching and offer feedback.

Induction services may also be provided by the host institution to all its teacher education graduates, or by the school district or teachers’ union to all beginning teachers in the district. In addition to seminars, workshops, and beginning teacher institutes, induction services may offer the assistance of mentor teachers, additional supervision by the principal, and other support.

Cleveland State offers a four-hour seminar focused on classroom discipline, while Kean College gives a graduate course called “Survival for Beginning Teachers” and pays tuition for program graduates to attend. The University of Louisville holds less formal small-group meetings for beginning teachers. Several programs offer workshops on classroom management to Pathways graduates.


Involving alumni in Pathways-related activities. Some Pathways programs continue to involve their alumni in activities such as meetings, seminars, orientation, and social functions. Alumni are often encouraged to act as mentors for current program participants and program graduates. The programs also maintain connections through mailings and telephone calls to alumni.

Ensuring a Successful Support Network

In developing a network of support services, prospective Pathways-type programs should be guided by the following basic principles:

Support services should match participants’ needs, while acknowledging and building on their strengths. Specific needs in these target populations call for specific support strategies. Paraprofessionals, for example, typically have low-paying jobs, are older people with families, lack bachelor’s degrees, and have been absent from postsecondary institutions for a while. A program serving this population might offer tuition assistance, family support services, advising, academic tutoring, test preparation, and cohort support to build confidence. RPCVs, on the other hand, typically hold a bachelor’s degree and are younger and single, but lack familiarity with teaching in the U.S. educational system as well as teaching experience in U.S. schools. Tuition assistance is necessary to attract RPCVs to teaching because, generally, they have a range of career options open to them after they return to the United States. An adequate support system might emphasize an early orientation that exposes them to teaching strategies and familiarizes them with the school district in which they will teach. A support system will also back them after they have entered the classroom and offer at least partial tuition assistance.

Support services should be monitored (and revised) to ensure that they are offered only as needed. For example, when a program is young, services such as orientation are more important than in mature programs that no longer enroll large cohorts of students. Mature programs might choose to conduct orientation on a smaller, more intimate scale. It is also important to obtain feedback from participants and staff on the effectiveness and appropriateness of services. Services can outlive their usefulness as the population of participants changes or the program matures.

Whenever possible, programs should use or augment support services already offered by the host institution. Many programs can use existing institutional resources and services with augmentation that tailors them to nontraditional students’ needs. For example, many programs use the institution’s regular advisory services, supplemented by program staff sessions with participants. Academic support through established learning labs and writing centers can be reinforced by individual tutoring the program offers.

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