Citing staff shortages, Alabama is beginning to pay student teachers to run classrooms

School districts in Alabama are getting creative with recruiting and retaining teachers. One solution: pay student interns during their time in class. found that two experiments are underway.

The first, started during the pandemic, allows schools to pay interns to run a classroom – without a lead teacher overseeing them. The second begins in January, when Tuscaloosa City begins paying interns a stipend during their traditional internship class alongside a senior teacher.

Paying interns and giving them sole, long-term control of a classroom is relatively new in Alabama — but it’s a solution more schools across the country are interested in learning for certification exams.

Karissa Hall taught a first grade classroom in Lauderdale County for the last two and a half months of the 2021-22 school year and served as a long-term substitute while she worked on her degree at the University of North Alabama. She said running a classroom alone without having any real experience was challenging.

“If you’re doing your internship with another teacher in the room, he can somehow step in or you can step aside and ask him [for help]’ said Martin. “When I was in there alone and it was something I absolutely didn’t know, I’d say we’ll talk about it later. And then I asked the other teachers at lunch or called my professor after school.”

But she said she is grateful for the experience and feels better prepared to teach fourth grade in Huntsville this year.

Several other states have tried different approaches to attracting and retaining prospective teachers with paid roles, including West Virginia, which pays non-traditional teacher candidates while they are in training, and Colorado, which is using federal COVID relief funds to hire income-earning interns for the Pay for tuition while you learn.

Student interns in Alabama are premier classrooms

Giving interns the opportunity to run their own classroom is a solution that emerged as schools struggled to find substitute teachers during the pandemic.

Katie Kinney, dean of education at the University of North Alabama, said school districts had begun asking colleges if interns could run classrooms themselves to fill vacancies. The state Department of Education said yes, and soon student interns were running classrooms across the state.

If an intern serves as a long-term substitute at a Title I school for four or more consecutive weeks, federal education regulations require the school to notify parents.

Because the interns tutored alone—acting essentially as substitute teachers—districts began paying them as such, either as a daily rate or as a long-term substitute.

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According to the Alabama Department of Education, about 50 interns lead classrooms and are paid as long-term substitutes for the current school year.

Two student interns worked as long-term surrogates last year, and that was a first for UNA, Kinney said. This year, half a dozen working students trained by the university are already in charge of the classrooms.

It makes sense that teacher interns would be paid, Kinney said, since other areas of the university, such as engineering and economics, also pay students to intern.

But Kinney said she has concerns about bringing interns into the classroom too soon and said learning teaching skills is a process.

Candidate teachers usually complete a semester-long internship as the last step before graduation; Learning under a lead teacher helps interns get comfortable with the pace of a classroom and cope with the various challenges that arise throughout the day, Kinney said.

“Every time we accelerate development processes, there has to be additional support [for the intern]’ Kinney said. “Some of our students are 100% ready, and if they don’t have that support in their classroom 24/7, that’s fine as long as they have someone to call, whether it’s an instructional coach or a reading coach. ”

Paying stipends for interns to study alongside a teacher

Tuscaloosa City Schools is also trying something new with their student interns: They get paid during their internship if they commit to teaching in the district after graduation.

Superintendent Mike Daria said the district will pilot a program to pay up to 10 interns during their internship — which will be a traditional internship, complete with a senior teacher to supervise the intern. Students will each receive $1,200 starting in January.

“Once we meet interns at our schools who are interested in staying on as full-time teachers, we will hire them and pay them a monthly allowance while they complete their internship,” Daria said. “And then they already have a job for August 2023.”

“It’s a way for us to get an early commitment from them and also mentor them with the supplement to keep them in the system.”

Daria said the district currently has two student interns who serve as long-term replacements, but that the new pilot should be viewed more as an “early commitment” program.

It’s just one of many ways the state has expanded pathways into the classroom in recent years, as schools were already struggling to recruit teachers in certain areas, such as high school math and science and special education, even before the pandemic set.

In 2019, state education boards increased the time a teacher with an emergency certificate can teach from a maximum of one year to four years, giving non-traditional candidates — such as those taking up teaching as a career change — more time to complete the teaching process required teachers to pass exams.

And earlier this year, officials allowed various combinations of GPAs and teacher test scores to serve as final certification requirements.

But now that districts are having a hard time finding elementary school teachers — they used to be plentiful in most districts — any flexibilities are welcome, Daria said.

Daria said schools have been a part of staff development for years but have not done a good job of developing their own teaching staff. The pilot program is promising, he said, but it will take time to see if it succeeds.

For her part, Martin said that being a first-year teacher is difficult – with or without the traditional student internship experience. “Especially in the beginning,” she said, “we’re still trying to figure everything out on our own.”

“You can prepare as much as you want,” she added. “But in the long run, every class, every student is different. And so it takes time to get to know your class, your student and your own style as a teacher. And all of this comes only from experience. And when you start, you just don’t have that experience yet.”

“It’s important for parents to have mercy and remember that we are also learning.”