Making the Switch

How to Become a Certified Public School Latin Teacher Before (or After) Your Ph.D.

Quintilian, one of the ancient world’s greatest advocates for teaching, from the 1720 Burman edition of the Institutio Oratoria. Engraving by F. Bleyswyk. (source)

In a previous article for In Medias Res, I discussed the realities of the academic job market for PhDs in Classics and related fields, and announced a new Paideia initiative called the Quintilian Society that aims to encourage a pipeline of PhDs in which Latin is a core expertise to transition from academia to teaching Latin in our public school system. High school teaching is a rewarding career that allows PhDs to continue teaching the subject matter they love while providing most, if not more, of the benefits of a traditional “tenure track” job in academia. If you’re currently a PhD student or you are a recent PhD, and you want to continue to share your deep appreciation for Latin and the humanities with young people in the classroom while having stable employment, institutional support, and educational resources to pursue your interests, then becoming a public school teacher may be an excellent option for you. This article gives you a basic overview of how to become a certified public school teacher while still a PhD student or as a recent PhD.

Before going into all the details of how to become a public school teacher, I must make a perhaps obvious statement: you should only consider becoming a teacher if you love teaching. One of the consequences of the significant increase in “alt-ac” programming in the academy, in a positive way, has been an inclusive focus on a large and diverse array of options that PhDs have to choose from and explore in developing a career outside of higher education. Certainly, becoming a secondary education teacher is an “option” in one sense, but, as any seasoned teacher knows, it is a vocation that calls and chooses you. The good news is that if you have felt that vocation in the university classroom, teaching in our public secondary school system not only carries the same joy, but also is a mostly transferable skill. If you can tie your content expertise with your vocational passion for teaching, you will not only stand out to potential school district employers but you will also benefit the students and communities you will serve as a new public school teacher.

That said, if you do feel a true vocation to share your passion and knowledge with high school students, one of the biggest challenges for a PhD considering making the switch is the realization that you face yet another a series of time-consuming, if not frustrating, barriers to enter the teaching profession, despite having completed approximately 10–12 years of higher education, holding multiple degrees, and bringing relevant teaching experience to the table. This is why many PhDs who are considering teaching in secondary education only consider applying for jobs in private or charter schools which often, depending on the jurisdiction, have no or few certification requirements (though some private schools, of course, also encourage or expect certification too).

In most states, the process of certification for teachers who have not gone through a traditional teacher training degree program can be a protracted process involving degree audits, basic skills assessments, standardized content exams, pre-service trainings, clinical field observations and practice hours, provisional professional development coursework — or even university credit hours — and exit portfolio assessments now required by many states, such as the Pearson-administered edTPA, for final certification. In the sections below I will seek to demystify the process and give some pointers for how to make the best use of your qualifications, credits and — if you are still a PhD student — your remaining time at your home institution before graduation, to most efficiently begin the process of preparing for your new career as a public school Latin teacher.

1. Understand your state’s requirements and process

The most important thing to understand about teacher certification is that every state in the United States has different code-driven requirements (set by state law). Some states are more complicated and time-consuming than others from the perspective of a PhD making a switch into high school teaching, but very rewarding in terms of the professional opportunities and resources available for educators in those states. Understanding your particular state’s requirements is imperative for everyone: those beginning their PhDs, completing their dissertations, or already graduated. That being said, if you are still in are in the process of earning your degree, you may have some advantages over those who have already graduated if you are strategic about how you use your home institution’s resources (more about that below).

Though the processes vary among states, in general, PhDs will be getting certified as public school teachers through what is called an “alternate” or “alternative” route teaching process. The “alternative route” certification programs are so named in opposition to “traditional” teacher certification programs that grew up many decades ago in teachers’ colleges and “normal schools” to formalize the certification process within institutions of higher education. In the traditional teacher certification model, students arrive at undergraduate institutions already having decided to become teachers, and major in teaching or education with a focus in a certain field or content area. The undergraduate degree in this system includes credit hours for the major in the chosen content area (History, Math, Latin etc.), pedagogical courses taught by education professors, and clinical and field experiences, including student teaching at local schools, arranged by the program in accordance with state regulations, which result in teacher candidates graduating with standard state certification and endorsement in a certain field and, usually, job placement. The same applies to those who complete Masters in Teaching degrees. These individuals often majored in a particular field as undergraduates but lacked the pedagogical courses and requisite teacher training for certification. MAT programs fill the gap by giving candidates additional content courses, the required pedagogical training, and field experience/student teaching whereby candidates graduate with standard certification and, often, job placement.

Alternative route programs were therefore developed to allow people without a BA or MA in Teaching or Education to meet the requirements for provisional, and then standard, licensure over a period of 1–3 years. Alternate route programs generally require candidates to complete 12 or more hours of education field coursework and/or 200–400 hours of trainings and workshops over the course of 1–3 years usually offered through local universities or state-certified training programs. These trainings may include certain pre-service course requirements that must be completed before applying for a provisional certificate and other ongoing courses or training completed only after job placement. Because there are so many states and the process will vary so significantly, you should first check what the alternate certification requirements are for your state. Ultimately, once you know what state you are certain you want to become certified in, you must carefully read the requirements for the particular certificate you are seeking and secure the most up-to-date information from your state’s department of education website because regulations change frequently. Most large state universities will have an office and staff who can answer your questions about alternate teacher certification.

Besides completing training in teaching and pedagogy over 1–2 years (perhaps even university course work) and clinical observations in local schools (arranged by your program or by reaching out to principals), nearly all states require that candidates submit their transcripts, to prove eligible course credit hours, and take two standardized exams, one basic skills assessment (sometimes an old ACT/SAT/GRE will suffice) and one ETS Praxis exam or state endorsement exam in your content area (if you are seeking certification in multiple fields you will take multiple content tests) in order to even become initially certified and be able to apply for jobs.

For this reason, the best advice I can give for those who wish to get certified as public school teachers is to know ahead of time where you want to teach (rule #1: know your state’s requirements). Though many (but not all!), states offer reciprocity for teaching certificates, the process is long and highly dependent on code-driven factors which favor veterans who have achieved standard licensure with many years of proven experience — and the ability to jump through hoops based on years of teacher practice — over novices with merely provisional certificates and a lack of already established experience as a secondary classroom teacher. The amount of time required to complete the steps to acquire a provisional certificate, which allows you to apply for jobs, could take up to a year (including various processing times at testing and state agencies), and the time frame between getting an initial provisional teaching certificate and getting a standard teaching certificate could be 1–2 years. In most states you can only get a standard certificate after you have at least 2 or more years of on-the-job experience and, moreover, receive a certain number of adequate professional evaluations in addition to completing a teaching portfolio exit assessment called edTPA (in many states, but check your state). In other words, it doesn’t help you to start a career in teaching by getting a provisional, but not standard, certificate in one state, with the idea of transferring it to another, before you would get relevant training, job experience, and professional development leading to final certification. Any reciprocity is premised on earned standard certification and pre-existing classroom experience, and teachers who switch states may face bureaucratic hurdles, including additional trainings and certification requirements for the new state.

Also one must factor in the job search. Public schools actively hire between March and June each year. If you are not given the initial certificate by your state — excluding states with large teacher shortages and exceptional funding crises, which will issue emergency certificates to candidates who have not taken any certification steps, like Arizona, Oklahoma, and some others — then you also have to factor in waiting an additional year to complete a successful job search. Therefore, it is imperative for you decide where you want to live and teach, lest you waste a lot of time, money, and resources.

2. Understand your qualifications

Most PhD job seekers who feel a vocation for teaching may think that they are automatically qualified to teach high school with at least three degrees, sometimes four, including the PhD. However, if you’ve decided to go down the path of becoming a public high school teacher you need to assess how your degrees and qualifications translate into teaching certificates in the jurisdictions in which you seek to teach (this is a separate question from what your teaching experience in academia may have been).

Understanding your qualifications will help you understand what endorsements you will be able to seek certification in properly. For example, if you have a BA, MA and PhD in Classics or Italian Studies, and you have spent years teaching Latin, Greek, or Italian, you are obviously qualified to teach Latin, Greek, and/or Italian. You are also, we may assume, extremely qualified — and may have experience — teaching or studying literature, literary analysis, and may have taught general education/humanities courses much akin to the topic areas and practice of high school English teachers. Moreover, Classicists (and PhDs in fields in which Latin is required) often have expert competencies in historical content and the core methodologies of the social sciences. All of these things were certainly true for me, coming from a background in which my BA was in Classics, my MA was in Romance Languages (Italian Studies), and MPhil and PhD were in an interdisciplinary program in Italian and Comparative Literature & Society.

Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as having degrees and, as a highly trained academic professional, knowing that you are competent to teach Latin, History, and English, or even that you could teach high school Algebra. Teacher certification for most states is code driven (by laws and regulations) and based on the types of courses and number of credit hours you have actually completed in various fields.

Therefore, if you are coming up with a plan to get certified as a public school teacher you must do a thorough audit of all your credit hours and courses on your transcripts.

To get certified as a teacher in a particular field, most states require the equivalent of credits of an undergraduate major in that field and passing standardized exams in content areas. For example, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio require 30 hours of field-specific course work, with a mix of upper and lower division courses on transcripts to be certified in that field (your courses will have to be approved by an a state inspector). After auditing my transcripts I discovered that I had enough credits to be certified in Italian and Latin but in all my degrees had acquired lots of credit hours in courses that were in history and social studies related fields like political science, economics, and religion. I finally discovered that I was short one course in US History at the graduate level that would bring my credit hours and content requirements into eligibility for certification in social studies. Because of this, I was able to take a 4 credit hour elective graduate course in US History while still on PhD fellowship before graduating which put my social studies courses over the required number for state certification. In the end, I found that I would be able to seek endorsements in Italian, Latin, and Social Studies in New Jersey.

One final note: you should be aware that some states, in addition to course requirements, require a certain amount of previous experience teaching the subject in which you seek certification, but do not count teaching experience in other fields. If you are still in graduate school it is thus also imperative to seek out opportunities for relevant teaching experience and understand what experience would or would not be counted by your jurisdiction.

I highly encourage PhD candidates who are still on PhD fellowship to research the certification requirements of your state as early as possible. If you can take any required educational or pedagogical courses (such as an SLA methods course, certainly required by the majority of states), or you have discovered you are a couple of courses shy of having enough credits to gain a second or third certification, see if you can do them while you are still in coursework or ABD. Multiple certifications make you more valuable as a teacher to your future district, though be aware that you may be asked to teach courses in those subjects. Also, make use of any resources you may have at your home institution. Most large universities will have an education department or teacher preparation program which prepares undergraduate and masters students for certification in the institution’s home state. If you plan on getting certified there, make use of the expertise you have and see what you can do while you are still finishing your doctorate. Education departments and teacher preparation programs are also excellent places to seek advice about the job market and network with mentors and potential district employers looking for Latin teachers.

3. Embrace the process/get a job

The last step of your journey in making the switch is to start your job search and prepare for interviews. If you’ve completed your PhD or are in the final years of a PhD program, you’ve probably done a great deal of work at some point preparing for the academic job market before you realized you wanted to go into secondary education: you’ve written teaching statements, polished your CV, drafted cover letters, and attended conferences to network with peers and potential future colleagues. All of those skills are directly applicable to the public school job search, but you will need to convert your CV to a teaching resume, apply for jobs, and think about how to re-articulate your passion for teaching in the student-centric terms accepted in the contemporary public school teaching profession. Also, consider seeking a letter of recommendation from someone who has observed and evaluated your teaching at your home institution and don’t forget to showcase your students’ success in your own cover letter.

If the above sounds a bit daunting, remember that this is your vocation and that a rewarding and satisfying career teaching Latin and the humanities awaits you if you can meaningfully connect the dots between your professional identity as a scholar, your passion for teaching, the learning you have gained through your certification process, and how you will serve the school-community and students whom you wish to teach. When it comes time to search for your job, the good news is that, even if you already have meaningful prior classroom experience, you will have learned a great deal about professional practices, pedagogical methods, and educational considerations particular to public secondary education through your alternative route process and you will be much better equipped to articulate your teaching philosophy and potential contributions to district employers. Personally, having to reflect extensively on topics such as instructional planning, state and national standards, differentiation, effective assessment practices, inclusivity, learning styles, and childhood/adolescent development in the process of earning my teaching certification has made me a better teacher.

In the end, do embrace the process (you can because you made it through a PhD already). It’s not only doable but it is important to realize that you have a lot to learn from your alternative training program, and the various mentors, fellow travelers and, after you get hired, future colleagues and supervisors in your new district. This will be a new and exciting phase of your professional life! Be yourself, embrace the values that made you a “PhD person” in the first place, and appreciate how meaningful it is to share your passion for Latin (and philosophy, literature, history, language) with a new generation of students. Don’t forget that you love being in the classroom. When you get there you’ll be glad you did!


Francis R. Hittinger teaches Latin and Social Studies at Mountain Lakes High School in Mountain Lakes, NJ. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Society (Italian Studies) from Columbia University.