By Kathy Schwalbe

Recently, a South Carolina teacher posed a question about policymakers continuing to entertain the idea of “shortcuts” for people to become teachers in our state. She asked, “How do teachers feel about someone without teacher preparation just walking off the street and into this job? We need teachers, but this will only hurt students!”

Comments by educators flooded the post. Most were keenly aware of the teaching shortage and attempts to shortcut teacher preparation. Responses ranged from teachers regarded as babysitters, the unwillingness of leaders to listen to teachers, and the notion that policymakers want to push veterans out to save money. I was tempted to enter a comment myself to offer another perspective, but I didn’t. There was a time when some of those comments could have been mine. As I continued to scroll, the idea for this story was born.

If someone told me that I’d retire after 36 years in education and return to the workforce to promote an alternative certification pathway, I would have chuckled. I am a proud, traditionally prepared educator. While I have managed to walk on the “wild side” of professional development a few times, most of my time was spent in predictable interactions and one-size-fits-all experiences. Even though I have someone near and dear who became an educator through an alternative route, I, sadly, leaned back into what I believed was necessary preparation for teachers. Wanting to help, I found myself making adjustments to informally support this alternative certification candidate in my life. It was an unexpected surprise at the time, and I felt somewhat unprepared since my prior work was with traditionally prepared teachers.

However, this novice taught me how to truly coach someone around their own classroom decisions and explore her learning goals in a way that served her and her students.

I learned that if I coached from a stance of building her self-directedness and resourcefulness, she and her students would be okay. Over time, I observed that they were more than okay; they appeared to thrive.

But still, the shifts that alternative certification routes would have to take to even begin to meet the needs of our profession during the impending teacher shortage mostly left me overwhelmed. That’s when I was given an opportunity to help shape a pathway that might address our shortage and include what our profession knows about the development of teaching skills, behaviors, and attitudes. This pathway is called the Carolina Collaborative for Alternative Preparation (CarolinaCAP).

Don’t get me wrong. I value teacher education programs of all shapes and sizes. Having worked at school, state, and higher education levels, I recognize there simply isn’t only one way to prepare teachers. There also isn’t only one way to support their development over time. As an educator, it’s been my duty to advocate, to solve problems, and to be hopeful for all teachers. What I know at this stage of my journey is this: If I were Queen of the Teacher Preparation Universe, I would take all of the powerful learning experiences beyond my traditional degree program, and I’d create something like CarolinaCAP.

So, what are the hallmarks of teacher preparation that make up the journey of a CarolinaCAP candidate?

Personalized Learning

My first memorable experience with personalized learning was with the Charleston Area Writing Project. Unlike coursework and professional development I’d attended, the facilitators wrote in journals every day with us. When we weren’t writing or polishing drafts, they posed profound questions that drove us to share and embrace different perspectives. Our cohort represented different teaching assignments, subjects, and grade levels, and our small group represented high-turnover schools and those with waiting lists for positions.

In our differences, we found our similarities. We identified patterns in our experiences and in our thinking. We learned how to self-assess and write about our strengths and how we might use them to personalize learning for all students. We were pushed, and we experienced trust and professional dialogue that transformed us. While it’s been 33 years, I still exchange holiday cards with three teachers in my group. I wrote about this experience when I became a candidate with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards because it shaped who I became as a teacher of writing, a collaborator with colleagues, and a coach of educators. That level of personalized learning informs my work to this day.

Personalized learning also shapes my current role as Coach Lead for CarolinaCAP. Our candidate cohorts develop trusting relationships because we intentionally provide space for them to collaborate. It began with a belief that CarolinaCAP candidates must be valued for their vast and diverse life and work experiences. From their first interactions with our team, we believe in their unique experiences and talents. We promise to take them from where they are to where they want to be as teachers.

Coaching, Co-Teaching, and Collaboration

Unlike many other alternative certification routes, CarolinaCAP is grounded in continuous coaching, co-teaching, and collaboration. Our district partners understand how job-embedded coaching and co-teaching approaches fill missing elements in their mentoring and retention plans. In some cases, districts are tapping retired educators to serve as coaches. The coaches are not only expected to plan, reflect, and problem-solve through conversations with candidates, they are also expected to model instruction, co-plan lessons, and co-teach those lessons with their candidates. This calls for strong commitment and organization. For those coaches who perform in related roles, making time in the work day to coach, consult, co-teach, and collaborate can be a challenge. With careful planning, district partners have managed to create space for coaches to do their work. They know that flexibility is key. What works early in the school year won’t necessarily be what needs attention at the end of the semester, so maintaining trust in the coach and candidate is critical.

Personalized support means tailored, relevant, classroom-based collaboration. It’s what every beginning educator deserves.

It’s culture-shifting as it creates new ways to apply these structures for deeper, high-trust relationships throughout the district.

Innovative Coursework, Micro-credentials, and Virtual Learning Communities

As we approach the end of year two, our CarolinaCAP team is growing, and our trajectory springs from the feedback of district partners, coaches, and candidates. The CarolinaCAP courses and the virtual learning communities for candidates and coaches have become stronger as relationships have grown. During the pandemic, we focused on our goals and explored new ways to solve problems. The scaffolding of support by the course instructors and coaches extends into their direct instruction in the classroom.

Additionally, the micro-credential requirement stretches candidates to make informed choices; to use clear, consistent language to show evidence of their competency within the South Carolina Teaching Standards; and to reflect on their choices as they establish learning goals for their students and for themselves.

Like the National Board Certification process, the micro-credentials draw upon self-assessment and reflection. Candidates grow with each micro-credential submission.

At the same time, their participation in monthly virtual learning community meetings provides opportunities for continuous learning and collaboration. Before they know it, candidates experience a level of professional dialogue about teaching and learning that many of us take years to develop. If we’re candid, some still struggle with finding the time, space, and energy to engage with other educators in ways that continuously improve our practice. We believe that the difference is candidates being given what they need to walk alongside their colleagues as they grow in resourcefulness and move toward licensure.

So, what would I post today in response to that teacher’s question online? I’d say this to educators, school board members, and policymakers:

South Carolina educators know how to address the teacher shortage. Some of them have recently created a pathway for those who want to teach. Instead of discounting alternative certification routes, check out CarolinaCAP. You may wish you had been able to participate in such a partnership when you were starting out. It begins with dreamers who have worked in other professions or had other roles in schools. They find there isn’t a shortcut to the classroom because it’s still hard work. But they learn best practice alongside experienced coaches and instructors. The best part? Our children are the real winners. Students don’t care how their teachers got there. They see brave and excited teachers. As educators, we owe it to our profession and our children to learn more about this option and become part of the solution.


This story is published as part of a recent storytelling retreat hosted by CarolinaCrED housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. The Center for Teaching Quality, a CarolinaCrED partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @CarolinaCrED and @teachingquality.

Kathy Schwalbe is the Coach Lead for CarolinaCAP, a partnership among South Carolina school districts, University of South Carolina and Center for Teaching Quality. She was an English Language Arts and journalism teacher for 19 years and was one of the first teachers in South Carolina to achieve National Board Certification in 1995. Kathy served as a Program Director for CERRA, an experience that honed her passions for mentoring and leadership. She is an associate trainer for Cognitive CoachingSM. While directing the Office of Student Services and Certification in the School of Education at the College of Charleston, she was elected and served on the Berkeley County School Board for two terms, serving as chair for four years. Kathy is married to Herman and they have two daughters. She also has four amazing grandchildren.