University of Vermont

Dual Teaching Certification Broadens Perspectives, Job Opportunities

Senior Jill Shave is spending her senior year at a local elementary school as part of a dual certification program in general and special education (Photo: Sally McCay)

When Jill Shave stands in front of her class at the Sustainability Academy in Burlington’s Old North End she faces an incredibly diverse group of students. Learning how to teach a room full of second- and third-graders that includes English Language Learners from multiple countries, students with varying Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), and children with special needs has been a challenging, but rewarding experience for the senior elementary education major.  

Shave, who arrives at school at 7:15 a.m. and stays until about 3:45 p.m., spends most of her day with students and collaborating with a team of professionals that includes special educators, ELL specialists, general education teachers, administrators and para-educators. It’s invaluable preparation for a teaching profession that is becoming increasingly inclusive of all students in the classroom. That shift is the primary reason the College of Education and Social Services added a dual certification option in general education and special education three years ago.   

“It’s certainly challenging, but I’ve enjoyed it and feel like this experience is preparing me to teach anywhere,” says Shave, who hopes to return home to Schenectady, N.Y., to teach in a similarly diverse school. “I feel confident in my ability to work with kids from all different ability levels. I think it’s really important from my perspective to be certified in both, because I think there’s more of an ownership of all of the kids in the class. In order for special education students to be full members of the classroom, the teacher has to be really well prepared to work with them, and dual certification makes that possible.”

Thus far, every student who has earned dual certification through the new program, including all 12 students in last year’s cohort, has gotten a teaching job straight out of college. CESS’s addition of the dual certification option was partially in response to a growing national trend of creating more inclusive classrooms, led by a handful of states that now require dual certification for general education teachers. It also supports CESS’ mission to prepare students to educate individuals of all backgrounds and abilities in an inclusive atmosphere.

“Only a few teacher preparation programs across the country offer dual certification programs for its students,” says Fayneese Miller, dean of the College of Education and Social Services. “Our program here at UVM means that our graduates will be well prepared to teach all students, regardless of their ability level, learning disability or special need. This program is just another effort at UVM to prepare future educators who are highly qualified and highly effective in the classroom. We are constantly revising our programs and looking for ways to ensure that our teacher preparation candidates are well ready to teach.”

A mutually beneficial collaboration

Sustainability Academy Principal Brian Williams has hired a number of UVM graduates, and is increasingly looking to hire students with student teaching experiences at diverse schools like his, where 30 percent of the students are from other countries, 16 different languages are spoken, eight percent of the children are homeless, and a number of students have special needs, including some with intensive special needs.

“If I’m hiring and I see students coming out of a program like UVM’s who can work with a diverse population, they immediately jump to the top five percent of the applicant pool,” says Williams, who typically receives about 100 applicants for a classroom teacher position. “The last thing I want is someone coming here who doesn’t understand the really powerful issues of diversity and equity. UVM students are getting the dual certification from a phenomenal school while spending a year at a school with tremendous diversity. It’s a collaboration that benefits both UVM and our school.”

Part of the collaboration includes an annual trip by kindergarteners to UVM for a tour of the Davis Center, lunch and a lecture. “For many years, our students didn’t look up the hill as something that was in their future, and now we want all students to know that whether it's college or advanced training they should feel like it’s within their control,” says Williams, who earned his master’s in educational leadership from UVM. “It seems worlds away for them, but it’s really not, and by visiting there and having UVM students teach them. it raises their whole level of expectation and aspirations.”

Making the grade     

George Salembier, associate professor and Department of Education chair, says demand is high for the new program with more than half of the 150 students currently minoring in special education having expressed interest. In order to become dual certified, students are required to take 21 credits (as opposed to 18 for the minor) and complete a full-year internship instead of the standard one semester. Another requirement added this year is a minimum 3.5 grade point average in special education courses.

“We’re preparing students for 21st century schools,” says Salembier, who plans to hire two new faculty members to accommodate the demand. “Five years from now we’re talking about having a fully integrated program, because it’s what we believe in as a college and because it’s the future of schools.”

Colby Kervick, a senior lecturer in special education and student teacher supervisor who works with students at the Sustainability Academy and Hiawatha Elementary in Essex, Vt., says one of the most valuable aspects of the year-long internship is the experience students get working with seasoned educational professionals. It also offers students a chance to be evaluated by teachers and administrators as many as 12 times.

“When Jill is planning her lessons she’s talking on a daily basis to a special educator, an ELL teacher, paraeducators and other professionals, so she’s learning in a pre-service experience how to manage working with other adults. A year-long teaching experience also builds confidence when a student is being evaluated in a job interview, because in a traditional student teaching experience you are only observed six to eight times.”

Katie Shepherd, an associate professor who teaches courses on special education assessment and systems of services for individuals with disabilities and their families, says students don’t really grasp what life is like for children with special needs until they spend time with them and their families. “Students don’t really internalize what this truly means until they walk in both pairs of shoes. Working with a child with special needs and their family is critical to their growth as a student and educator. It’s an integrated approach that shows how much we care about and value all kids.”

Shave says she has found Shepherd's insight to be true in her experience at the Sustainability Academy. “At first it was hard because I didn’t know the kids,” she says. “But now that I’ve spent time with them and understand where they are coming from and their backgrounds, and areas in which they may be stronger or weaker, my ability to work with them has grown exponentially.”