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Teacher Ellie Howe interacts with her fourth grade students during social studies class on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at Homestake Peak School in Avon. Some rural districts rely on teacher candidates who are still working toward their bachelor's degree and teaching license to overcome teacher shortages. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ellie Howe began teaching this year beside some of the same teachers she had as a middle schooler in the Eagle County School District, where they guided her through math problems, Spanish vocabulary and social studies projects.

“Those teachers definitely pushed me to be a better individual in school,” said Howe, who is still learning lessons from them, including how to build a decades-long career as an educator.

She has leaned on her former teachers the past several months as she’s taken over a class of fourth graders at Homestake Peak School in Avon, even before completing her college degree or getting a teaching license.

With teacher shortages rattling many Colorado districts this year, more are hiring teachers who are still in the process of getting licensed, handing over classrooms to educators who have minimal experience in managing a class themselves, and who are still working their way through college coursework toward their bachelor’s degree and teacher’s license.

The state refers to these educators as “teachers of record” and has allowed them to secure a special license and take over classrooms since 2018, when lawmakers passed legislation permitting candidates who meet a set criteria to teach in areas plagued by shortages. 

The state had a handful of teacher candidates take on full-time instruction after the law took effect. This year, 17 teachers of record are overseeing classrooms, with more teacher candidates in the pipeline to start teaching on their own before they graduate, according to Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education. 

It remains a small pool of the state’s teacher workforce but one that is growing, signaling the struggles among districts to find qualified teachers for all of their students. It also raises key questions for both kids and educators: Is Colorado planting inexperienced teachers in classrooms before they’re ready to teach solo — and will these educators have the stamina for a long-term career in schools?

Districts employing teachers still enrolled in educator preparation programs include some in resort mountain towns, where escalating housing prices and a high cost of living have challenged efforts to draw teachers from elsewhere. Eagle County School District, west of Vail, hired Howe as its first teacher candidate this school year after she already worked for the district as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher. The district of about 500 teachers has a second teacher in training lined up to oversee a classroom in the fall, said Adele Wilson, chief human resources officer.

Teacher Ellie Howe leads fourth graders during her social studies class on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at Homestake Peak School in Avon. Some rural districts rely on teacher candidates who are still working toward their bachelor’s degree and teaching license to overcome teacher shortages. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Moving current employees up through the school system “is a lot more beneficial than really attempting to hire folks outside of the valley who have no home,” Wilson said. “And it’s a challenge to find housing.”

Wilson said Howe “had proven herself in the classroom in a different role.”

“We knew what we would be getting with her because we had witnessed her in roles in education in the school and were able to know that even though she was brand spanking new as a teacher, she’s got the education experience within our district,” Wilson said.

Teacher candidates qualify for a special license to teach alone only if they are studying in an undergraduate teacher preparation program at an institution of higher education and have no more than 36 credit hours left to complete. That means some teacher candidates are eligible as soon as their junior year, O’Neil said.

The state requires that the district or school employing a teacher still in training collaborate with their college or university to create a plan so that the educator can complete their own education while instructing students. CDE must approve that plan, which must spell out extra support for the educator, such as a school mentor and regular coaching “as they encounter things that are new or they don’t have experience in,” O’Neil said.

Teacher candidates who want to teach their own class before graduating must also pass their teacher licensure exams. They can move on from a teacher of record license to an initial teaching license once they finish their college educator preparation coursework and get their bachelor’s degree.

Not all teacher candidates who meet the criteria are directly ushered into a classroom, said Liz Qualman, director of teacher education at Colorado Mountain College, which has 11 campuses.

“I do not believe this is a pathway for all of our students,” Qualman said. “Many of our students still need a true internship.”

The program is suited for students who have demonstrated they have significant experience working in a classroom and that they’re ready to take on all the requirements of a first-year teacher, she said.

Colorado Mountain College, one of the state’s smaller teacher preparation programs, has seen six of its students move into full-time teaching roles this year — almost half of its graduating class. Two years ago, the program had one teacher of record, said Qualman, who has watched as the soaring cost of living in the high country cripples districts’ abilities to attract teachers.

“It makes sense to recruit many of our students as teachers of record because they already live in the communities,” she said.

In figuring out how to support a first-year teacher while they’re still in school, Colorado Mountain College helps break down the number of hours a teacher will receive each week from a mentor teacher in the school and the extent of field supervision that educator will have from faculty members, Qualman said.

O’Neil trusts that the state and districts have enough precautions in place to make sure teachers who lead classrooms before they’re fully licensed will succeed — or be removed if they’re ineffective in classrooms, which has happened twice in recent years.

Wilson, of the Eagle County School District, said teacher shortages demand that districts explore new ways of staffing schools. 

“We have to be more open to different avenues and make sure that we’re providing those folks with the support they need to be successful,” she said.

But Qualman wonders whether hiring teachers before they cross the graduation stage is setting them up for a challenging start, raising the prospect of new teachers burning out at a time pandemic disruptions have drained many educators.

Teacher Ellie Howe watches as students play a hockey ball game during recess on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at Homestake Peak School in Avon. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“If it’s the right student who’s prepared, it’s the right position in a very supportive classroom and school and district then it can work very well,” she said. “But if those stars don’t align, it can burn out a pre-service teacher before they have finished their preparation program.”

She also worries about the program becoming “abused” as teacher shortages overwhelm districts. Lawmakers initially gave districts the green light to hire teacher candidates before graduation as a way to help them with hard-to-fill positions. Now, all districts have hard-to-fill positions, Qualman said.

“There could potentially be pressure on students and prep programs to put more students in this pathway who might not be ready,” she said. 

“Thrown into the wolves”

Howe, the fourth grade teacher at Homestake Peak School, said she was prepared to command a class of her own despite never student teaching. She’s worked for Eagle County School District for the past five years, jumping from paraprofessional to long-term substitute teacher and eventually taking the lead in teaching sixth grade math and science.

She also clocked field hours in which she shadowed a teacher during her schooling at Colorado Mountain College.

Howe, 25, has found herself surrounded by support at her school, where she can turn to a fifth grade teacher down the hall who serves as her mentor, her field supervisor from Colorado Mountain College, educators who co-teach with her and her former middle school teachers who are now her colleagues.

She’s been steadily encouraged by the growth her students have shown throughout the year. She’s blossomed alongside them. 

“There’s days that are harder than others as a teacher overall no matter how much experience you have, but looking back it’s very inspiring to see how far I’ve already grown in a school year,” said Howe, who plans to teach in Eagle County School District and give back to the community that shaped her.

Ciara Rulon, who teaches third grade at Stone Creek Charter School in Gypsum, also started teaching on her own in August without having ever served as a student teacher. But after spending four years as a paraprofessional for students with special needs in Denver, she said she felt she was “way above being a student teacher.”

She moved back home to Gypsum four years ago to study at Colorado Mountain College and save money. As she inched toward her senior year, she shuddered at the idea of student teaching without compensation.

“The thought of living in the mountains and not getting paid as a student teacher was very stressful, and I just felt like I had enough experience to skip that,” said Rulon, who lives with her parents and pays them rent so that she can make ends meet while earning less than $40,000 a year.

Last year, as a paraprofessional in a special education class, Rulon created lesson plans, ran small groups and taught students one on one for grades K-5, all while using data to inform how she worked with students. 

Teacher Ellie Howe leads fourth graders during her social studies class on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at Homestake Peak School in Avon. Some rural districts rely on teacher candidates who are still working toward their bachelor’s degree and teaching license to overcome teacher shortages. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Already just with that year being in charge of small groups and getting that practice, I knew I would probably be ready to step in more of a classroom role,” Rulon said, adding that she had relationships with her students from aiding them in past years.

It hasn’t been easy as the educator has had to stay on top of her own classes while teaching her third graders, but she’s being mentored by a fellow teacher at a nearby school and gets help from  paraprofessionals and a professor who observes her three times a semester and offers feedback.

She was stressed as she first began teaching her own set of students, nagged by fears she wasn’t fully ready. But as many of her students’ test scores have improved, she’s gained more self-assurance.

“As you are thrown into the wolves sometimes,” Rulon said, “you learn very quickly how to do things.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...