Change of course: Alternative teacher license brings real-world skills to classrooms
Tyler Okerlund has taken an unconventional path to becoming a classroom teacher in Grand Forks.
He doesn't hold a teaching degree or a regular license to teach but, this fall, under a special licensing program which helps schools fill hard-to-fill positions, he started teaching business courses at Valley Middle School.
A while back, when his job was eliminated at a former workplace, Okerlund was encouraged by friends to try substitute teaching, he said.
"Most of my subbing was at Valley, and I found that I really enjoyed the kids and the teachers here."
Teaching was "something I never thought of doing," said Okerlund, 39. But "it turned into something that was really really fun. It's really enjoyable."
Okerlund is one of 10 Grand Forks public school teachers with an "alternative access license," issued by the state's Education Standards and Practices Board, said Tracy Abentroth, director of human resources for the school district.
The license permits those with a non-teaching bachelor's degree and knowledge in a teacher shortage area to teach while completing the required courses for certification, a process that could take up to three years.
Okerlund holds a bachelor's degree in business marketing and a Master of Business Administration degree and, as a veteran, has eight years' experience in the military, as well as work experience in the business world— knowledge and experience he brings into the classroom.
That background "has helped me to run my classroom and to understand my students," he said.
There are "parallels with the military—goals, objectives, mission," he said.
"I lay out class expectations for the year, and build relationships with the students. Without relationships, you have no connections."
"I've found teaching to be very fulfilling," Okerlund said. "I love coming to work and I love doing what I do—teaching students something they've never learned before."
Alleviates teacher shortages
In Grand Forks, three teachers with the alternative license are teaching in elementary schools, three in middle schools, and four in high schools in areas such as special education, science, music, English, foreign languages and business education, Abentroth said.
The school district employs 755 teachers, so those with an alternative access license represent "a very small percentage," she said, but they are filling positions that the district has trouble filling for want of qualified candidates.
"The state is offering different options (in licensure) because of how difficult it is to fill certain teaching jobs," Abentroth said. "(It) has been sensitive to those pressures, but we still have standards that have to be met."
Applicants for the license must be enrolled in a program of study and must show evidence of progress toward completing it, said Mari Riehl, assistant director of the ESPB, Bismarck.
For its part, the school must show that it has tried to find a "regular" teacher, Riehl said. "Some schools advertise for months" without success.
This school year, across North Dakota, 123 teachers are teaching with the alternative access license, said Riehl.
Eleven of those teachers are in fields that are part of the Career and Technical Education curriculum.
In 2017-18, the total was 163; in 2016-17, it was 145; and in 2015-16, there were 142, Riehl said.
People with alternative license "bring life experiences" to the classroom, she said. "For some, it's their second or third career.
"They have a passion for being a teacher," as evidenced by the time and resources they commit to fulfilling the education requirements to qualify for certification, she said.
'Real world' lessons
Maggie Uetz, who teaches business education at Red River High School, is in her third year of teaching with an alternative access license, she said.
Uetz earned an undergraduate degree in public relations and advertising, and worked as an advertising consultant for an ad agency in Fargo.
The idea of teaching "was always in my head," she said, but she did not pursue a teaching degree in college.
When Uetz inquired about a job notice, Eric Ripley, director of CTE for the Grand Forks Public Schools, encouraged her to apply.
School officials "were excited to hear from someone in the industry," she said. "It's worked out amazingly."
By bringing "real world" experience into the classroom, Uetz said, "you build trust with kids right away—it's kind of like, 'I've been there, done that.' "
She's introducing students to entrepreneurial thinking and action—they're creating business plans and learning about cold calling, canvassing, sponsorships and customer relationship management.
In one of her marketing classes, students have launched a business "to hang up your Christmas lights," she said.
She wants them to have "valuable experiences," so they'll remember what they've learned—not just work for a letter grade, she said.
Uetz, who is studying online to earn a master's degree in education, said teaching "is what I'll do forever."
Okerlund expressed a similar sentiment.
When contemplating or building a career, "a lot of people chase dollars, rather than the job," Okerlund said. "I needed to do something for me."
As a teacher, he said, he most enjoys "making a difference" in students' lives.
"The information I give to these students is very important," he said. "I incorporate examples of how they'll use it."
Choosing to pursue a career in teaching seems to be the right course for him.
"It's been very fun, rewarding and challenging," he said. "I couldn't have made a better decision.
"My heart's telling me to go in this direction, and it's where I want to go. I don't ever see myself going back to the 'real world.' "