Career Ladders and Specialization | Buckeye Community Hope Foundation

Career Ladders and Specialization: A Solution to Shortage?

Career Ladders and Specialization

By Carol S. Young, Department Lead, Accountability and School Improvement

Last August, my father left the hospital after a week in cardiac care. He was wheeled down to my car on a rainy afternoon by a medical technician. Dee stood in the soaking rain as we safely loaded him into the car. She was happy and proud to release her patient after a week of intensive teamwork among unit staff. Dee, the “tech,” took care of most of Dad’s immediate needs— checking vitals, assisting with trips to the bathroom, getting water and ice, and engaging in calm conversations. Joe, his capable registered nurse, came in a few times a day for updates and administration of medications. A charge nurse, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, and, of course, several doctors were involved. The specialization was overwhelming. 

“Ladders” and specialization are the hallmark of today’s medical professions. What is a Certified Nurse Anesthetist anyhow? I am not sure, but reports say professionals in this advanced level of nursing earn about $200,000 per year. A med tech like Dee is typically climbing the ladder. Med techs often work while they study for licensed practical nurse or registered nurse credentials. Hospitals and colleges have partnered to make these pathways, as well as those leading to advanced nursing options, visible and accessible. 

Let us contrast these career options and lifestyles with those of the teaching profession. Teachers often stand outside in the pouring rain safely loading students onto buses. As a teacher, I never felt too good or too proud to do bus duty, playground duty, or (the worst) lunchroom duty. However, I often worried about what I needed to do before I left school: planning and setting up for tomorrow’s lessons, calling a parent, accessing resources, or checking in and collaborating with other teachers. An extra forty-five minutes in lieu of bus duty would have made my job more manageable. 

It is a fact. Teachers in the United States still perform many non-teaching duties. Teachers are overqualified for many of the tasks they perform, like taking lunch counts. But they are also underprepared for some more pressing educational issues, like how to deal with complicated student behaviors or planning truly rigorous lessons. Could career ladders and professional specialization lead to a more effective profession and manageable lifestyle? Some schools are finding out. Schools with double planning times and reduced extra duties for teachers, in fact, tend to keep, or retain, most of their teaching staff from year to year. 

In the past, the only “pathway” beyond teaching led solely to school administration, a different kind of profession altogether. But there could be so much more! Picture a school where the administration is introducing a new math curriculum. All teachers receive some basic training in its use. But a few are trained to be math specialists. Specialists receive enhanced pay because they instruct students, coach other teachers, and prepare lesson plans for the rest of the teaching team. Teachers on the team implement the lessons but are freed up for coaching and consultation by a teaching intern, who can handle the distributed practice portion of the lesson. Picture a high school student in a “Cadet Teacher” club that assists the neighboring elementary. Cadets who retain interest in teaching could look forward into a pathway that includes internships in schools, paid paraprofessional work, student teaching, a supervised residency including an area of specialization, and a variety of “advanced teaching” alternatives with enhanced salary. 

Career ladders and specialization of our vital teaching profession could help both recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. Several studies indicate that few high school students, only about 5%, have an interest in teaching. Interest among males and diverse candidates is even lower (Brenneman, 2015; Moeny, 2015). Teachers often discourage students from teaching, sharing out the challenging work, low pay, lack of promotion opportunities, and problems with societal support (Moeny, 2015). Well-specified career ladders could boost appreciation for the profession by emphasizing promising specialized pathways. School staffing problems and portions of the day spent in non-teaching tasks are situations that could improve with the help of early entry-level “interns” and “residents.” Providing advanced, specialized steps on the career ladder may provide better living wages and expertise needed for specific programs. 

Programs that work to improve and better define roles within the teaching profession need to keep one thing in mind: students and their needs. Kindergarten students, for example, may not benefit as much as older students from a large “team” of teacher specialists. 

A few initiatives are underway to build career ladders with entry-level steps. These include: 

  • Career-technical pathways that allow high school students to explore their interests in a profession in education. Teaching as a Pathway courses at Elizabethtown High School in Tennessee permit high school students to design instruction for incarcerated adults, or for younger students. The program partners with Fort Lewis University and includes exploration of financial support for pursuing a degree and specializations in education (Boss, 2022).  

  • A bill introduced in the Michigan legislature would permit student teachers to be paid up to $90 per day. Previously states and teacher accreditation agencies have specified student teaching as an unpaid experience, causing financial hardships and the need for loans. The Bill would also increase stipends for mentors who supervise student teachers. 

  • Tennessee is one of several states that have designed a “Grow Your Own Teacher” program. The Department of Education awards grants to universities which partner with local school districts. Candidates in training receive stipends and tuition credits, avoiding college debt. The result brought increased numbers of teachers for shortage areas, like English learner support, as well as increased diversity in the teacher workforce (Wood, 2022). 

It will take collaborative efforts among schools, teacher training programs, and departments of education to thoughtfully re-design the teaching profession. But we need long-term solutions that consider the many deep roots of today’s teacher shortage. Quick fixes like lax certification requirements will not meet our students’ needs. And, in the absence of effective solutions to the current crisis, we simply leave teachers— and their students— out in the rain. 

Boss, S. (2022, November 28). Showing high school students career pathways to teaching. Edutopia. Retrieved from Showing High School Students Career Pathways to Teaching | Edutopia

Brenneman, R. (2015, April 21). Fewer high school students show interest in teaching, study says. Education Week. Retrieved from Fewer High School Students Show Interest in Teaching, Study Says (

Moeny, J. (2015, April 2). Don’t become a teacher: A history. Education Week. Retrieved from ‘Don’t Become a Teacher’: A History ( 

WILX News 10 (2022, June 23). Student teacher bill. Lansing, Michigan. 

Wood, S. (2022, March 2). What to know about grow your own teacher programs. U.S. News and World Reports. Retrieved from What to Know About ‘Grow Your Own’ Teacher Programs ( 

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