Meeting the Unique Strengths and Challenges of Nontraditional Preservice Teachers

“I wanted to be a teacher.  I met with an advisor who told me that all the courses were during the day. I was told that I would have to quit my job in order to complete the program. I remember crying in the parking lot because there was no way for me to quit my job, feed my family and afford to go to school. I felt like I was never going to be a teacher” (WOU graduate and Oregon kindergarten teacher, 2018).

I teach at Western Oregon University (WOU), which can be called a traditional 4-year public university. We proudly serve a large percentage of first-generation students, and a growing number of Hispanic students, and at the same time continue to serve primarily traditional 18-24-year-old Oregonians. I am uniquely situated in a teacher education program that received an OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) grant in 2014 to recruit, retain, and graduate underserved students to teach in early childhood and early intervention (birth-8 years). This grant project, Project PIECE (Promoting Inclusion in Early Childhood) allowed us to look at how we were providing services, courses, mentoring and more. Project PIECE opened my eyes to the barriers that nontraditional and underserved students face at traditional universities.

Before I dive into sharing the unique challenges that these particular students face, I think it is important to discuss the definition of what a nontraditional student is. WOU defines a non-traditional student as a student who is over the age of 25 years, is returning to school after an extended break, and who may have children. This definition is specific, but I believe it does not give the full picture of who non-traditional students are. The National Center for Education Statistics (2018) uses seven characteristics to define nontraditional students:

  1. delayed enrollment into postsecondary education;

  2. attends college part-time;

  3. works full-time;

  4. is financially independent for financial aid purposes;

  5. has dependents other than a spouse;

  6. is a single parent;

  7. or does not have a high school diploma

When we asked our current early childhood students what their definition of nontraditional was, they shared:

  1. parents (single or with a partner);

  2. work full-time during the day (often in school settings);

  3. 25 years and older;

  4. veterans;

  5. struggling financially and has limited access to financial aid;

  6. attend school part-time;

  7. and, are diverse (socio-economic status, language, language, ability, age, etc.).

Prior to the implementation of Project PIECE, all early childhood coursework at WOU was provided during the weekday, with no online or flexible formats available to students who may have needed them. This limited our teacher education program to students who were not working and could attend courses during the day. The quote included at the beginning of this post described the barriers and feelings of one of our graduates who had approached an advisor prior to the implementation of our grant project. This student was working full-time in the field of early childhood, was over the age of 25, was married and had just started a family. This was exactly the student we wanted to recruit. The question was, how do we serve her and the others who were applying for our program?

We quickly decided we needed to become creative in how we approached offering coursework. The Early Childhood Program began offering courses as evening hybrids (after 5:00 p.m. and only meeting face-to-face every other week), Saturday hybrids, and online, while continuing to offer sections in a traditional format. These flexible course offerings opened the door to non-traditional students who could now access our courses. As we gained students in this program, we soon realized that institutional barriers were in place that prevented non-traditional students from successfully navigating a traditional system.

One such barrier, and it is a big one, is that university offices (business, financial aid, registrars) on most traditional campuses, ours included, are open from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. during the week. How does an instructional assistant or a Head Start teacher who is working until 4:00 p.m. make it to campus before 5:00? Our students would have to take time off work in order to go to these offices, and more often than not, these particular students could not afford to take time off. We soon learned that in order to help our students be successful, we needed to be a go-between with university offices. This meant that our faculty had to get to know our students, and their needs really well. We had to embody our mission of social justice and inclusion. We had to be the relationship-based practitioners we wanted our students to be in their own classrooms.

“Literature points to students being ‘at risk’ if they do not have a strong connection to the institution, if they have low confidence about completing their program, and/or if they have negative feelings about their current educational situation” (Hanover Research, 2018, p. 4). Non-traditional students have been categorized as “at-risk” students, and are often lacking connection, confidence, and persistence. The WOU early childhood faculty are proud of the relationships we build and maintain with our students. Our faculty work tirelessly to provide hours of mentoring, advising, and support outside of the traditional school day. Meeting at a coffee shop, at a student’s home while their child naps, or on campus on the weekend, is the norm.

There continue to be numerous struggles and barriers that our students face. How do we make sure that all coursework, including liberal arts courses, are offered in a flexible format, so that non-traditional students do not have to make a choice between their job and their education in order to fulfill their dream to become a teacher? When universities tighten their belts, look to combine programs, and cut courses, non-traditional students frequently get lost in the shuffle.

With over 25%, and at times 50% plus, of our early childhood cohorts being made up of diverse and non-traditional students, we have learned that our students bring with them a rich background of experiences, adding depth to the conversation and learning processes in our classrooms. Non-traditional students often have years of experience that they bring with them, and when given the opportunity, often serve as mentors to our traditional students.

I have fallen in love with our non-traditional students who have worked so hard to get themselves to our campus and our program. With support, mentorship, and flexible programming, there is nothing they can’t do. They are the teachers I want my grandson to have. They are passionate, persistent, and are working hard to beat the odds. Our job is to help make it a level playing field, so when using their skills and knowledge, they have equal access and opportunity to reach their dreams of becoming teachers.



Hanover Research (2018). Strategies for attracting and supporting non-traditional students. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics (2018) Definitions and data: Who is nontraditional? Retrieved from


Cindy Ryan is an Associate Professor and Early Childhood Program Coordinator at Western Oregon University. She may be reached via email at

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