‘Grow Your Own’ Teacher Programs: What To Know

grow your own teacher programs
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As school districts around the country continue to struggle with teacher shortages, an increasing number of education leaders are developing their future educators from within their own classrooms. Such a “grow your own” teacher approach can help build diversity and shape an instructional staff that reflects a district’s demographics.

“We know that approximately 60% of teachers work within 20 miles of where they graduated high school,” says Joshua P. Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International, which runs Educators Rising, a teacher education organization and program. “But all too often the demographics of the workforce don’t reflect the demographics of the student population. We need to have a much more diverse teaching force, we need to inspire a new generation, and we need to fit into a busy high school schedule.” 

“What we've got to do is reimagine, rebrand, and reprofessionalize the teaching profession,” says Shuana Tucker, Chief Talent Officer for the Connecticut State Department of Education, which has implemented Educators Rising at districts across the state, along with other efforts focused on cultivating homegrown teachers. “For me, being an educator is one of the most noble professions out there. In my role as chief talent officer, I'm constantly looking for ways to recruit and retain teachers as well as to expand and diversify the talent pool.”

For districts interested in grow your own teacher programs, there are a few things to consider.

Grow Your Own Teachers: ‘Make the Road By Walking’ 

While school districts typically provide traditional career pathways such as engineering, auto technology, or computer science, teaching often is not encouraged in the same way. “We need to re-frame the career path so kids see it as one step in a lifelong journey of service,” says Starr. 

For example, Educators Rising offers schools and districts a CTE pathway program, with a full curriculum. The organization works with school leaders to adopt its program and forge partnerships with higher education institutions to help build pipelines of future educators. It offers multiple education career entry points for students, such chapter after-school programs and teaching fundamentals programs.

Starr encourages school leaders to start organically with conversations with local teacher organizations, nearby higher education institutions, and teacher prep schools about developing teacher pathways. “Make the road by walking,” he says.

Be Proactive

Many students never consider a career in teaching simply because they’re never asked or presented with the opportunity, says Starr.

“It’s amazing what happens when kids are asked to serve,” he says. “They’re more likely than not to step up. But when they’re not asked, they’re not going to raise their hand. If an adult who they respect taps them on the shoulder and gives them the opportunity, they’ll step up. They like to serve and be part of the solution, and oftentimes, adults just don’t ask.”

Starr suggests encouraging students who are already serving in a teaching, leadership, or mentor role, such as one who is working as a camp counselor, teaching Sunday school, or tutoring younger kids. Athletes who are team captains also may be open to a career in education. “Principals and coaches may say, ‘Hey, you’re a coach or a leader on your team, have you considered teaching?’” he says. 

Another way districts who have grow your own pathways encourage students to return as teachers is to present a letter to graduates of the program guaranteeing a job within the district upon completion of their higher ed degree.

Representation Matters

In addition to an overall educator shortage, there is a particular dearth of male teachers of color. As students are more likely to be engaged when there is an educator who looks like them at the front of the classroom, encouraging young men of color to consider a career in teaching is critical.

More than 50 percent of the Educators Rising program includes students of color. “We’re very intentional about that, as are the schools,” says Starr. “And from the research that’s emerged over the past few years, representation makes a difference.”  

Connecticut’s teacher development efforts have focused on recruiting males, says Tucker, adding that they’re piloting a program to specifically attract men of color. “We also want to expand to ELL students,” she says. The department recently held an in-person symposium on increasing education diversity that attracted more than 150 students from around the state.

Tucker and her team have also sought out diverse organizations, such as an African American male fraternity, the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), and the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE).

“Having those partners at the table to understand the work that you're doing and support the work that you're doing is very critical,” says Tucker. 

Partners and Allies Needed

Not only are partnerships essential in cultivating diversity and representation, but such alliances are necessary for grow your own teacher programs that span the education spectrum, from middle schools to post-secondary institutions. 

“The key to success is having people work with you who are passionate about this work,” says Tucker. “That makes all the difference in the world. Your work will go further with what it is that you're trying to do. I can only carry my message so far, and I only have a certain amount of bandwidth.” 

Nineteen schools in Connecticut have adopted the Educators Rising program, including clubs and the curriculum being utilized at the high school level, says Tucker. The state has also partnered with higher ed institutions to offer dual credit education courses and advise high school juniors and seniors, who can take up to 6 or 9 credit hours that are then transferable into their four-year college education program. In addition, the Connecticut state college and university system will be offering the same statewide curriculum by Fall 2023 to ensure those credits are transferable across community colleges and traditional four-year universities.

“You have to make this a community-led initiative,” says Starr, noting that having a detailed adoption framework, such as Educators Rising has, is key. “It only works if the local stakeholders embrace the idea because there are so many different pieces you have to pull together. Hiring, certification, funding, courses – a range of folks have to be involved.”

Finding an inspiring teacher who the kids like and respect is also critical, as their influence can help a student consider education, says Starr. For example, in the New Britain Public Schools, the Educators Rising advisor is a Latina female teacher, while in East Hartford Public School, the advisor is the athletic director, who has been encouraging the athletes he works with to consider the profession, says Tucker. 

Teaching Can Be Just the Beginning

Another approach to recruiting students is having them understand that teaching for five or ten years at the start of their working career can be very valuable in building desirable skills and experience, says Starr. As with military service, it can lead to other opportunities and professions.

“STEM and finance and medicine are all great, but we don’t talk enough about the value of service academies or of community service, whether it’s as an educator or something else,” says Starr. “And quite frankly, we need to do more of that.’ 

For instance, after classroom teaching, they can go into edtech, policy, school and district leadership, or educational consulting. Or move into another field altogether.

Ultimately, once kids get into a grow your own program, administrators, partners, and other stakeholders have to make sure that they work together to retain students while building school culture and climate, says Starr. 

“This is just one piece,” he says. “If a pipeline leads into a leaky bucket, there’s going to be a problem. I want people to understand that this needs to be a comprehensive strategy.”

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.