Tennessee is a unique state, not only because we have incredibly talented citizens, but because of our geography. We border eight states. That can be an advantage and a disadvantage at times. When economic times are good, people want to relocate to our state. When economic times are difficult, it allows residents to move to a neighboring state and pursue more money in their chosen occupation. In education, we lose teachers to our border states regularly. Additionally, we must address state policies that are pushing teachers out of the profession.
Effective educator preparation remains critical to the future of education in Tennessee. When we lose teachers to other states, it hurts Tennessee. We must work on teacher retention, and we continue to offer suggestions on the front end. We must attract a new generation of people disillusioned by the concept of working in public education. We must also work to have a pipeline of high-quality educators who can move into our classrooms.
Fewer young people are choosing teaching as a profession. We identified perspective solutions in Building a Better Pipeline with Teacher Prep. In Tennessee, we have turned our focus toward something we call the Grow Your Own Program. It is now expanding nationally. While we are supportive of the program and believe it is a positive development, it is not the only solution. At some point, Grow Your Own will hit a ceiling.
The Grow Your Own is a critical part of the agenda of Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. Schwinn stated, “If you want to be an educator, you should be in Tennessee. We now have districts where you can get paid to become a teacher, graduate debt-free, and be better prepared by spending multiple years in a residency under the mentorship of a great classroom leader. I look forward to replicating this innovative Grow Your Own model across the state.” Penny Schwinn is correct, there are now ample opportunities here in Tennessee. First Lady Jill Biden has commended the program.
The genesis of the Grow Your Own program began in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. The district, in partnership with Austin Peay State University (APSU), has a cohort of 40 future teachers, who will earn a free bachelor’s degree in only three years, become dual certified in a critical shortage area plus special education, and participate in a multi-year residency experience while being a full-time employed paraprofessional, earning a salary, health insurance, and retirement contributions.
Clarksville-Montgomery County also partnered with Lipscomb University to offer up to twenty future teachers a licensure program that includes a one-year full-time paid residency and dual certification (K-5 and special education) at no cost to the teacher. Through this initiative, these future teachers will also earn a master’s degree in this partnership between Lipscomb and the district. This solution could be replicated by other districts across the state.
The cost of teacher turnover is high, and it hurts all our students. People choose the education profession because they want to make a real difference for their students. Montgomery County educator Cathy Kolb has long advocated for the teaching profession. “We believe Grow Your Own is a win-win for our district and our students,” Kolb opines.
Montgomery County Chief Academic Officer Sean Impeartrice adds, “This is the future of teacher recruitment and preparation.” Ms. Kolb believes this effort will help “ensure that quality educators enter and remain in the profession in the future.” She also believes we must “empower our effective teachers as they shape and prepare children already in classrooms across our state.” That may be a key to teacher retention.
Besides their family, educators have the greatest impact on a student’s academic performance, character, and overall success. We cannot afford to lose great teacher candidates across our borders, choose to not consider teaching, or quickly leave the profession. Teaching is one profession that you get better at with support, time, and resources. We owe it to educators to give them our support. The University of Tennessee is launching a Grow Your Own Center.
The state must continue to support districts in recruiting and better preparing future teachers. Grow Your Own partnership is a great new model. But it is not the only solution. We must also eliminate the barriers to entering the teaching field for talented adults who want to teach while addressing the onerous licensure system. We must strengthen the relationship with our Colleges of Education as they prepare and support professionals in education to teach in our schools. We need this discussion
Commentary by JC Bowman, the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee