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June 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 9

The Grow-Your-Own Imperative

Promising efforts show that we can cultivate future educators as early as high school.

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Any road to a strong future for American education requires a new generation of highly-skilled, empowered educators. But not enough bright young people are signing up to teach. Enrollment in postsecondary-based teacher preparation programs is down—way down. In fact, by the time they finish high school, too many students have already discarded teaching as a career option. A 2015 report by ACT showed that only five percent of college-bound 12th graders indicated interest in education careers. That's an all-time low, reflecting a severely hamstrung education system that sends 300,000 new teachers into the field each year.
We're counting heavily on future teachers to provide powerful learning opportunities for the 50 million students in our public schools. What can we change to produce enough high-caliber teachers? And will they stay?

Time for an Intervention

As the supply of fully prepared teaching candidates dries up, school districts are feeling the impact with worsening teacher shortages. As districts scramble to find warm bodies to staff classrooms, they lower the bar for those entering the profession—by definition weakening the entire profession.
The small number of teenagers who do indicate an interest in pursuing a full-fledged teacher preparation route endure a barrage of discouragement. Many teachers are actively steering young people away from their own profession, an insidious if understandable manifestation of broad frustration in the field.
There's no sugarcoating the challenges of teaching. The work is extraordinarily complex and challenging in even the most well-supported, high-functioning working environments. When conditions, policies, colleagues, and administrators are problematic, the work achieves mind-bending stress levels. But if the profession's own members aren't willing to take up the role of ambassadors and models for the next generation, we're on a road to nowhere.
We need educators to communicate to students: "Yes, this is hard. Yes, the challenges are real and can feel overwhelming. Yes, we need to advocate for better pay, conditions, and policies. But at the end of the day, you can make an important impact on students and the profession. The work can break your heart, but it's also so rewarding. When you teach, you're part of something big and important. Now let me show you how I do what I do, and give you a chance to try it out, too."
We need models, not martyrs. We also need a specific mechanism to empower educators to be ambassadors for their profession and to recruit the next generation.
Teaching profession: It's time for an intervention.

The Next Generation of Change Agents

More than 60 percent of America's teachers work within 20 miles of where they went to high school. In every community, most of the future teaching workforce is sitting on the student side of the desks right now—with or without any kind of proactive recruitment efforts. Because we know where each community's future teachers are largely coming from, communities have a clear, inherent self-interest in providing opportunities to help guide young people on a well-supported path to teaching. Homegrown teachers are vital assets who must be nurtured and developed—and that means starting early.

Built to Last

I had two births into teaching. The first, as an alternative certification teacher with seven weeks of summer training with the New York City Teaching Fellows, was a disaster. Within a year I was a dropout, joining the massive ranks of idealists who had underestimated the skills required to teach effectively.
My second birth into teaching came four years after the first. Even though I resigned at the end of my rookie year at P.S. 85X in the Bronx, I spent the next three years as an assistant teacher in a co-teaching dynamic while I completed graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University. When I emerged with a teaching degree and four years of experience under my belt, I had a baseline of competence to implement a purposeful, student-centered approach.
I accepted a job teaching English at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, DC, and although I had plenty still to learn, the feelings of cluelessness that dogged me as an underprepared rookie were gone. My 11th and 12th graders demonstrated learning gains in all kinds of ways, and I achieved National Board Certification. It wasn't will or heart that empowered me to become a change agent; it was a solid foundation of preparation rooted in clinical experience and craft knowledge.
I'm not alone. What makes teachers built to last? Extensive hands-on teaching experience is indispensable, especially before we expect new educators to carry all of the responsibility as the teacher of record. More is more when it comes to practicing and getting a feel for the craft. We need educators to enter the profession on solid footing with an expansive toolbox of knowledge, skills, and points of reference for how to do the job.
Otherwise they get knocked out, overwhelmed by the complexity of the work. Predictably everyone in the situation wrings their hands, and another underprepared rookie gets sent in, perpetuating a cycle of churn.
If it takes years to grow durable, change-agent educators, why not start earlier—in high school? Imagine newly minted professional teachers bringing five or six years—not one summer!—of relevant coursework and clinical experience to their first days on the job.
With so few college students opting to teach, engaging high school students in exploring the education field has shifted from a nice-to-have concept to a need-to-have pillar of local workforce development strategies. We have to get more talented high school students to fall in love with teaching and to take their first steps on the teaching continuum. But, as the ACT reports, if so many teenagers are recoiling from pursuing teaching, what opportunities could coax them into the teaching pipeline?

Opportunities to Test-Drive Teaching

Teenagers crave impact. They are starved for role models. They are often bored in high school. Opportunities to test-drive teaching in high school can satisfy all of these needs.
By trying out teaching in elective courses or career academy programs, high school students can make an immediate impact on children during student teaching internships. They can learn under the wing of an excellent teacher leader who is running the program. And they can break the doldrums of high school by getting off-campus to help younger students.
Cocurricular teacher academy programs not only benefit students, but they also provide a vital "lead without leaving" opportunity—essentially a hybrid role—to strong veteran educators looking for ways to pay forward their talent and experience. These programs empower educators to be ambassadors for teaching, recruiting future teachers in their community and showing them the ropes of great teaching.
The mechanism for implementing these programs is already widely understood. Career-oriented elective courses and pathway programs have become part of the fabric of most American high schools. More than two million students are members of Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSO), although less than one percent are exploring P–12 teaching. The newest CTSO, Educators Rising, of which I am co-director, launched in August 2015 as a national network aimed at addressing this missing piece of the education ecosystem.

Building a Movement

In its first year, more than 15,000 students and teacher leaders from 1,200 schools have joined Educators Rising. Students of color make up 49 percent of the student membership, a promising indication that Educators Rising can move the needle on increasing diversity in the teaching profession.
Educators Rising members are cultivating identities as young educators, giving themselves armor against discouragement, and sparking conversations in faculty lounges about how to nurture their nascent passion for teaching. In strong programs, students are building the muscles they'll need to be excellent teachers. Aliyah, a senior at Petal High School in Petal, Mississippi, describes the thrill of studying National Board ATLAS cases, which are videos and accompanying reflective commentaries available in the EdRising Virtual Campus, the free online community for Educators Rising members:
Watching the videos sparked interest and excitement in me. I thought of ways I could modify and use the matching game from the video [about a special needs student] with the ESL students in my mentor teacher's classroom. I know I'll be able to apply these skills with my own students one day.
These programs can make teaching cool—prestigious, even—if school districts are willing to put some skin in the game. Some districts have shown remarkable leadership and creativity. In Virginia Beach City Public Schools, the human resources office facilitates the Future Teacher Award program, in which star students at each school can earn guaranteed jobs back in the district after completing college.
Kara Kimball, a 2009 Future Teacher Award winner, recalls being treated like a returning hero at a hiring fair after graduation: "Every principal who interviewed me was enthusiastic about the program and treated me like a professional." As a rookie teacher, she was seen as a prized community asset—not meat for the grinder. She now teaches English at Kempsville High School, and is poised to lead its Educators Rising program as she prepares for the fourth year of what promises to be a long career in her home district.
Institutions of higher education have also demonstrated leadership. Last summer, New Mexico State University (NMSU) leveraged a small grant and invited every district in the state to a planning meeting for implementing teacher academy programs in high schools. Nearly 40 districts came, and virtually all stuck by their plans to launch programs in 2015–2016. NMSU became the host for the state affiliate office for Educators Rising, leading professional development, coordinating events for students, and elevating a solution-based approach to the grow-your-own imperative statewide.
Despite many promising programs, there have been challenges, too, notably a lack of structure for how to implement a gold standard grow-your-own program. Each school tends to rely heavily on MacGyver-esque individual teacher leaders to create or piece together all of the content. Solutions are on the way, though.
Educators Rising is embarking on a new initiative to back-map the path to accomplished teaching starting into high school. In partnership with NEA and through a process cofacilitated by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Educators Rising has just released standards for what teenage aspiring educators need to know and be able to do. The standards define the first steps to great teaching and will become the backbone of grow-your-own efforts across the country. By providing standards, portfolio-based assessments of teaching competencies (called micro-credentials), and the Educators Rising Academy curriculum, Educators Rising is building a gold standard grow-your-own program that any community can implement.

The Call to Action

Clear mechanisms for recruiting and supporting future practitioners are a hallmark of successful professions. Emerging efforts to start early, coordinate stakeholders, broaden the tent for recruitment, and leverage grow-your-own efforts show enormous promise. Visionary district leadership will play a leading role in realizing this potential.

Dan Brown, a National Board Certified teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School (Arcade, 2011), serves as director of national engagement for the Jefferson Education Exchange. 

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