July 28, 2020
Just outside of Seattle, Highline Public Schools is developing bilingual teachers from the ground up. In Chicago, the public school district has launched multiple programs to grow the ranks of its teacher workforce. And in Mississippi, rural school districts are helping community members gain a foothold into the teaching profession. These programs, which are different in many respects, share the goal of developing teachers from the community for the community. Known as Grow Your Own (GYO), this strategy is designed to address multiple issues: persistent teacher shortages, a linguistic and racial mismatch between teachers and students, and the misalignment between teacher preparation and district-level needs.
There is no question that teacher preparation needs improvement. Critics argue that the traditional undergraduate teacher preparation model offers minimal opportunities to work directly in schools and focuses too heavily on pedagogical theory. These models tend to prepare majority white and majority female teachers, which stands in stark contrast to the demographics of the K–12 student population.
But the examples in Seattle, Chicago, Mississippi, and in districts around the country highlight how school districts and higher education are coming together to build stronger teacher preparation programs.
Over the past four years, New America has been researching GYO as a strategy for growing both the ranks and diversity of the teaching profession. We began this work looking through the lens of bilingual teacher development and the need for more bilingual teachers to support the needs of English learner students. We would hear consistently from school principals that hiring bilingual teachers was a challenge. And many would point to the paraeducator in the room as someone who would make a great teacher. Paraeducators often have substantial experience supporting student learning and have the cultural and linguistic competence that schools need.
By focusing on who is recruited into teaching and how programs can remove barriers for individuals who often lack access and support to persist in higher education, GYO offers an approach to teacher preparation that is grounded in the needs of candidates and local communities.
Indeed, one reason GYO is a powerful strategy is that it looks to the assets of the community and seeks to leverage those assets to benefit students and local school systems. Scholars call this community cultural wealth (CCW) and have used the concept to highlight the strengths, knowledge, and skills that teachers of color in particular bring to the profession. This emphasis on who to recruit is a critical component of GYO. Our research confirms that while GYO encompasses a broad range of models, what holds programs together is the belief that recruiting and preparing teachers from the local community will increase retention and equip schools with well-prepared teachers who are knowledgeable about the needs of students and families in the community.
That means GYO programs propel paraeducators who support the education of our most vulnerable students to the head of the classroom. That means GYO programs seek out high school students with the goal of bringing them back to their home districts to teach. That means GYO programs empower parents to pursue degrees in teaching to give back to their local schools and communities. To that end, GYO programs often focus on non-traditional candidates who work full time and have spent many years away from higher education or students who are entering college for the first time.
Christina L. Madda and Brian D. Schultz, who co-led a GYO program in Illinois, frame GYO as a “no barrier” entry point to higher education and teacher certification. This captures a second critical piece that sets GYO apart from many other teacher recruitment and preparation strategies: how these programs increase access to and persistence in teacher preparation programs.
In our research, we heard about barriers directly from bilingual paraeducators, many of whom were interested in becoming teachers but had struggled to access the support needed to earn a credential. These barriers included the cost of tuition, navigating university system bureaucracy, the need to work while attending college, and English-only coursework. Teacher licensure exams were often cited as a major obstacle. One paraeducator explained to us, “I am not saying don’t have the test—give us the training, give us the classes that we need in order for us to be crossing that little bridge.…[but] it is hard. It is not one test, it is three of them.”
GYO programs often offer financial assistance, paid job-embedded learning, academic advising, flexible scheduling for courses, mentorship, tutoring, test preparation, and a cohort model. In addition, many programs attempt to attend to the unique needs or circumstance of each student. In reflecting on her experience in a GYO program focused on preparing American Indian teachers, Darla LaPointe recognized the invaluable role played by the program’s director in helping her cross the finish line and earn her degree. “I am thankful to Nancy [Engen-Wedin] and all her support—coming to Winnebago to talk to us, calling us, texting us,” she said, adding, “when I was struggling, Nancy would meet with me and the instructor. You don’t usually get that kind of help.”
But doing this work well requires partnerships and collaboration between school districts, institutes of higher education, and community-based organizations. Strong GYO programs are co-created to address the needs of the teacher candidates they serve and the school districts where they will work. Some efforts highlight how existing teacher preparation programs have adapted and innovated to better meet local needs. Mississippi State University–Meridian, for example, partnered with local school districts to develop a GYO program for paraeducators that tailors the admissions process to each individual student, stacks courses to give participants scheduling flexibility, and allows them to complete their field experience in the classrooms in which they are already working. At the same time, MSU–Meridian is a recipient of a grant to run a teacher residency program in partnership with Jackson Public Schools. That program offers residents tuition scholarships, intensive mentoring, test preparation support, and professional development.
Now more than ever, teachers are being asked to adapt their practice, strengthen their communication with students and families, and learn how to navigate new teaching tools. By recruiting teachers from the community and aligning their preparation with the needs of local schools and communities, GYO programs offer a way to ensure that today’s rising teachers are well prepared. However, despite the expansion of GYO programs and policies, budget cuts and new priorities point to an uncertain future for this strategy. The economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic is leading states to potentially cut funding streams that support GYO and to constrict the pipeline of GYO candidates through the elimination of paraeducators who support student learning. Our public education system is facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty. But what we do know for certain is that to maintain a strong public education system, we must continue to invest in teachers.