Making the grade with home-grown teachers

By Diane L. Godwin

“My Teacher Academy student was truly inspired when she helped a 3rd grader at Fair Elementary reach his accelerated reading goal,” said Helen Black, Teacher Academy instructor at the Winston County Career and Technical Education Center. “I was so excited for this young lady who wants to be a future teacher because teaching is all about those kinds of rewards. You can’t put a value on our product; it is priceless.”

Most people, especially parents, would agree with that statement. Certainly students of all ages, at one time or another, doubt their ability to master the skills needed for their lifelong journey of learning, but often a great teacher intervenes to squelch that self- doubt and help those students unlock their potential. Great teachers have the ability to tap into students’ intrinsic talents and change the course of their lives for the better. As Arnie Duncan, the United States secretary of education, observed, “It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student academic growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom—not socioeconomic status, not family background, but the quality of the teacher at the head of the class.”

Knowing the impact these special educators have on student outcomes, educational experts register one of their top concerns as the fact that the number of great teachers is dwindling. In Mississippi, as elsewhere in the country, that issue is coupled with another startling trend: urban and rural low-income areas are facing teacher shortages because they are losing experienced instructors to retirement. When these two factors converge, yet another predicament arises: when a top teacher leaves a low-performing school, only one in 11 potential teacher replacements will be of similar quality, according to The Irreplaceables, a 2012 report from The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit founded by teachers to end education inequality.

While there is an adequate supply of new teachers to initially fill the gap, one out of every three of them is leaving the profession within five years, which is costing low-income school districts millions of dollars in recruitment and training costs, not to mention the impact on students’ educational achievement. Studies indicate that lack of administrative support, inadequate classroom management training, the inability to read and use data to differentiate and improve instruction and to boost student learning, low pay and student behavioral problems all contribute to the short-term commitment of new teachers.

But there is good news: the Mississippi career and technical education program has a possible solution. The approach is unlike the Mississippi Teacher Corp and Teach for America alternative-route teacher-certification programs that promise graduate degrees or to pay off student-loan debt in exchange for two or three years of teaching service. Instead, the state has implemented an adaptable, “grow your own” program, and the best part of it is that high school students across the state are requesting it for their school districts.

The state’s educators discovered this unexpected student interest in teaching after attending statewide Pathways to Success training sessions to help middle and high school students identify their interests and connect their career goals to academics. “As a result of our PTS individual career and academic plan trainings, teachers and administrators went back to their schools and surveyed the students to identify what professions they were interested in. Student responses heavily favored teaching,” explained Betsey Smith, curriculum manager at the Mississippi State University Research and Curriculum Unit. “In fact, the career and technical education Teacher Academy is the number one student-requested program revealed by the iCAP surveys.”

Most administrators and teachers were shocked by the individual career and academic plan, or iCAP, survey response because it contradicts the presumed unpopularity of the teaching profession that has been extrapolated from the results of National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future studies, which report that 46 percent of all new teachers will leave the profession within five years.

The Teacher Academy program is unique in that it offers a secondary curriculum that not only guides students interested in pursuing teaching careers but also provides real-world, practical experiences such that students discover what the profession demands. Typically, “beginning teachers have idealistic expectations because of little or no experience of managing a classroom and hands-on practical teacher training,” Smith said. “Teacher Academy gives middle and high school students, before they ever enter a college program, a realistic picture of what the profession is like and the expectations they will face if they become a teacher.”

By comparison, Teach for America places more teachers in the Mississippi Delta than any region in the country, and experts say they are planning on doubling those numbers. In addition, the Mississippi Teacher Corp program places teachers in Mississippi high- need districts. “Those programs are great and have made a difference, but they are not sustaining the positive outcomes because those teachers fulfill their contract and leave in two years,” explained Smith.

Critics of Teach for America and Teacher Corp point out that the two- year obligation gives teachers just enough time to adapt to a new culture, assess classroom needs and begin to implement teaching- strategy game changers. At the end of the 24-month time frame when they are just beginning to make a significant impact, it is time for them to leave, and a new group of teachers is introduced, forcing the cycle to restart and disrupting the progress.

According to Smith, “We’re hoping the Teacher Academy ‘grow your own’ approach will work to recruit new teachers” who either pursue their postsecondary education in the state or return to Mississippi after graduation. Rather than accepting only short-term commitments and then moving on, these home-grown teachers are here or come back to stay, to make a difference in their communities. In other words, “[t] hey have ‘roots’ and will live in the community. They know the culture, the family histories, the advantages and disadvantages and most importantly the student needs,” said Smith. “So they are already way ahead of the teacher who may be relocating from another state and is thousands of miles away from home.”

Four Teacher Academy programs were implemented in 2008. In response to the growing student interest, there has been a recent explosion of growth, with 25 schools implementing Teacher Academy programs in 2012 and 53 more requests on the waiting list. In return, Mississippi education experts hope the new teacher retention numbers will be higher. They plan to collect and analyze four-year data beginning in 2013, when the first group of Teacher Academy students will graduate from IHL teacher-education programs and enter the state’s classrooms.

Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity – he can never tell where his influence stops.” The current U.S. administration and Mississippi education experts have said that teaching has never been more important, and the need for more student success has never been so urgent. Mississippi is hoping its Teacher Academy program will help recruit, train and retain the best talent for the profession. If the efforts prove successful, it will undoubtedly affect the quality of the state’s education for the next 30 years.