Tennessee is trying to make it easier — and cheaper — to become a teacher.
In an effort to combat ongoing teacher shortages — only made worse by the pandemic — and the cost barriers to pursuing postsecondary education, Tennessee has partnered with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor to establish teacher apprenticeship programs across the state.
The first such program has already been approved. The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and Austin Peay State University’s Teacher Residency program became the first registered apprenticeship program for teaching in the country.
The model, referred to as “Grow Your Own,” builds off the proven success of residency programs in other fields, such as training programs for welders, advanced manufacturers and even doctors and healthcare workers.
Teacher candidates are often able to work full-time in the classroom while pursuing their degree and teaching credentials. The programs are sometimes even directly geared to non-traditional students like older adults who are already working in schools.
“Registered Apprenticeships have opened the doors to so many good jobs across our economy, and Tennessee’s innovative teacher apprenticeship program now offers a new pathway to the classroom at a critical time for our children, schools and communities,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement.
Tennessee State Board of Education reports have often found teacher residency programs also produce higher-quality teachers that are more effective in the classroom.
In 2018, Austin Peay partnered with Clarksville-Montgomery schools to give recent high school graduates and teacher’s aides a free, accelerated path to become full-time teachers.
In October 2020, using more than $20 million in federal coronavirus relief funding, the state education department launched it’s own statewide Grow Your Own strategy, partnering with 14 colleges, universities and teaching training programs and 63 school districts to develop similar programs.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told The Tennessean the state has been about 2,000 teachers short on average for the past several years.
Enrollment in teaching training programs at colleges and universities across the country has decreased in recent years and Tennessee is also committed to increasing the diversity of its teacher workforce, which is currently majority white and female though the state’s student population is increasingly diverse.
“We know it’s important for our teacher workforce to reflect the students in their classroom,” Schwinn said Thursday. “When you have Grow Your Own programs, it can remove the financial barriers future teachers face and get students from low-income communities, from local communities in those positions will ensuring that local vacancies are filled.”
The partnership with the federal government will allow the state and local communities to use federal labor dollars to establish and fund teacher apprenticeship programs across the state and even target specific areas of need like special education, advanced math or science.
“Apprenticeships are a long-proven method to grow a skilled and qualified workforce,” Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord said in a statement. “Working with the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a registered apprenticeship program for teachers is the next step in Tennessee’s workforce development journey. This innovative approach will serve to recruit new talent and help to create a workforce pipeline into the state’s school districts for years to come.”
In addition to helping more high-quality teachers get into Tennessee classrooms, Schwinn has two other hopes for the program.
The state already has plans to work with the Council of Chief State School Officers — Schwinn serves on the board — to help other states launch similar programs.
“We hope states across the country will utilize this model to combat teacher shortages, remove barriers to becoming an educator for people from all backgrounds and continue to invest in the teaching profession,” Schwinn said.
She also hopes this apprenticeship model could pave the way for similar programs for other sorely needed school staff, such as school nurses, school counselors and more.
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Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.