As schools across the country grapple with persistent teacher shortages—made worse by the pandemic—a handful of districts are turning this challenge into an opportunity. To build their future workforce, they’re introducing career pathways to teaching that start in high school.
A grow-your-own model
In Durango, Colorado, high housing prices in this rural Rocky Mountain community have exacerbated teacher turnover. The district offers an innovative career education program with 14 pathways. Superintendent Karen Cheser aims to grow a diverse cohort of future teachers with a new program launched this year in partnership with nearby Fort Lewis College.
High school juniors and seniors earn dual college credit by enrolling in the future teacher career pathway. Coursework includes both classroom instruction and practicums across the district, “so students can apply what we’ve talked about in class,” Cheser says.
For example, after a discussion about classroom community, students observed several teachers in action, paying close attention to their community-building practices. “What’s working well? What’s not? Their job is to reflect on what they see,” adds Cheser.
Being able to experience a variety of classroom settings also helps students narrow their career focus. Do they want to go into elementary education? Teach middle school social studies? Some students may decide that teaching isn’t their dream job after all. “That’s good to figure out before they go to college,” Cheser acknowledges.
The superintendent believes so strongly in the program that she’s co-teaching the courses herself. Other district leaders serve as guest experts in topics ranging from special education to family engagement. Cheser introduced a similar program in her former district in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. “I’ve seen students go through a program like this, then to college, and then the district hired them back. That’s our goal,” she says.
Building a more diverse pipeline
In the urban district of Tacoma, Washington, future teacher programs aim to not only build interest in the teaching profession but also help to diversify it. “We want to make sure we have a teaching force that reflects our student population,” explains Patrick Erwin, director of educator pathways for Tacoma Public Schools.
Two high schools in the district are currently offering Teach 253, a program that Erwin developed in partnership with Pacific Lutheran University when he was a high school principal. Students who complete the program receive financial support for college, along with the peer support of belonging to a cohort. They can also look forward to summer mentoring and doing their student teaching in Tacoma schools. “When they finish the program,” Erwin says, “they’ll be ready to be hired.”
Tacoma also offers a career pathway for adults currently employed as paraprofessionals. They can continue working for the district part-time while completing undergraduate studies and earning a teaching certification at the University of Washington-Tacoma.
New visions for teaching and learning
In schools that offer career pathways in high-interest fields like robotics, entrepreneurship, or filmmaking, what piques students’ interest in teaching? For some students, it’s the opportunity to make education more engaging for future generations.
When Superintendent Cheser is recruiting for the teaching pathway, she helps students connect teaching careers with their strengths. In Durango, eighth graders take an assessment of their interests and aptitudes. That helps them explore career options before entering high school. She also encourages today’s students to help shape the future of education. “Think about the impact you could make,” she advises, by reinventing the learning experience for the next generation of students.
In the Teaching as a Profession pathway at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee, students are already having an impact. When teacher Alex Campbell asked students about their vision for education, they told him that learning should be more engaging. To put their ideas and research about student engagement into action, they designed an “escape room” for fifth graders. “It incorporated their ELA, math, science, and social studies standards, covering a total of 26 of them,” recounts Campbell, who is also the school’s project-based learning coach.
In another project, students designed instruction for formerly incarcerated adults, applying their understanding of literacy to help an authentic audience.
Although Elizabethton High students don’t earn college credit for their Teaching as a Profession courses or work-based learning experiences, they do engage with education professors and students at local colleges. That gives them another window into the profession, along with access to role models and experts who can provide feedback on their projects.
Sharing the joy
Despite the obvious need to grow the teacher pipeline, some districts have had to get creative to open career pathways into education. “Funding can be a barrier,” Cheser acknowledges, especially in states that direct dollars to more technical career tracks. It helps that her district has found a supportive partner at Fort Lewis College, which she says is known for its high graduation rates among Native American students. The Durango district serves students from 30 tribes.
To be successful in building a teacher pipeline, districts have to do more than overcome logistical hurdles. “We need to sell the idea of teaching,” says Erwin. In recruiting for the Teach 253 program in Tacoma, he looks for students “who are good with people, who are willing to be part of a team. They also have to have an energy—there’s a light inside that they bring.”
There’s no doubt that teaching during the pandemic has been especially stressful for educators, who have had to work through unprecedented challenges. But teachers who still love their career choice “need to show students how much fun the job is. It’s exciting, rewarding,” says Erwin, who started his own teaching career 30 years ago. “We need to help students see that this can be a joyous experience.”