“Can you think of a better way to be a world-changer than to be working with students?” asks Carla Smith, the Teacher Academy Teacher-Coordinator for the Renton School District in Washington. She poses this question to both challenge and inspire her students to consider a career in education through a program called “Grow Your Own.” The goal of the program is to provide students with opportunities to explore and experience what it is like to be a teacher or paraeducator. The hope is that some students will decide to enter the profession and come back to Renton as teachers and paraeducators.
In this episode, we talk about this unique program and explore how it might be a model that other schools can emulate to help address the current teacher and staff shortage. We look at the benefits that it presents to those involved and how it provides opportunity knowledge to the students in the program.
What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
Dr. Jane Goodall, English primatologist and anthropologist
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Come Back and Give Back
The demographics of the teaching profession often do not reflect the demographics and diversity of the student population. An awareness of this disparity was a driving force behind starting the Grow Your Own program at Renton. The program offers an opportunity to recruit and expose underrepresented students to a possible career in education. It also offers a way to develop role models who look and sound like the younger students they support. Carla Smith tells her students, “Come back to us. Stay in our family. Make a difference in your community where you grew up. Give back to those community members that have poured their lives into you.”
During our conversation, we unpack the history of this unique program as well as the components of how it is structured. We discuss how the program works and its impact on both the high school students as well as the younger students they support. We acknowledge that there are still challenges but also that this model has potential to help other districts address the current staffing shortage by growing their own teachers and paraeducators. Here are a few highlights from this episode:
- The Origin of the Program: This “Grow Your Own” program was started as part of a grant in 2008 to help increase the number of underrepresented student groups in the education field. It established a teacher academy for students in grades 11 and 12 that allows them to experience what it might be like to become a teacher or paraeducator.
- Program Opportunities: Students in the program are presented with multiple opportunities for career exposure, growth, and support. Students are paired up with teacher mentors, experience hands-on internships, are supported with a consistent role model, attend college visits, and are part of a supportive learning community.
- Recruiting Students: The program targets students within the school system and challenges them to become world-changers by considering a career in education. Carla asks her students, “Can you think of anything else more important than coming into a classroom, being a role model for some of these children, and realize that they can see a different future because of you?” She goes even further and challenges students by asking them, “Why not you?”
- So Many Benefits: The program benefits both the high school students in the program as well as the younger students they support. There is power in helping someone with less life experience, a phenomenon that Carla describes as “cascading mentorship.” To be successful in the program, students need an “open heart and a willingness to help somebody who is just a little less experienced.” This mentorship can have profound impacts on the younger learner. Students become role models and help bridge the language gap for the younger students.
- Barriers: Despite the opportunities and supports provided through this program, barriers still remain. Students need help crossing what Carla calls “the last mile” in their journey toward becoming a teacher. Some of these barriers are lack of familiarity with the process, while others are financial. Some barriers revolve around citizenship status, while still others include lack of community and family support.
- The Importance of Community: We need to be careful not to assume new teachers will be universally supported when they are first hired. Within systems, we need to be intentional about helping these aspiring professionals, so they will have success, support, and a desire to continue their work. Recruiting teachers is key; keeping them is just as important.
If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:
- Describe the staffing situation in your building or district.
- How many alumni do you have interested in returning to teach or work in your school district?
- What barriers do your alumni face in regards to pursuing a career in education?
- What do think about the Grow Your Own Teachers program concept? Is this something you can see working in your school or district? Explain.
- How can you build a supportive community for the new teachers in your school or district?
Extend Your Learning
- The Teacher Shortage Can Be Addressed — With Key Changes (National Education Association)
- Tackling Teacher Shortages: What Can States and Districts Do? (Learning Policy Institute)
- Addressing Teacher Shortages in the Short- and Long-Term (The Education Trust)