Start a successful grow-your-own teacher program in 5 steps

"Universities can train somebody in special education or math but can’t train someone to have a heart for kids," says David Donaldson of the National Center for Grow Your Own.

If you’re starting a grow-your-own-teacher program, the first thing to do is identify where your district has the most pressing vacancies, says one expert.

Across the country, turning paraprofessionals, parents, bus drivers and others into your future educators is gaining momentum as one of the best ways to staff classrooms in an era of worsening teacher shortages. One nonprofit organization, the National Center for Grow Your Own, is now working with colleges and district leaders to create pathways in which aspiring educators “can become a teacher for free and get paid to do so,” says managing partner David Donaldson.

“Universities can train somebody in special education or math but can’t train someone to have a heart for kids,” Donaldson points out. “These individuals exist within school buildings and the broader school community but financial barriers prevent them from becoming a teacher.”

Here are four steps (which we’ve lumped innovatively and efficiently into groups) for building grown-your-own teacher initiatives:

Steps 1 & 2: ‘Proactive tapping’

After identifying your teaching areas of need (step 1)—whether math, ELA or special education—survey staff members (step 2) about whether they have teaching aspirations or a college degree. Principals and other administrators should also ask teachers about staff members who would make effective teachers.

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Principals can also employ a technique known as “proactive tapping,” Donaldson suggests. “Many people suffer from low self-esteem,” he notes. “It’s amazing when you go up to a paraprofessional or a high school senior and say, ‘You’re a leader. Have you ever thought about being a teacher?’ That’s proactive tapping.”

“We have to start associating teaching with professions like doctor and attorney,” he adds. “When we think leaders, too often we only think of surgeons and attorneys.”

Donaldson also recommends first reaching out to staff or community members with two- or four-year degrees, as they have a short path to becoming teachers and their success will build momentum for a grow-your-own program. Then, leaders can expand to high school students and graduates.

Steps 3 & 4: Funding degrees

This is where the chief financial officer (step 3) and your local colleges (step 4) enter the equation. The CFO’s team can reroute money from vacant positions to tuition payments for teaching candidates. Districts can also now tap into federal apprenticeship programs that had been reserved for trades such as plumbing and the culinary arts.

At this stage, administrators—with help from organizations such as the National Center for Grow Your Own—can work with local colleges and universities to enroll prospective teachers. Donaldson points out that many colleges and universities are grappling with enrollment declines and would likely be open to working with local schools to bolster the teacher corps.

Step 5: Proof of concept

The ultimate goal of a grow-your-own-teacher program—along with easing staff shortages—is for prospective educators to earn credentials at no cost (step 5). “We define grow-your-own as a clearly articulated pathway for an aspiring educator to become a teacher for free and get paid to do so,” Donaldson concludes. “We’ve proven that’s possible all across the country.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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