The state of Tennessee is making it financially easier to become a teacher, through a “Grow Your Own” program that allows people to continue working in schools while earning a free college education.

Last month the state awarded $2 million in competitive grants to seven university teacher education programs that are working with 35 school districts, including Blount County, Maryville and Alcoa.

Through the program, for example, people can continue working as instructional assistants in local schools while their college costs are covered by the program.

The Grow Your Own program covers not only the full tuition but also fees, books and the required tests to become a licensed teacher. “When we say free, we mean free,” said David Cihak, a special education professor, associate dean and director of the Bailey Graduate School of Education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

UT already has started enrolling students in the program, with plans for them to start classes in the spring, graduating by 2022. Although the state grant will cover only six positions, Cihak said he hopes additional funding will allow the university to offer more.

“One thing it is going to help us do is target those people who have the desire to become teachers,” said David Murrell, assistant director of Blount County Schools.

While there is no obligation after graduation for those who complete the program, the schools hope they will be able to then hire those new teachers, whose work they’ve already seen.

And Cihak noted they are from the school community and likely want to stay in that community.

In Alcoa City Schools, the program will allow a regular education teacher to earn a special education endorsement, according to Mary Beth Warwick, Alcoa’s director of special education.

The programs are designed for hard-to-fill positions such as special education, high school math and science, foreign languages and English as a second language.

In two issue briefs last month, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education focused on what it calls “the imminent threat of increased teacher shortages, particularly in high-demand areas.”

Over the past decade, the average number of education graduates fell by 24%, and the number of degrees in math and science education dropped by 27%, for example.

Under the program at UT Knoxville, the teacher candidates will take one course in the spring and fall while summer schedules are more intense, Cihak explained. The local school partners provide mentors in the classroom.

“Our paraprofessionals, our educational assistants do an enormous amount for the salary they’re given,” noted Amelia Brown, research assistant professor and data coordinator at UT. If they want to become full teachers, she said, “It’s hard to do that when you’re making $17,000 a year.”

“They are truly the unsung heroes,” Cihak agreed.

“Every Tennessee child deserves that high-quality teacher,” he said.

He noted that UT has multiple pathway programs, whether students are 18 or older than 60 and said, “If somebody wants to become a teacher, we have a program to make that possible.”

Education Reporter

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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