Wouldn’t it be great if an aspiring teacher had a supportive guide, financial assistance, and a job lined-up before even completing their teaching degree? What if a school district could have a new teacher that was connected to the community and had training in areas important to the district? Both things happen with great grow your own programs.
As I write this, we’re officially in a recession. Districts will implement reduction-in-force (RIF) and use furlough days to trim budgets. Yet, many districts will still fund grow your own teaching programs. And – it’s absolutely the right thing to do!
Why? Despite a temporary economic downturn, we still face critical teacher shortages. This is especially true for teachers of color and teachers in speciality areas. Grow your own (GYO) programs, if done well, help with this challenge and do so much more.
What Is a Grow Your Own Teacher Program?
A grow your own program is designed to recruit, develop, and retain teachers who are already in the community. It draws from people who are connected to the school or community but may not have considered teaching or who need (or want) additional support to enter the profession.
Grow your own programs typically include financial support, guidance, and the promise of a job upon graduation. The program is run by a school district, or a partnership between a school district, higher education institution, and a community organization.
The goal of a grow your own program is to create teachers who are already connected to the community, and ideally, share lived experience with the students they serve.
Why Do We Need Grow Your Own Programs?
Many school districts face chronic teacher shortages. This is especially true for some speciality positions such as special education, English language learner, and bilingual teachers. The shortage is due to many factors including declining interest in the profession, high turnover, and college costs vs. future income.
It is poised to get worse rather than better as a high percentage of practicing educators are eligible for retirement. To combat this, districts are pursuing a variety of workforce development programs. (Note: They should also be focusing on supportive retention strategies or the cycle just continues.)
So, simple workforce needs are one great reason for grow your own programs.
However, even greater than the need to simply fill positions is the need to increase the diversity of the teaching workforce. The teacher workforce is still largely white, even in districts where the majority of students are not. This is problematic for many reasons. Here’s how the racial make-up of the teaching force changed over a 12 year period:
Many districts attempt to combat this problem by recruiting educators from other districts or states. This can lead to lower retention and less connection to the community. It is also insufficient to meet the need in most districts.
A grow your own program builds deliberate pathways from the community to the classroom. Many grow your own programs are targeted specifically at educators of color and help to eliminate barriers for educators while improving our classrooms.
Who is a Grow Your Own Program For?
Grow your own teaching programs are typically designed for three groups: existing employees who are not teachers, students, and community members.
Current Non-licensed Employees
There are amazing educators working in districts but not filling teacher roles. Paraeducators, and other support employees, are often the most dedicated, experienced, and skilled at connecting with students. All they lack is a license.
It’s important to note that not all paraeducators want to be a teacher. For those who do, a GYO pathway could be a great solution. Paraeducator pathways provide financial assistance, on-site programs, and bridge employment gaps during student teaching.
Current school district students can be incredible future educators, yet very few students consider teaching as a potential career. Pathways for these students typically start in high school. They’re provided exposure to career options, college credit opportunities in high school, summer employment, and a guided pathway into a teaching position.
Some grow your own programs draw from interested members of the community. These are less common than paraeducator and student pathways, but they do exist. Often, the path includes employment as a paraeducator during teacher training. This provides financial assistance to the community member, and gives the district an opportunity to evaluate that potential future employee.
What Are the Benefits?
Grow your own programs have the potential to be beneficial to all stakeholder groups. That’s unusual to say! It’s why I believe they’re one of the best investments a district can make.
While the benefits available vary by each GYO program, they’re generally a much better path for teacher candidates than going into teaching the traditional way.
The economic benefits are significant when compared to the traditional path into teaching. Teacher candidates will be provided some level of financial assistance to attain a teaching degree. This can vary from tuition reduction all the way up to a guarantee of graduating with no student debt.
In some GYO programs, students are even paid for their year of student teaching. They’ll have their own classroom for a year and be connected with a supervising teacher. This model of mentorship is much closer to apprenticeship and more effective for building skill. It is certainly better than the year-long free labor with limited responsibility that many of us experienced in traditional student teaching.
Good GYO programs provide a navigator system that helps prospective educators work through the paperwork associated with higher education, financial aid, licensing, and application.
Many GYO programs also operate under a cohort model, so students have a built-in support group and build their professional network early. The programs are highly relevant for the school and community they will serve.
Finally, teacher candidates don’t have to wonder if a job is available. The district has invested in them and, assuming completion of the program, a job is already waiting.
School districts get a program that directly targets ongoing workforce needs. The district does not need to depend on random schools of education to provide the necessary candidates. The selection process is less costly, and the outcomes less random.
Grow your own programs also provide the opportunity to tailor programs directly to the needs of the district and influence the education the students are getting.
By drawing from groups that are already familiar with the district, retention will be higher. Teachers from these programs know what they’re getting into and feel a higher degree of responsibility than outside candidates might.
Finally, if the district uses this as an opportunity to build an educator workforce that truly represents the community, and implements inclusive decision-making, it can provide better service to the community. I believe GYO programs are powerful change agents if supported correctly.
Higher education institutions that partner with districts on GYO programs get similar benefits. They have a dedicated pool of students which is valuable in an industry with variable enrollment and heavy recruiting costs.
The university can use the district and students to guide program development, thereby creating an education model based on real-world need. Their graduates will be better equipped for the reality of teaching. It is also an opportunity to connect the college/university with the community it serves.
Finally, the high percentage of GYO graduates that will be employed helps the university stats.
Since the teachers come from the community, grow your own programs put educators in the classroom that know the reality the students experience at home. Students benefit from having educators of color at both the individual level and systemic level.
Relationship between teacher and student is incredibly important to student outcomes. Teachers who know their lived reality, who have experienced their schools, and made a commitment to support the community are more likely to build those relationships.
Similarly, educators from grow your own programs are more likely to design and support programs that are relevant and equitable to students.
One of the biggest challenges we face is a disconnect between our schools and communities. Schools have done poorly at connecting with and empowering traditionally underserved communities. Many stakeholders, particularly those of color, who have consistently faced systemic racism have an earned distrust of the system.
Building an education system with educators that come from the community and want to support that community is one step to building stronger trust. It is important to note that simply employing these educators is not enough – the district will need to ensure they are empowered to make change and impact the system.
Another community benefit is economic: more professional jobs. In many communities the school district is the largest employer. Why then are so many of the highest paid positions filled by those from outside the community? A GYO program that eliminates barriers and elevates non-licensed workers and students into a professional role without burdening them with debt can have a positive economic impact.
Here are two research reports on grow your own programs:
Grow your own programs are not new, but they’re still under development. The number, and scope, are increasing due to the workforce demands and renewed dedication to diversification of the workforce. We still have a lot to learn. In fact, one important characteristic of grow your own programs is continued evolution based on feedback and results.
Other important criteria for effective grow your own programs:
Pushing non-traditional candidates, or high school students, into existing higher education programs that are designed to churn out white middle class candidates is not an effective strategy to change the system.
Grow your own programs must be culturally sustaining, designed specifically for the population they are supporting, and relevant to reality on the ground.
One of the most promising aspects of GYO programs is the reduction in barriers for candidates. This means that both district and university must build intentional support systems to help future teachers navigate structures that are designed to be difficult to navigate.
The best programs seek to limit the complexity of application, financial aid, and licensing on the front end while also providing dedicated support to negotiate these things.
Retention Strategies / Mentoring
Finally, any program that simply installs the new teachers into the profession but doesn’t provide intentional mentoring and targeted retention strategies is simply replicating the failures of the past.
An effective GYO program doesn’t stop when the candidate begins regular employment as a teacher. Mentors. Affinity groups. Opportunities for advancement. All of these things must be built into the GYO program.
Examples of Grow Your Own Programs
Here are some examples of Grow Your Own organizations and programs currently operating or beginning. This is still an area of significant growth for the profession. If you want to learn more about grow your own programs, these links will give you a flavor of the variety of work.
If you’re interested in entering a grow your own program, contact your school district to see if they offer a GYO program.
Disclaimer: I have not deeply researched each of these programs. This is a list, not an endorsement of any specific program.
|Grow Your Own Programs and Resources|
|Grow Your Own Collective|
|Grow Your Own Illinois|
|Fairfax Public Schools|
|Hamilton County Schools|
|New Mexico – GYO (educational assistants)|
|Grow Your Own Texas|
|Seattle Public Schools|
Summary: Grow Your Own Teacher Programs
Grow your own programs are a win for all involved. When implemented well with responsive curriculum, supportive structures, and retention strategies they have the potential to create incredible teachers, stronger schools, and connected communities.
Let me know if you have experience with a Grow Your Own Program. How did it go? Are there any GYO programs I missed that I should include in the examples above? Comment below.