A legacy of inspired educators

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This is excerpted from a report written for the Public School Forum of North Carolina.]

North Carolina faces a critical decision about our schools and our future. While our state’s continued growth and prosperity depend on the quality of learning students get in classrooms throughout the state, the teaching profession we count on to provide that learning faces huge challenges.

Fourteen percent of North Carolina’s teachers left the profession each of the past two years, up from 11 percent in 2010-11. From 2009-14, individual districts experienced five-year average annual turnover rates of up to 28 percent. Every year, public schools in our state look to other states to hire thousands of teachers to lead our classrooms. And enrollment at teacher-education programs in the University of North Carolina system — the main incubators for our state’s teacher workforce — has declined dramatically.

Compounding the strain on the teaching profession is the elimination of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, which between 1986 and 2011 recruited nearly 11,000 of the state’s best and brightest high school students to agree to teach in our classrooms in return for competitive four-year scholarships at teacher-education programs throughout the state, along with a rigorous program of support, enrichment, leadership development and classroom training.

Breakthrough initiative

The Teaching Fellows Program, created in 1986, was a breakthrough initiative that addressed a critical need for teachers in the state by recruiting top North Carolina high school students into teaching.

The program provided holistic training and support to develop Teaching Fellows as exceptional teacher-leaders. To underscore the message that teaching was a career as prestigious as law, medicine, business or other prominent professions, the Teaching Fellows Program offered competitive, four-year scholarships in return for a commitment to teach in North Carolina public schools for at least four years. If a recipient could not repay the scholarship through teaching service, the loan had to be repaid to the state with 10 percent interest.

Creating excellence

The strategy worked, creating a corps of inspired and dedicated educators who continue to lead schools, classrooms, school districts and education programs throughout North Carolina.

Studies of the initiative conducted in 1995 and 2012, and interviews conducted with former Teaching Fellows, program officials, and education leaders and experts, point to a common conclusion:

The Teaching Fellows Program made a big difference — in the quality of students it attracted, in the education they received, and for the students and schools they served. The program:

* Elevated the status of the teaching profession.

* Recruited top high school students from throughout North Carolina.

* Gave those students a holistic preparation for teaching that went far beyond traditional teacher training.

* Helped those teacher candidates better understand their state and the deeper role they could play as teacher-leaders.

* Produced exceptional educators and leaders who have continued teaching in the state longer than other teachers.

* Shaped educators who continually strive to inspire their students and improve themselves, their schools, their communities and their state.

* Helped meet the demand for teachers in low-performing, high-poverty rural and urban schools, and for male and minority teachers.

* Would have been self-sustaining and self-funding had it not been for regular transfers from the Teaching Fellows Trust Fund to the General Fund.

Leaving a big gap

The end of the program — which was funded through an annual appropriation by state lawmakers, overseen by the nonpartisan North Carolina Teaching Fellows Commission, and staffed and administered by the Public School Forum of North Carolina — will leave a big gap in the pipeline for excellent teachers after state funding for the program ends on March 1, 2015. No new Fellows have been recruited since 2010.

The challenge for education, government and business leaders will be to find ways to continue to create incentives for our most promising students to become teachers, and to give them the training and support they need to be the best teachers they can be, continue in their education careers, and serve as leaders and change agents in their schools and communities, and in the profession and the state.

Critical questions

The philosopher George Santayana warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program was created in 1986 in the face of an imminent crisis in the supply of new teachers to meet rising student enrollment, to prepare new teachers to be the best educators they could be.

Now, with state funding for the program ending, the state again faces the critical questions of how it will inspire the best high school students to become teachers, and provide the tools and resources they need to become exceptional teachers who will inspire our children to become informed, engaged and productive adults.

Sustaining the legacy

Leaders in education, government and business are looking for ways to preserve and build on the best practices and lessons of the Teaching Fellows Program. Those ideas include:

* Creating Teaching Fellows 2.0 to offer financial incentives or scholarships for top students to become teachers, but possibly through a shorter program, or one targeting hard-to-staff subjects and schools.

* Forming cohorts among college students in teacher-education programs and between programs at different campuses so they can learn from and support one another.

* Grounding teacher-education programs in the realities of public schools, society, government, politics and the marketplace.

* Creating a scalable model for preparing teachers that will include financial and other incentives to build on regional and national best practices and will include University of North Carolina system campuses as well as innovative, public-private initiatives.

* Creating a broad and flexible menu of best practices for the preparation of teachers, including those entering the profession from other fields.

* Developing a continuum of choices for prospective educators — from teaching through serving as principals — that clearly shows the career options they can pursue and the career paths they can follow; what will be expected of them in pursuing those options, including the investment they should expect to make themselves and the resources and rewards they can expect to receive; and metrics that will be used to track their progress and determine rewards.

* Improving connections between the training that teachers receive while they are in teacher-preparation programs and the support they receive after they enter the classroom.

Culture of caring

“It’s more than the content you teach the kids,” says Greg Little, a Teaching Fellow who is superintendent of the Mount Airy City Schools and whose parents both were teachers.

“The human part of teaching is the most important part,” he says. “The relationships are what drive teaching. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Teachers have the ability to build those relationships.”

Who would not want their child to learn from teachers who care, who continually strive to do better, and whose commitment and motivation are rooted in an understanding of the complex issues and policies affecting children, families, education, society, the economy, government, and our communities and state?

What’s next?

Addressing the urgent challenge of who will teach our children is essential because while our public schools face a growing demand to prepare students who can thrive in the global economy, they receive limited resources to effectively educate children who face unprecedented challenges, many of them rooted in systemic problems outside the classroom and school.

Recruiting and preparing the most qualified students to become exceptional educators was the mission of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program and its legacy.

To make our public schools the best they can be, we need to work together to find ways to preserve what worked best in the Teaching Fellows Program, and to address what did not work, in any future teacher-education scholarship programs. We need to enlist top high school students and prepare them to be inspired teachers who will inspire their students.

At stake is nothing less than North Carolina’s hopes and dreams for a better future.

[To read the full report, click here.]

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