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As much as she wanted to, Karol Harper hadn’t planned to go back to school to get her teaching license. With a full-time job and a family — she couldn’t afford it. It would have meant a loss of income and benefits.

Harper, a teacher’s aide in the special education department at Farragut Intermediate School in Knoxville, Tennessee, was interviewing a candidate for a position at her school when she learned about her state’s new teacher apprenticeship program.

The program enables participants to get licensed as teachers through an apprenticeship, instead of paying out of pocket for the degree. Many apprentices work in a school, gradually taking on more teaching responsibilities, while studying for an education degree at night. Other students, like high schoolers and college students, work as student teachers in their local districts, while taking working toward their bachelor’s degree. The tuition and fees are paid for through the program, but in addition student apprentices get tutoring and coaching.

“I started Googling and researching,” said Harper, “and contacted the folks at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and applied and was accepted.”

In January, Tennessee announced that it was expanding its “grow your own programs” to recruit and train teachers by developing the new apprenticeship model, which connects school districts and educator preparation programs. Tennessee’s department of education launched this program with the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and Austin-Peay State University, making it the first registered teaching apprenticeship program in the country. Two additional universities, and the University of Tennessee system, will join the effort this fall, said Tennessee education commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Schwinn said the program could help stem teacher shortages — a problem in Tennessee and around the country. Throughout the pandemic, she said, the state consistently had about 1,000 teacher vacancies, with urban school districts having the hardest time recruiting new teachers.

“It’s a good strategy, especially to kind of remove the financial barrier,” Schwinn said. “Which is what a lot of future teachers said was an issue about why they didn’t go into the profession.”

The apprenticeship program serves students in three tracks — high schoolers in a career and technical program, school staff (such as paraprofessionals or bus drivers) who lack a bachelor’s degree, and career switchers who have completed their bachelor’s but need credentials or a master’s degree.

“What this program has done for me and for a lot of other people like me is it removed the barrier of losing our income and benefits to be able to go back to school and become a teacher.”

Karol Harper, teacher apprentice in Tennessee

Harper falls into the third group of students. She left her first career in nonprofit public relations to work in special education in the Knox County school system. Seven years later, Harper wanted to further her education but didn’t see a possibility until she learned of the apprenticeship program.

“What this program has done for me and for a lot of other people like me is it removed the barrier of losing our income and benefits to be able to go back to school and become a teacher,” said Harper, who holds a bachelor’s in public relations from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The graduate program works for students like Harper: It is completely online and flexible, taking into account its students’ differing backgrounds.

“They don’t put too much on us at once,” she said. “They’re very sensitive and very aware of the fact that we work full time, most of us are parents, we have other things going on.”

Students like Harper take one evening class a week and work during the day at a school. Since Harper is already a teaching assistant, she has experience working with a curriculum and developing lessons. The difference now is that she will be required to teach all day, every day, for a minimum of three weeks during a semester.

In addition, school administrators are required to evaluate Harper four times a semester, and then share that feedback with her professors and advisors in the program to give them an idea of how she’s developing as a licensed teacher.

While Tennessee is the first state to adopt a teacher apprenticeship program, there are a smattering of smaller-scale models around the country. For example, high schoolers in Colorado are gaining insight into the teaching profession with help from nonprofit CareerWise Colorado.

Many participants in the CareerWise future educator apprenticeship get started before their junior or senior year of high school. They enroll at a participating college while concurrently receiving at least 12 hours a week of on-the-job training working as a paraprofessional. Following graduation, as students transition to higher education, they continue working as paraprofessionals in their district. Only now, instead of balancing high school and work, they juggle college and work.

Meaghan Sullivan, executive director of CareerWise Colorado, said programs like those in Colorado and Tennessee could help diversify the teacher pipeline. There’s “a real sense of urgency to ensure that our teacher pipeline reflects the students we’re serving,” she said.

As Harper, in Knoxville, works toward her licensure and master’s degree, she hopes apprenticeship programs can help overcome challenges to public education, including retaining special education teachers.

“With this program, it eliminates the requirement of us quitting our job to student teach,” Harper said. “We’re already in that environment, we’re already working with the students we want to work with.”

The program, she added, will cultivate a “never-ending crop of special education teachers who are familiar with the students, familiar with the school systems policies and procedures and who are invested.”

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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