With nationwide teacher shortages causing a strain on schools and students, UT’s Grow Your Own program is helping teachers’ assistants get certified and step in front of the classroom.
by Cassandra J . Sproles
As schools around the country are seeing teachers leave the profession in high numbers and a shortage of qualified candidates to replace them, UT has implemented an innovative program that extends educator pipelines by providing teachers’ assistants a path to the front of the class as full-time certified teachers.
Just ask Memphis teachers Sean Speaks and Charles Lowe, who graduated in December 2022 with their master’s degrees and a year of teaching experience thanks to their hard work in the Grow Your Own program.
Speaks and Lowe worked as teachers’ assistants in Memphis–Shelby County Schools before finding out about the new program from colleagues who knew they both wanted to make the jump from assistants to full-time teachers.
Tennessee was the first state to be approved for the apprenticeship program, which is a partnership between educator preparation providers—like UT—and urban and rural school districts. Once accepted to UT’s program, the teaching assistant becomes a student, working their way toward either a master’s degree or an education specialist degree. They complete 36 hours of coursework and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training in their school district.
After completing the program, the student will be licensed with a year of experience under their belt—all while earning a teacher’s salary.
David Cihak, associate dean of professional licensure and director of the Graduate School of Education, is excited about the opportunities the program provides for aspiring teachers.
“For them to be able to work and earn salaries and benefits as educational assistants while completing requirements to become fully licensed professional teachers—at little or no cost to them—is invaluable to our state,” says Cihak.
For Speaks, who had always wanted to be in K–12 education, the program was just the right fit. Before becoming a teacher’s assistant seven years ago, she was managing a coffee shop and trying to get her foot in the door at various schools.
“I interviewed at about 10 different schools for teaching assistant positions,” Speaks says. “I even volunteered at different schools just so I could meet people and shake hands.”
When Speaks finally did land a position at a middle school, she worked for seven years, which included four years working with students with multiple disabilities. “I helped impaired students and nonverbal students. I would actually sit and feed them and do hand-over-hand writing, changing diapers and things of that nature,” Speaks says.
After being denied a provisional teaching license in her school district, she found out about the Grow Your Own program from her school’s principal. She jumped at the opportunity and trained in a first-grade classroom.
Lowe, who also was a special education assistant, had worked as the manager of a cell phone store after earning his undergraduate degree in 2008, but decided that sales wasn’t for him and that he wanted to help students in his community. He began substitute teaching and eventually became a teacher’s assistant at his alma mater, Hamilton High School.
There he spent several years assisting with children who had emotional disturbances and behavioral issues before finding out about the Grow Your Own program at UT from his principal.
“He was all in favor of me [completing the program] because it’s real big when you have an alumnus of the school trying to continue to be an educator,” says Lowe, who completed his on-the-job training as a geometry teacher at his high school.
Speaks and Lowe, who were both working full-time jobs and parenting young children, began taking master’s courses online through the program in January 2021. Both say they were nervous about going back to school but also about coming to UT.
“I took it upon myself to contact everybody [in the program] so we could try to do this thing together,” Lowe says. “I was extra nervous about coming to a prestige school like UT Knoxville.”
Outside of Lowe serving as the group’s unofficial team leader, Speaks says, they found an abundance of support in the program’s faculty and staff, a benefit she’s been telling others about.
“Since the very first semester, every single instructor that we’ve had was very supportive when we reach out to them and say anything about what was going on in the real world for us. They would advise us to take a breather, slow down and not worry about what we missed. Just focus on what’s in front of you,” says Speaks. “They would provide resources to make sure that we were actually retaining and getting the information we need.”
When Lowe and Speaks walked across the stage at UT’s 2022 fall commencement, they did it together with the rest of their cohort—a built-in network of support in one another as they become full-time classroom teachers.
While both are excited about being the first in their families to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, for them it’s really all about helping children and their communities. And now they will be better prepared to do that.
“I want to grow professionally,” says Speaks. “I have other goals to start a facility for students with disabilities—like a preschool. There are no foundational programs for students with disabilities. So I want to get my feet wet and try to learn how to work with smaller-age kids.”
Lowe says he hears his students talking about gang activity and what’s in the streets, and he wants to help them realize that “no matter where they come from, they can still succeed.”
As part of that, Lowe plans to let his students know about UT’s Flagship Scholarship program, which pays the tuition and fees for admitted students from 38 specific Tennessee high schools, including Hamilton.
“It’s a whole big world, outside of what you think and outside of what you see on a daily basis. And I want you to be a part of that world. I don’t want you to just be a part of what you see every day, I want you to be a part of that world.”