Lina Horton was a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with plans to become her family’s first college graduate, an enormous achievement for a young woman who had started kindergarten knowing little English after moving from Puerto Rico. Then, her mother died suddenly and she became pregnant. Grieving and needing to provide for her child, she dropped out days into her second semester. She was crushed.
A half-dozen years later, Horton was working as an education assistant in her hometown of Clarksville, Tenn. Raising two children with the help of an aunt, returning to school felt out of reach. But in 2019, she learned about a pilot program in her district that would allow her to keep working while taking night classes at Austin Peay State University toward a bachelor’s degree in education and a teaching certification. Best of all, it was free.
“I knew that it was something that I would be interested in, because I would be able to work,” Horton said.
Horton is part of a grand experiment to see what happens when the apprenticeship model — used to train generations of plumbers, electricians and carpenters — is applied to teaching, allowing trainees to earn money while they learn their craft and earn their credentials. In exchange, many of the programs require graduates commit a certain numbers of years of service in high-needs schools.
Apprenticeships have also been hailed as a way to alleviate a persistent teacher shortage that has threatens student achievement, diversifying and broadening the teacher ranks, especially as interest in teaching plummets among undergraduates. And they give people like Horton, promising educators who can’t afford to return to college, a path to a higher-paying career.
While debates rage over transgender student rights and the teaching of race and U.S. history, teacher apprenticeships are a rare education policy initiative that have bipartisan support. Teaching apprenticeships have been championed by New America, a left-leaning think tank. The Biden administration embraces them — Jill Biden, the first lady, invited a teacher apprentice to be her guest at this year’s State of the Union address — as do many GOP-led states such as West Virginia, where an apprenticeship program is taking on 200 teacher trainees, and Iowa, which now has 17 programs in the state.
Programs like the one at Austin Peay State have been around for years, but they have often been small in scale and had inconsistent sources of funding. Facing dire teacher shortages during the pandemic, many states expanded this type of training using pandemic relief funds. Now teaching apprenticeships are getting a major boost from the Labor Department, which last year began offering them federal certification, a distinction that gives them access to millions in job-training funds. Over the last 17 months, programs in 16 states have been certified, including some poised to take on hundreds of trainees.
David Donaldson, the former director of human capital in Tennessee, was one of the drivers of the inaugural program in that state. He now runs a nonprofit that offers technical assistance to states wanting to create teaching apprenticeships. Donaldson said inspiration for the idea came from his father, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and his mother, a preschool teacher.
“Both are forms of public service — the military and education,” Donaldson said in an interview earlier this year. But only one parent, his father, received a free education in exchange for years of service. It has informed the credo that has defined his career: “We truly believe that you should be able to become a teacher for free and get paid to do so in America. And we’re proving it in multiple states now that it’s possible.”
Staff shortages have plagued many pockets of the country, forcing some schools to pare down classes, hire unqualified adults or put students in self-guided online courses. Teachers matter more for student achievement than any other aspect of schooling and can influence whether a child graduates high school, attends college and earns more as an adult. One of the drivers of the shortage is that interest in teaching is plummeting, a decline chalked up to low pay and deteriorating work conditions. In the 2018-2019 school year, colleges and universities awarded about 90,000 undergraduate education degrees, compared to 200,000 in the early 1970s.
But the popularity of the apprenticeship programs suggests there is an untapped talent pool: people who have the desire and the heart — but not the financial means — to become a teacher. What schools have found is that many of the people who fall in to that category are already working for them in roles that do not require bachelor’s degrees, like Horton. The graduates of the Austin Peay State program, which graduated 34 people in its inaugural class, include several former teaching assistants and at least one former school janitor, who now teaches math. There are more than 200 teacher apprentices in various stages of the program now, according Prentice T. Chandler, the dean of the university’s school of education.
Mississippi has one of the nation’s worst teacher shortages, a problem driven in part by low teacher pay and an a state legislature that has for years funded schools with less money than the state’s formula demands. This year, the state is spending nearly $10 million to educate 200 trainees for its teacher residency, about $50,000 per person, in a program that covers the cost of tuition at one of five universities while allowing participants to work in school districts. It has already proven beneficial for school districts like the one in Sunflower County.
“There will never be a long line of individuals who are lined up to move to the Mississippi Delta,” said Will Murphy, who manages hiring and recruitment for Sunflower County Consolidated School District, which, like many school systems in the Mississippi Delta, serves a student body that is overwhelmingly Black and poor. “We have to be intentional about growing people in our district and training up a next wave.”
The residency has helped a half-dozen employees earn degrees and teaching certification while they were employed by a school district. One is Camilla Potts, a high school history teacher who won the district’s teacher of the year award days after graduating. Potts sent her own children to school in the district and was a health educator before deciding to return to college — and to the classroom — to become a teacher.
School leaders say there are clear benefits from recruiting from within their ranks and their communities. The teaching profession has long struggled to diversify, even as the proportion of public school children of color grows. By intentionally recruiting local candidates, districts have been able to build teaching candidate pools that better reflect the demographics of the community. They have also had success recruiting from the ranks of teacher assistants, who are more diverse than teachers.
Tabitha Grossman of the National Center for Teacher Residencies said removing financial barriers has been key in recruiting more teachers of color.
“If we really want to diversify the profession, we have to make the profession financially accessible,” Grossman said. Residencies and apprenticeships “make the profession a lot more accessible, particularly for candidates of color who don’t have the generational wealth to not work for a period of time.”
More than two decades ago, Nebraska studied why schools on its tribal reservations were faring so poorly. One factor they identified: There was only one Native teacher among the dozens educating Native students. The result was the Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program, through which aspiring Native educators could receive a bachelor’s degree at no cost while being employed by their local schools. The federally funded program required participants to spend two or three years working in schools with Native students and has put 59 Native teachers in schools across the state.
Many were like Nepthys Justo, who was in her late 20s and living on the Santee Sioux Reservation. She badly wanted to become a certified teacher and had taken education classes at her local community college. But the nearest university was more than an hour’s drive away, and she had three children to care for. She made the commute for an entire semester before learning about the Roots program, which allowed her to take classes online and remain in her community. She graduated with her bachelor’s in education in 2007, and then returned to the program to get her master’s in curriculum and instruction in 2013. She’s working on her third degree now with Roots — a master’s degree in administration.
Justo, 45, said living on the reservation and having Santee Sioux roots means she has a connection with students and families that would be difficult to forge if she were an outsider. She knows the parents of her students because she grew up with them — and sees them at the grocery store and at community events. Part of that bond, too, comes from the tragedies she’s endured: as a young girl, her mother died in a drunken-driving accident, and she was subsequently separated from her siblings. It has allowed her to relate to children who witness their parents’ struggles with substance abuse.
“As a people, we have gone through so much trauma. … We carry that generational trauma with us, and it’s something that we’re trying to overcome, but it’s still there,” said Justo, who teaches at the Isanti Community School. “Just having that understanding” has helped her connect with students.
Back in Clarksville, Tenn., in August of last year, Horton donned a cap and gown and crossed the stage at Austin Peay State University to receive her bachelor’s degree in education. Relatives had come in from neighboring states to watch her become the first in the family to earn a college degree. Her children, 8-year-old Luke and 10-year old Sofia Emeagwai, witnessed the moment.
She believes there are more people out there with the potential to be great educators. All they need, she said, is a little boost.
“There are many people who are gifted,” she said. “It just takes someone lending a hand to bring out the gifts.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the number of people who graduated from the Austin Peay State University teaching apprenticeship in its inaugural class, and a photo caption misidentified the city where the photo was taken. The article has been corrected.