How to Build Great Teachers: Start Early and Start Locally

By Dan Brown

Who will be the next generation of educators we are all counting on to be highly skilled change agents? How can we cultivate them to be durable, empowered professionals who stay in our schools?

Starting early and thinking locally is the core of a promising new movement to help communities grow their own teachers. The needs are certainly immense, and we now know more than ever about how to engage altruistic high school students to help guide them toward careers in teaching.

Significant Challenges

It’s easy to feel disillusioned about the teaching pipeline. The Condition of Future Educators 2015 report released by ACT in July 2016 declared that “interest among ACT-tested [high school] graduates in becoming educators continues to decline at an alarming rate.” A mere 4 percent of ACT-takers want to teach — an all-time low.

Educator preparation programs across the country are facing declining enrollment. From 2009 to 2014, program enrollment plummeted by more than a third while teacher attrition has remained relatively high, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Given our country’s need to hire 300,000 new teachers each year, we can’t afford this kind of narrowing of the teaching talent pipeline.

The consequences are already hitting classrooms; many schools are currently struggling to build a skilled, empowered, diverse teaching workforce — especially when it comes to high-need areas like STEM and special education.

Band-Aid solutions abound.

A glimmer of hope is that most educators are homegrown; more than 60 percent of teachers work within 20 miles of where they attended high school, according to a Stanford University study published in 2012. Armed with that knowledge, schools can begin to build a skilled, committed teaching talent pool by starting intentionally and early.

It’s doable, and pockets of hope exist all over the country. Take Jordyn Kuemerle, an altruistic senior at Perry High School in Massillon, Ohio, who wants to be a teacher. She realized that making children feel safe and comfortable was one of the most important jobs a teacher could do when she was in third grade and her parents were divorcing.

“During this time, when my whole life was changing, it was encouraging to know that school was a consistent place. One day, I hope to provide a safe and supportive classroom to my future students,” she said.

Teacher Academies

The National Education Association’s Status of the American Public School Teacher from 2006 reports that from 1970 to 2005, 70 percent of teachers cited “desire to work with young people” as their top reason for becoming teachers. Additionally, 64 percent of teachers from 1980 to 2005 selected “desire to work with young people” as their top reason for remaining teachers.

While young people aren’t organically gravitating to choosing teaching, as we see from the sobering ACT report, new programs are providing students, including Jordyn, with opportunities to explore the profession.

Launched in 2015, Educators Rising is a national network of more than 29,000 students who are exploring teaching in 2,000 public, charter, and private schools across the country. Fifty-one percent of our members are students of color, and we are committed to increasing diversity in the teaching profession — a goal shared by the independent school community, where 81.3 percent of teachers are white, according to DASL.

In typical “teacher academy” programs that affiliate with Educators Rising, students take yearlong elective courses or two-year career academy-style coursework in which they explore teaching. They do this under the wing of a skilled teacher leader who facilitates the coursework, which often serves as a coherent on-ramp to introductory education courses at a local college or university.

The central plank of a teacher academy program is an array of clinical opportunities to try teaching, such as job shadowing, observational fieldwork, and, ultimately, student teaching internships in a local classroom for several hours each week. In their internships, students serve in local classrooms essentially as apprentices, initially in an observational role and then gradually taking on responsibilities for supporting group work and even co-teaching at times with their cooperating teacher.

The Profession Unites Around Solutions

Strong professions, like medicine, have defined exquisitely engineered pathways from initial exploration to accomplished practice. In 2016, the teaching profession made a major move toward defining the first steps on the path to great teaching. The essential question, “What do teenage, aspiring educators need to know and be able to do to begin their teaching journeys?” has an answer.

Developed in partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the seven Educators Rising Standards form the backbone of new secondary-based pathway programs and “grow our own” efforts to support aspiring teachers in high schools across the country.

Standard I: Understanding the Profession

Rising educators learn about the profession to explore career opportunities, develop skills they need, and make informed decisions about pathways to accomplished teaching.

Standard II: Learning About Students

Rising educators learn about themselves and their students for the purpose of building relationships and supporting student development.

Standard III: Building Content Knowledge

Rising educators learn how to build content knowledge for the purpose of creating relevant learning opportunities for their students.

Standard IV: Engaging in Responsive Planning

Rising educators learn how to respond to students’ needs through thoughtful planning.

Standard V: Implementing Instruction

Rising educators learn effective instructional strategies to engage students and promote learning.

Standard VI: Using Assessments and Data

Rising educators learn to use assessments and interpret data for the purpose of making decisions that will advance teaching and learning.

Standard VII: Engaging in Reflective Practice

Rising educators learn how reflective practice enables them to advance student learning and grow professionally.

An Imperative to Nurture

The efforts to define standards and create clear pathways for youth to learn about teaching open schools’ access to new tools and partnerships to engage and nurture future teachers. Our schools and students need bright, altruistic young people to pick up the mantle and become the next generation of high-impact practitioners. It’s on us to help them to do it.


Dan Brown is a National Board Certified Teacher and co-director of Educators Rising. He taught at The Collegiate School (NY) from 2005 to 2007. He can be reached at [email protected].

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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