Amid a national teacher shortage, a wave of teachers’ strikes last spring spotlighted some of the ongoing problems for the teaching profession, such as low pay and limited classroom resources. On top of that, a recent poll found that for the first time since 1969, just over half of American parents don’t want their children to pursue a teaching career.
The Missouri Constitution prohibits teachers from striking, but just because they aren’t speaking out, doesn’t mean schools here don’t face many of those issues. With some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a challenge, said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner for educator quality at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
But in Columbia, the EdX Internship Program is taking a new approach to filling in the gaps by grooming aspiring educators and incentivizing to return as teachers in the district. Students who go through the program receive a full ride to one of five area college, with the expectation that they give four years of service to Columbia Public Schools. Known as a “grow-your-own” initiative, EdX started in 2016, and is considered one of the most innovative teacher recruitment initiatives in the state. It’s still a small program, with 20 spots available, and it’s focused on jump-starting teaching careers for students who might not otherwise have the resources to attend college and diversifying the teacher workforce.
KBIA's Kathryn Palmer sat down with Nicolle Adair, the program coordinator for EdX, to talk about how the program operates and her vision for the program’s future. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview:
Palmer: There’s a national teacher shortage right now. And there’s lots of different programs aimed at recruiting and retaining quality teachers. EdX is a little bit different because it’s a “grow your own” program, grooming students to return to teach in the same schools they went to. What’s the benefit of having teachers teach at the school or in the district they grew up in?
Adair: The homegrown effort is a win-win. One, you have students who get to stay home. They know the students within their community, they know the teachers, they know the principal, they could very well be their student’s neighbor.
Two, you get to nurture talent and keep talent within your community instead of losing it to other areas. For us, we really don’t see this reflection of a teacher shortage that I hear people talk about. I’m not disputing that’s happening nationwide, but because of the uniqueness of the EdX program students who have wanted to be teachers their whole lives. It’s a very natural fit for them, they are very hardworking. They are not students who lack motivation. They’re very proactive, they are motivated, they want to be teachers. They understand that the community’s behind him, the supports them and that we want them to win and we want them to bring that back to this district so we can impact other students as well.
In our little town of Columbia, Missouri, from the eyes of EdX I do not see that. I also think that one reason why we don’t see this out of the eyes of EdX is because all of my students have the support of me. In many ways I am like a second mom and in many ways I’m going to walk the walk with them. I can help support them and represent the district in that way. That we want you to be here and we want you to be successful. They’ve also got local colleges saying “we want you to say and we want you to be successful.” So that’s really the message they hear the entire time as they’re developing into professionals.
Palmer: Can you think of a student you’ve had that might not have had these opportunities without EdX? And what does that experience mean to you as head of this program?
Adair: My background is in nonprofits. I am not formally trained as an educator. So I have this unique position to know what an excellent educator should look like through my colleagues who, everyday get up and are passionate about teaching. So I’m able to collaborate with them and know what it should look like. The beauty of my role is watching students who, in many circumstances, are first-generation college students, English is their second language, in many instances the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone the first in their family to step foot on a college campus. In many ways living the American dream. It should literally be a lifetime movie.
The day one student found out he was going to be an EdX scholarship recipient everyone cried. That student worked so hard to get citizenship and here. They think it’s me helping them, but it’s awesome to be a part of someone living their dream.
Palmer: The program that preceded EdX (Minority Internship Program) was aimed at recruiting minority teachers. How has that mission carried over into EdX?
Adair: I think it’s really important for all of us to see people that look like us. There’s only positive that comes from a diverse group of people in a school setting. Everybody can learn from everybody. This program initially started with Monica Naylor, who was head of the minority internship program. Then it went away and it has come back, and it does not exclusively recruit minorities, but primarily it is to recruit minorities, students from a diverse background. Although we have many minority students I also have caucasian students as well.
The goal is to really try to improve for our district, having a little bit more diversity in our classroom and within our district. I think what happens a lot is we have talented students who want to be teachers but they move somewhere else.
I’ve had to really nurture “Here’s all the awesome things about staying your community.” For my sophomores in college, they’ve really been able to see the benefit of that. They are side by side with students who are working within the school now.
My students really could teach because they’ve done it for so long.
Palmer: You mentioned low pay is one reason students might not want to teach here. On top that a recent PDK poll said that for the first time in 50 years, just over 50 percent of American parents don’t want their kids to pursue a teaching career. Additionally, a wave of teacher strikes touched down last spring over these issues, of pay, respect, etc. Given that climate, are your kids ever concerned about the career they’re going into?
Adair: What sweetens the deal for a lot of my kids is … They might be in class with other peers that want to be teachers, and they might go to larger cities where they make maybe $15,000 more a year. But they’re also going to have a lot of debt when they graduate. We treat the position of being at EdX like a job. Your job pays $160,000 and all you have to do is get up and go to class … When you graduate, the rest of your peers that might be hoofing it trying to get a job, you’re going to be walking into your job already.
So you’re at an advantage already because you graduate with no debt. There was a time when I couldn’t say it without crying. You might be making less, but you’re winning because you’re graduating with no debt.
In some instances they’ll be the first homeowners in their entire family.
I’ve taken jobs for the money and been miserable. Right now I’m making less money working in a school district, but I’ve never been happier and more professionally satisfied.
They’re kind of winning.
Palmer: What brought you to the education field from the nonprofit sector?
Adair: I was in nonprofit for a long time. All of my closest friends would ask ‘why aren’t you in education.’ But I never thought I was a fit for the classroom. I’m great at helping people realize their dream and holding them accountable. I never felt there would be a place for me to do that in education. I had the opportunity to work with a couple other programs in the district and this came about.
Managing EdX is a different role. You don’t clock in in the morning and leave at 4 p.m. You’re working with college students and high school aged students and their parents. It’s important that we take the entire family to college. Helping them fill out a FAFSA and navigate financial aid.
It’s really a family in many ways.
Palmer: What’s the success rate of students in EdX?
Adair: When I first came on board, in March 2016, I was on the back end of the interview and application process. We had 19 students at that point. Of that 19, three went to college, which left us with 16. The following year, one student opted to not return that summer and two students moved. There might be one student that might chose to do something different. It’s pretty competitive.
Some of the best EdX students are those that possess an unbelievable amount of grit. To met grit is really the underlying foundation of success in life. We can smooth our the rough education. That’s what EdX students have.
Palmer:What do you envision for the future of this program? Any plans for expansion?
Adair: You have to start slow. You can absorb things that you didn’t realize would happen. What I know now is that my students also need another community mentor because I can’t serve all 20 students.
In terms of expansion we just have to get these 20 we have in college. Each year you add on. There’s so many people in this community that stand behind this program that I think it will only get bigger and better.
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