WINDHAM, Conn. — While many of their friends are hanging out at the mall or beach, about 20 Connecticut high school students are spending much of their summer vacation in the classroom.
It’s an increasingly common scene nationwide as educators, seeking new ways to recruit teachers in critical shortage areas, are embracing a “grow your own” approach by introducing the profession to teens as early as middle school.
And while many of the programs are too new to determine how many of the teens eventually enter the field, the longest-running initiatives such as Eastern Connecticut State University’s program have tracked many of their alumni through college and into jobs as teachers, guidance counselors and school social workers.
Getting classroom experience is a core part of the curriculum at the nation’s approximately 1,400 teacher colleges, but for many high school students, learning the nuts and bolts of teaching often must wait until after graduation.
The programs, including Eastern Connecticut’s 15-year-old Summer Institute for Future Teachers (SIFT), aim to change that by giving teens an early chance to try student teaching, learn to draft lesson plans and work with different grade levels.
Education leaders hope it serves two purposes: identifying the most promising future educators and potentially filling the gaps in areas with chronic teacher shortages. The most critical areas nationwide include bilingual education, special education, science and technology, math and urban teaching jobs.
Students who complete the programs are not locked into teaching, but organizers say they leave with a stronger sense of whether it’s a good fit for them and, if so, an advantage that could help their future employers and the children they will someday educate.
“I know I want to do this, but I never really thought of how I would create a lesson plan or set up a classroom,” 17-year-old Zenobia Adgers, an incoming Middletown High School senior, said on a recent day as she and other SIFT participants teamed with Windham Middle School teachers to work with children at a summer school literacy program.
“I feel like I’m coming out of this with something extra,” she said.
While seeking to provide a new stream of teachers for urban schools and the academic shortage areas, SIFT and similar recruitment programs also are growing as the nation’s 3.8 million teachers age. Their median age is in the mid-40s, depending on the region of the U.S., with teachers in the Northeast on the higher end of the range.
“As a teacher and especially as a special education teacher, I feel a real mission and obligation to pass along the love of teaching to the next generation,” Windham Middle School veteran teacher Cathy Fahrenholz said. “It’s magic for me when I see these (SIFT) students really connecting with the kids and loving the teaching experience.”
Among these potential future educators: Eleni Rose Malave, a 17-year-old starting her senior year at New Britain High School, started the SIFT program with a general interest in teaching and soon became passionate about special education.
“This gives me a little bit of an idea of what it’ll be like,” she said Wednesday as she worked with Fahrenholz’s students. “Helping them learn makes me feel good. I just want to make one difference in one life, and I know I can if I’m teaching.”
Like many programs of its type, the SIFT initiative brings high school students to live on a college campus and rewards them at the end of the session with three college credits they can later use at Eastern or transfer elsewhere. Others give cash stipends, such as $200 at Georgia State’s Academy for Future Teachers and $1,500 at the University of Delaware’s Project SMART.
The value of the three college credits at Eastern Connecticut is just shy of $1,200, so it’s no small change especially to students like 16-year-old Justin Del Rio of New Britain, who expects to complete his prerequisite college courses in a two-year community college before transferring to a four-year university for his teaching degree.
“It definitely makes a difference,” he said of the tuition savings from leaving high school with three college credits already under his belt.
Other programs give preferential consideration for college scholarships, as is the case for teens who complete Michigan State University’s four-week Summer High School Scholars program and later enroll in its College of Education.
That program and others emphasize the need to diversify the teaching profession, which remains overwhelmingly White and female despite growing minority student populations.
In the Michigan State program, high-achieving teens from urban schools are encouraged to consider teaching in those inner-city districts or other disadvantaged areas. It is part of a wider strategy to help struggling city education systems, which can have trouble recruiting or retaining highly talented teachers, particularly in the academic shortage areas.
Sonya Gunnings-Moton, an assistant dean in MSU’s College of Education, said they present the teaching profession to the teens as more than a career path, but also as a tool to improve the world.
“We don’t come at the students saying, ‘Have you thought about a career in teaching?'” she said. “We approach them with issues of the power of education in social justice, what leadership will be necessary in urban settings, and who has the most influence in bringing that about. They come to the conclusion along with us that it will be educators.”