Dr. Mary Ann Wolf: Strengthening the educator pipeline through programs like NC teaching fellows 

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 2, 2024

By Dr. Mary Ann Wolf

This year, my youngest child, Andrew, graduated from high school. And, yes, I am feeling all of the pride and all of the empty nest fears that go with that. However, the part of the graduation celebrations that struck me the most was the day that the seniors all went back to their elementary schools. I had the opportunity to join Andrew at Morris Grove Elementary, where he had spent grades K-5. As we walked in, we were immediately greeted by his principal, Amy Rickard, who had been there on his very first day when he really wasn’t so sure about staying at school for kindergarten. 

Ms. Rickard knew every child’s name as they walked in, and these 18-year-olds were so thrilled to see her and their former teachers as they paraded through the school. One teacher had stickers of their third-grade faces, another stopped to take a picture with the 10 graduates who had returned very early in the morning to see their primary classrooms. These educators left a lasting impact on my child and so many others, and they truly shaped the students as learners and people. 

This beautiful story — that left me in quiet joyful tears — isn’t possible without well-prepared, high-quality teachers to help students to achieve their goals and dreams. As we’ve said many times before, research shows that teachers are the No. 1 school-related factor affecting student outcomes. On this day right before graduation, I could see this right in front of me. 

Knowing this, it is pretty clear that maintaining North Carolina’s teacher pipeline should be a top priority, but our local schools are struggling to recruit and retain teachers. This is evident as the number of students enrolling in educator preparation programs has decreased significantly in the last 10-15 years. The perception that teaching is a noble but not properly respected profession has discouraged potential educators who could be in classrooms helping students succeed today. As a state, we have to address this, and programs like North Carolina Teaching Fellows are vital to doing so.

The Teaching Fellows program encourages North Carolina students to attend in-state colleges and work as teachers within the state once they’ve finished their education. This seems simple but the impact cannot be overstated. It creates an avenue for our young adults to begin a career and helps address the very real teacher shortage. The program also helps alleviate many of the issues those beginning, or interested in beginning, a career in education face.

In addition to the financial support the program provides to help participants complete their education, Teaching Fellows provides a support system. Teaching can be a stressful job, and even the most outstanding teachers can sometimes feel overwhelmed. Teacher turnover has been high in recent years, and a large number of those leaving the classroom were first-year teachers, but more early career educators having access to an alumni network such as that of the Teaching Fellows could make a huge difference. 

By addressing barriers to entry and providing support that can help keep beginning teachers in the classroom, the Teaching Fellows program has the potential to greatly impact the teacher pipeline, but one program cannot do it all. In addition to the continued efforts of local districts and institutions, getting the pipeline to thrive will have to include changes in statewide policy. 

Growing, retaining and diversifying North Carolina’s teacher pipeline is one of the Public School Forum’s Top Education Issues for 2023-24. Our policy recommendations for this biennium include:

• Ensure fair and competitive compensation for educators 

• Eliminate requirements for teacher licensure exams that are not predictive of educator effectiveness, i.e. PRAXIS Core

• Provide flexibility in how districts can utilize position allotments to address instructional needs

• Increase the diversity and number of National Board Certified Teachers by reimbursing certification fees and providing support for teachers of color during the process

• Collect more actionable data on teacher satisfaction, disaggregated by race, on the Teacher Working Conditions Survey to better inform recruitment and retention efforts

• Open the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program to prospective teachers in all subject areas and structure financial support as scholarships, rather than forgivable loans

Some progress has been made, including the expansion of the Teaching Fellows Program to include 10 partner institutions rather than 8 and K-6 educators rather than limiting it to STEM and Special Education. This year’s Top Education Issues report also notes a recent increase in funds for Advanced Teaching Roles, TA tuition reimbursement, and the creation of a $1 million grant program for National Board Certification reimbursement. These are great steps, but we can and must do more. We owe it to our children to make sure they have everything they need to succeed, including well-equipped and supported educators. 

Dr. Mary Ann Wolf is executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C.