UVA Helps Schools Grow Employees Into Teachers

February 20, 2024 By Laura Hoxworth, lh4na@virginia.edu Laura Hoxworth, lh4na@virginia.edu

If you don’t have enough, you sometimes must grow your own.

The University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development is helping some Virginia public schools “grow” their own teachers from the ranks of teaching assistants and other paraprofessionals already working in the district.

Grow-a-Teacher programs allow employees to earn a teaching license and a master’s degree at the same time, while continuing to work. The budding teachers remain employed while they take online courses. They have the opportunity to move into teaching position before completing the entire degree program.

Those tending the garden say these programs work. Teachers who have completed one of the programs agree. 

Just ask Alex Weinard. The summer after college, while hunting for something permanent, Weinard landed a temporary job as an after-school program leader in the Alexandria City Public Schools. He had never considered working with children and was surprised to find out how much he enjoyed it.

“I realized it was just really rewarding work,” he said. 

For several years, he worked full-time as a kindergarten teaching assistant, helping the lead teacher with instruction and classroom management. But without formal teacher training or a license, Weinard’s options for career growth were limited.

Then his principal recommended he apply to the division’s Grow-a-Teacher program: Alexandria City Schools cover the full tuition for paraprofessionals looking to become teachers. Other school divisions that participate in similar programs may offer different plans.

“It would not have been at all realistic or feasible for me to pursue an educational degree on my own on a paraprofessional salary,” Weinard said. “So everything about it was just extremely convenient and put me on a track to succeed.”

Weinard said the program was his first experience taking online courses. He thought it might feel detached or distant, but instead he found a supportive community. “It was much tighter-knit than I was expecting,” he said. “Everything felt very approachable.”

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Since the Alexandria program began six years ago, 19 people have completed it, with 23 more currently enrolled. At first, the program was limited to “growing” hard-to-find special education teachers. It now includes an option for educators to earn English as a second language credentials as well.

Similar teaching programs are expanding in Virginia and throughout the country. 

For people like Weinard, and for school divisions looking to grow and diversify their teaching staff, it’s an increasingly attractive option.

“Finding ways to get these classified staff members into teaching roles is just a dream come true for a lot of people in a lot of ways,” said Sarah Lynn, the program manager for organizational development and learning for Albemarle County Public Schools. Her school system partnered with UVA last summer to design and launch a grow-your-own program after examining teacher retention data and speaking with division teachers.

Albemarle County currently has 15 enrolled students working toward their degrees and licensure in special education, with three more set to begin this summer.

So far, the division has recruited paraprofessionals, office associates, instructional aides and student success coaches, among others. Lynn, who previously worked as a teacher in public schools for more than a decade, described these future educators as people who are embedded and invested in the community. They also enter the program with valuable teaching skills.

“Folks who’ve been in the building, even though they have less formal education, they have more of the hands-on skills,” she said.

A Shortage of Teachers

Data show continuing declines in the number of teachers in Virginia’s K-12 system. The severity of the problem varies across the state, but school divisions reported more than 4,000 vacant teaching positions at the beginning of the current school year.

One clear benefit of the home-grown teacher programs is that they remove some of the most frequently cited barriers of earning a license – the cost, the need to take time off from work, and the logistical challenges of transitioning from a provisional license to a full license.

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By offering a competitive tuition rate – further reduced for preK-12 educators in Virginia, plus an additional discount made possible through partnerships with the school division – UVA enrolls students who might not otherwise be able to afford the program.

“These are working adults, and having the flexibility to get their work done and learn in a way that best suits them is great,” Lynn said.

The programs also address another ongoing issue in the teacher workforce: diversity. Paraprofessionals tend to be a more diverse group, and removing barriers helps them access higher education. According to UVA program leaders, the cohorts are typically more diverse in age, race and ethnicity compared to the traditional online program. 

“We are trying to get our teachers to more accurately reflect what our students look like,” Lynn said. “From a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint, being able to work to bring our teaching assistants into those teacher roles is huge.”

Building Partnerships and Community

Courtney Sullivan is an academic program officer at UVA who coordinates and advises online licensure opportunities. She said an intentional focus on student support – including high-touch, quality advising – sets UVA programs apart from others.

Students benefit from individualized study plans, frequent check-ins, and staff communicating with the school divisions to help navigate the licensure process, which can be complex, particularly for special educators. 

Albemarle recently added after-school open work sessions for the Grow-Your-Own students to give participants extra support with end-of-year workloads. UVA also received an Inclusive Excellence grant from the UVA Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to hire coaches who provide students with extra support from someone other than their employer or graduate program.

“What we’re trying to do is build partnerships that are sustainable and scalable," Sullivan said. “We believe in getting quality teachers into classrooms in whatever way is the best fit for them, whether that’s a traditional program, online, or alternate routes to licensure like this program.”

Weinard, who enrolled in the summer of 2020, graduated in spring of 2022. He is now a fourth-grade English language teacher in the same school. Many of the kindergarten students he taught as a teaching assistant became his fourth-grade students.

“I know I would not be a teacher right now without [the Grow-a-Teacher program],” he said. “I definitely know I would not be as high quality of a teacher as I currently am. I wouldn’t have had that foundation to be successful and to be flexible if it weren’t for the education I received.”

Media Contact

Laura Hoxworth

School of Education and Human Development