We’ve dealt with concerns of a teacher-staffing shortage for most of the past few decades, although much of the blame should perhaps be reserved for licensure systems that create roadblocks to professional entry without ensuring professional competence. The challenge has taken on heightened significance as schools deal with learning loss and the post-pandemic labor market, creating a burning need for some creative problem-solving. That makes it a good time to take a look at Tennessee’s pioneering Grow Your Own program, the nation’s first federally registered apprenticeship program for teaching—a model that promises to make licensure less costly while opening the profession to a broader pool of potential candidates. I recently spoke with Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn to hear more about the Grow Your Own program and what’s ahead.
Hess: So, what is the Grow Your Own program?
Schwinn: Tennessee’s Grow Your Own work is an educator-preparation strategy focused on developing and retaining candidates from local communities, for local communities. Our new, sustainable model—the Tennessee Teacher Apprenticeship—starts with the creation of a strong partnership between a school district and an educator-preparation provider. School districts operate as the employer for teacher apprentices, providing job-embedded training, mentorship, and increasing compensation—higher salary compensation as they gain skill levels. Educator-preparation providers offer the related coursework for candidates’ degrees and credentials. In the apprenticeship model, workforce and labor boards can also offer meaningful program supports such as alignment on sourcing talent, additional funding streams, and collaboration for strong partnerships.
Hess: Why is this kind of program needed?
Schwinn: Tennessee experiences about 1,200 vacancies each year. Ten thousand of our students are without a credentialed math teacher. Grow Your Own programs strategically tackle teacher shortages by effectively addressing the financial, recruitment, and preparation challenges facing our educator workforce. Historically, cost barriers have discouraged prospective teachers from entering the field. Now, apprentices enter at no cost, graduate with zero debt, and are paid as they study to become a teacher. We also know the teacher workforce doesn’t reflect the student population in many areas. In this model, there is intentional recruitment from within the community which helps students see themselves in their teachers and leaders. The program specifically recruits minority and first-generation degree-seekers. Finally, candidates get real-time experience. Apprentices work in the district where they will ultimately teach for three years, gaining on-the-job training with direct coaching from a mentor teacher.
Hess: Can you say a bit more about how this works in practice?
Schwinn: The first registered apprenticeship was through the Clarksville-Montgomery County schools system. Their program leveraged an educator-preparation partnership on the district level with Austin Peay State University. The partnership recognized the need for the district to fill key vacancies, driving the creation of an apprenticeship pathway to complete an undergraduate degree in education and full certification within three years—conducting classes between school semesters and offering classes at flexible times for participants. The program provides 20 recent high school students and 20 district teacher’s aides with an accelerated, free path to become a full-time teacher.
Hess: How do you intend to gauge program success?
Schwinn: While other Grow Your Own partnerships required partners to track participant data, we’re pushing past simply tracking surface-level outputs. We’re shifting to develop rigorous evaluations of Grow Your Own programs to measure intended outcomes and impact. We’re using apprentice-performance data, mentor coaching, Praxis pass rates, and student-growth data. Quality program evaluation is essential to garnering support for future growth and sustainability.
Hess: What do you say to critics who fear programs like this might undermine traditional teacher preparation?
Schwinn: I’d ask, “Why shouldn’t we rethink our traditional approach?” Our system hasn’t been working for some time. Much like we ask our teachers to innovate in their instruction and delivery for students, so should our systems in preparing those educators. This is our chance to simultaneously address educator-workforce needs while substantially reimagining what is possible for training high-quality talent across the profession. We’ve eliminated the notion of a “first-year teacher.” Now, every educator will have three years of classroom experience under their belt before their first day.
Hess: It’s been about five months since this program gained federal approval. Why was that approval necessary?
Schwinn: The federal apprenticeship designation allows for the preservation of locally designed programs that meet national quality standards. From a funding perspective, the approval was key. While previous Tennessee Grow Your Own programs were funded through sporadic federal and state relief dollars, the current teacher-apprenticeship model leverages ongoing federal and state workforce dollars. So, instead of offering competitive grants for districts to receive one-time funding, Tennessee’s Teacher Apprenticeships now offer sustainable funding options for no-cost pathways and compensation.
Hess: Are there plans to expand the program?
Schwinn: We currently have more than 650 educators in our Grow Your Own teacher pipeline spanning 14 educator-preparation providers and 65 school districts. That’s why we recently announced a $20 million investment in the University of Tennessee system to create the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center. With a presence in every county and multiple campus locations, the center will be able to leverage the university’s reach to attract more aspiring educators to the profession. The center will primarily support the design and creation of new apprenticeship programs and serve as lead technical assistance for school district and educator-preparation provider partners.
Hess: What advice do you have for officials in other states who are interested in creating similar programs?
Schwinn: I’d underscore that both state and local leadership teams—state agencies, school districts, colleges and universities, etc.—have an opportunity to build a lasting program that supports both an immediate need and long-standing challenge for educators and students. The initial investment in quality of programming will pay off for years and ultimately ensure a permanent, sustainable source of effective teachers for kids. Tennessee developed materials that are available to state and local education agencies for free—including comprehensive manuals, templates, and frameworks—to ensure strong partnerships and implementation. We’d love to see this program in other states, so let us know how we can be helpful in your programs and game-changing work ahead.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.