Can “Grow-Your-Own” Programs Help End Rural Teacher Shortages?


“Why don’t people who live there, teach there?” That question, posed by this recent Hechinger Report story, is a troubling reminder of the unique, persistent challenges that rural communities face in staffing schools.

Like rural America itself, teacher shortages are often discussed but seldom understood. Shortages occur less frequently than the average observer may speculate, and when they do, it isn’t from a simple lack of warm bodies to occupy classrooms. Instead, teacher shortages more commonly exist when there’s a lack of certified individuals in a given content area or community.

High-needs subject areas like STEM are often the main culprit behind these shortages. It makes sense—many math and science devotees overlook the teaching profession all together, knowing that their earning potential is much higher in the industry than in a school system.

Similarly, in areas like Texas and California where English language learners are prevalent, there’s a growing need for quality ESL teachers. However, the differences in student demographics between the rural Western U.S. and, say, rural Vermont clearly show that there is no such thing as a singular “rural teaching shortage.”

Naturally, there are some instances in which teacher shortages are a widespread, chronic issue—many of which do involve communities on the far end of the rural spectrum. But as for those viral social media posts about how teachers are flocking away from the profession in droves, leaving nothing behind but the certain promise of illiteracy, innumeracy, and all other manner of educational misfortune in their wake? Not likely.

This isn’t to say that teacher shortages shouldn’t be taken seriously. Teachers are often cited as the most important school-related factor in student achievement, and when shortages exist, students are less likely to receive effective instruction from qualified educators.

However, we’ve seen how poorly designed, one-size-fits-all approaches to recruitment have failed communities before. Failing to understand the nuances behind teacher shortages makes it that much harder for policymakers to adequately address them.

So what steps can districts take to stop the shortages in their own communities? “Grow-your-own” programs look like a promising development because they’re designed with these nuances in mind. These initiatives, which strive to solve teacher shortages by developing local students into prospective teaching candidates, have already demonstrated successes in case studies across the nation.

In Kentucky, organizations like GoTeachKY and Educators Rising have been helping rural school districts identify their future workforce as early as high school, allowing students to explore teaching and earn college credit before they even graduate. In Montana, state investment in “grow-your-own” programs have proven beneficial for tribal schools where teacher attrition has been stubbornly high.

That’s not to say that homegrowing future educators is the silver bullet for solving recruitment woes, as the Hechinger Report points out. Many rural communities are education deserts, and those who leave to pursue a college degree may not be easily persuaded to impede their future earnings by moving back to teach.

However, as more and more states are adopting their own “grow-your-own” legislation, rural school leaders are hoping that the proof will be in the pudding. Will it be enough?

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