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Three Lessons I Didn’t Expect to Learn

from my Research Internship in Education

Three Lessons I Didn’t Expect to Learn from my Research Internship in Education
August 11, 2021 Jacob Griffin
Education Research

Three Lessons I Didn’t Expect to Learn From my Research Internship in Education

As a remote research intern, I find myself constantly learning. Before I started at Learners Edge for the summer, my view of education was narrow minded. I had only focused on education from a student perspective. Working at Learners Edge introduced me to the importance of great teaching. Armed with a little more experience and exposure, I have grown my view and recognize that the world of teaching is THE integral part of a child’s learning experience.

During second semester at the University of Richmond, I was required to take a preparatory internship course. While this class excellently prepared me for my experience, I worried that I would have the classic “intern” responsibilities. Instead, the description of my position included promise that would lead to a meaningful experience.

Our organization supports teachers across the country and is committed to making strategic decisions based on education policy, education reform, and education administration.  This year is especially interesting as the nation looks at the impact of distance learning during the pandemic.

-Excerpt from Internship Position Description

Collecting Data Related to Teacher Shortages

Being tasked with collecting data related to teacher shortages and analyzing its impact on student learning brought me into a new world. With the guidance of Dr. Wendy Amato and Alice Rolli, I looked at the current states in which iteach operates to provide alternative routes to education certification. Each state has different legislation and requirements for a teacher to become certified. The starting point for this work was to research each of the two biggest districts in Texas, Florida, Nevada, Louisiana, Washington D.C., and Tennessee. Using information on district websites, I was able to compile data on the total number of teachers in each district since 2018 and compare year-over-year trends. I also found current open teaching positions by subject and grade level. I was discouraged by the fact that my spreadsheet had some holes and was difficult to draw conclusions from. Even so, I could clearly see the vast demand for new teachers across the country.

Despite the missing pieces, this research gave me great insight into the surface level data for each county, but one of my biggest goals as an intern was to find and present something with substance. This would take persistence. Website data offered me only a limited view of current educational contexts. Calling and emailing districts was only effective to a degree because each one was organized differently. For some time, I was concerned that I would be unable to find the desired, meaningful information.

This would change when one staffing coordinator took the time out of her day to provide me with very insightful information. The detail of her response exceeded my expectations with detail about the reasons her county is experiencing a shortage.

Times are Changing

The pandemic virtually stole a year from education hitting the elementary and early childhood levels especially hard. While the negative effects were very large, Covid-19 caused great innovation across many industries including education, shown by the work and services that Learners Edge, iteach, and Teaching Channel provide.

Even though the same subject areas are usually the culprit of a teacher shortage, teachers are becoming certified in different ways to combat this problem. Dallas ISD notes that bilingual, special education, career and technical education, as well as math and science were at extreme need (DISD). Texas, however, has great data on new hiring numbers and retention rates for each school year. Since 2015, alternative routes of certification for teachers have held an average of 9.8% higher retention rate than an undergraduate, in-state, teaching degree (TEA). Texas is not alone in this trend. It is increasingly apparent that the four-year undergraduate degree is not the same teaching pipeline that it once was.  According to data from the state of Louisiana, alternative routes for education preparation have an average of a 71% retention after three years, more than 20 points higher than traditional paths. A stark contrast is Louisiana State University – with 39% of their graduates teaching three years later, as compared to 81% of iteach participants serving in Louisiana classrooms at the same interval. Data from Louisiana also shows that alternatively certified teachers are more diverse.

It is Time for Change

It is time for change in the world of teacher licensure. Data from the ACT high school exit survey shows a dramatic three decade drop in the number of college freshman interested in pursuing education. Only 4% of college freshmen express an interest in becoming a teacher. Many of our state laws related to certification are grounded in the idea that traditional 4-year teacher preparation programs would produce enough teachers to serve our students – and that teachers will teach for 20 or 30 years, in the same district and state. That is not the reality of today’s workforce.

Until programs like iteach were created, candidates wanting to become a teacher later in their career would have to pay for a high-cost master’s degree, and typically enroll in a full-time program. For students with families or with other education debt, the cost of this path creates a nearly impassable obstacle.  The iteach approach, where most of the cost of the certification program can be paid after a candidate is hired by a district – and receiving a paycheck – is very innovative in meeting the real-world needs of new or aspiring teachers.

Based on my research findings, there is an imminent need for teachers in some of the biggest districts across the country. For example, one large Texas county is currently hiring for 884 full-time teaching positions.  While alternative routes allow for an expedited process, iteach does not sacrifice quality. While Texas allows candidates with a 2.5 GPA to become teachers, iteach maintains a 3.2 GPA for Texas educators – and also holds CAEP accreditation, the same standard held by schools of higher education. These routes also provide a new type of teacher. It allows for someone with real life experience gleaned from their career path to teach. Students led by teachers with varying backgrounds can share their firsthand knowledge about connections between what is learned in the classroom and different careers – outside of education. This internship has increased my passion for education in a new light, behind the educator’s lens. The way that teachers are certified is changing along with their pathways to the profession. At the same time, the demand for great teachers is increasing. This makes me incredibly excited for the future of education and the innovation of teacher certification.

Be Persistent

One of the key turning points during my internship was when I started to call and email various school districts to find information not available online. With help, I was pointed in the direction of anyone labeled “Talent Acquisition” or “Staffing Coordinator”. This is where persistence came into play. At times, it was difficult to find email addresses or specific phone numbers with the information I needed. I was passed from one staff member to another, not receiving any of the information that I requested. I didn’t give up. Luckily, the Staffing Coordinator for one of the largest counties in the state gave the exact response that I was looking for and it sure was worth being persistent.

I learned that this county educates about 60,000 students with 3,800 teachers. During the 20-21 school year, they had 68 unfilled teaching positions which is about half of their total 21-22 unfilled positions. The majority of these unfilled positions are in Special Education, where the hiring pool is even smaller.  When asked what the largest obstacle for hiring and staffing new teachers was, I was told it was a combination of factors. The majority of jobs in this district are for Special Education. Unfortunately, most applicants want to teach general education subjects. Another issue is the rising cost of living in this area. As a new teacher, it is impossible to buy a home near where they work. She also noted that licensure statewide is difficult to navigate causing potential teachers to become discouraged in the process.

The Power of an Elevator Pitch

The most exciting and rewarding opportunity of my internship was when I received an invitation to spend the day in Nashville with the Founder of iteach and the Vice President of Strategy for the entire organization (iteach, Learners Edge, Teaching Channel).  A meeting with a Tennessee State Representative to discuss legislative changes to help improve the pathways to certification was our primary focus. Having spent the first few weeks researching, cross-checking and slowly finding data in many states, including Tennessee, I expected more of the slow-paced work to which I had been accustomed. Fortunately, this is where I learned how important good research, strong data and a well-developed elevator pitch can be. As we walked through the Capitol building and other legislative offices, we were stopped by multiple people asking about the work that iteach was doing. I witnessed Alice Rolli nimbly hand over sheets of quick facts and deliver a short elevator pitch that informed and inspired decision-makers.

During my internship course, we had many guest speakers and events including an elevator pitch workshop. Despite the amazing tools I was given, the importance of an elevator pitch did not hit me until I was on my way back to the airport from Nashville. In an ordinary Lyft, I conversed with my driver about why I was in Nashville. This drive gave me the practice that I was just beginning to realize that I needed. The driver informed me not only that his mother was a public-school teacher for 30 years, but that he knew Alice as well. In hindsight, I realize that the driver allowed me to give him my elevator pitch using all of the knowledge I had gained that day and throughout my internship. I realized that I had developed a powerful elevator pitch conveying my time at Learners Edge using the tools Richmond gave me. You certainly never know when the opportunity will come to pitch someone on an idea or even to market yourself.

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